Are We Viewing Cultured Meat Through Rose-Tinted Glasses?
In 2013, a five-ounce burger made of lab-grown cells and launched in a publicity event in London ignited the media’s interest in the potential of cultured meat. But despite what journalists depicted to the public, the technology behind cultured meat was, and still is, in the early stages of development. There remain many unanswered questions, including the true environmental footprint of its production and the affordability of cultured meat in the market.
Past research has shown that media coverage of new technologies tends to be overly optimistic. Similarly, recent studies suggest that the media is making promises about the potential benefits of cultured meat that have yet to be proven through scientific research. Because there are still many unknowns about the future of cultured meat, people need to be exposed to an accurate portrayal of the production process. Premature promises surrounding the benefits of cultured meat products prevent people from understanding all aspects of the technology and may be counterproductive in the long term.
This study examines 255 articles from 2013–2019 that discuss cultured meat. The articles come from 12 major media sources from the U.S. and the U.K. that span different political stances and editorial priorities. While analyzing the data, the researchers aimed to answer these four questions:
- What prompted the media to discuss cultured meat?
- Who are the most common sources quoted?
- What are the most common narratives presented?
- What was the general sentiment expressed toward cultured meat?
The researchers graphed the number of articles published throughout the six-year timeline. It revealed a peak of articles released in 2013 when the first cultured meat product (the five-ounce burger made of stem cells) was unveiled in London. Following this, there was a sharp decline in media coverage until 2015, which led to steady increases. It was around this time that new, high-profile investments in the cultured meat industry were made and disputes about the labeling of cultured meat began.
Out of the 255 articles, only 86 were published in the United States. Because cultured meat is typically showcased as a solution to environmental issues, the researchers hypothesized that the U.K.’s increased media coverage was a result of the country’s focus on climate change. Ironically, there’s still a large degree of uncertainty surrounding the environmental benefits of cultured meat. The study mentions that more research is needed before conclusions can be made about the environmental footprint of these products.
A vast majority of articles were written in response to the cultured meat industry. Spikes in publications frequently followed new product releases, new research, and new business decisions. Additionally, over half of the articles in the sample featured a direct quote from a representative in the cultured meat industry. To put this in perspective, the next largest category was scientists, who were quoted in 23% of the articles. Interestingly, only 5% of the scientists quoted were directly involved in research on cultured meat.
Perhaps because there was a distinct lack of coverage surrounding the animal agriculture industry and meat consumers, media sentiment toward cultured meat was largely positive. Only 3% of the articles expressed opposition toward cultured meat products while 49% were characterized as promotional. The researchers speculated that this overwhelmingly promotional sentiment may be a result of the coverage stemming largely from industry sources. Representatives from the cultured meat industry have a financial incentive to promote their products.
Similarly, concerns about cultured meat products weren’t mentioned in many of the articles. The most common negative narrative, fear of consumer rejection, was only found in 23% of the articles. On the other hand, 64% of the articles presented the positive narrative that cultured meat has environmental advantages. Out of the 255 articles, only 4% mentioned a narrative surrounding the uncertainty of cultured meat technology. The researchers suggested that investors entering the industry may be hesitant to supply funds to a product that features a lot of technological uncertainty. As such, representatives from the cultured meat industry may be encouraged to avoid discussions about unanswered questions surrounding the risks and limitations of the product.
Overall, there’s an innate danger to both underselling and overselling any product. Without public support, innovations wouldn’t be able to succeed. However, if people are only exposed to overly-ambitious perspectives, they will inevitably be disappointed by the end-result. The findings of this study reveal that media coverage of cultured meat has been overwhelmingly positive. The news features an industry-dominated view of new technologies that prevents people from having realistic expectations. Moving forward, if we want cultured meat to flourish, we need to facilitate a more exploratory view that provides a platform for everyone to voice questions, comments, and concerns.