Mike Fumento on stem-cell deceptions

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Why the Media Miss the Stem-Cell Story

The intro:

There's little doubt that opponents of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research have their work cut out for them. Polls repeatedly show large majorities (in the 60-70 percent range) want the federal government to promote and fund the research. Californians backed their opinions with money with 59 percent of those who showed up at the polls voting for last November's Proposition 71, which will funnel $3 billion of the cash-strapped state's funds into embryonic stem-cell research over the next decade.

But why on a scientific issue, about which most people know relatively little does public opinion seem so lopsided?

One explanation is that the polls often feature loaded questions that begin with tales of the medical miracles ESCs will allegedly bring us: cures for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, you name it. They don't even try to find out whether respondents really have any idea of what ESC research is. And as a rule, they don't mention possible alternatives namely, so-called adult stem cells (ASCs), which are obtained without the ethical conflicts of harvesting human embryos.

But the biggest reason may simply be that the mainstream media are doing a lousy job of informing the public on the state of stem-cell science. By and large, they're telling people all about the potential of ESCs especially the supposed ability to become any type of cell-without talking about certain little drawbacks, like a tendency for ESCs to be rejected and even to become cancerous.

Perhaps more important, the media aren't telling people how much more advanced ASC research is, or how rapidly it's making breakthroughs. Certainly they're not telling people about it nearly as often as they're hailing the promise of ESCs and when they do, they tend to undermine the news with pooh-poohing, often-groundless quotes from ESC advocates. (More on that later.)

As a science writer who has covered the topic extensively, I know something about this. I see the media coverage practically every day. On rare occasions I'll find blatant falsehoods: Last August, for example, influential New York Times science writer Gina Kolata told readers "so far, no one has succeeded" in getting adult stem cells to treat diseases.* That statement either reveals startling ignorance or is an outright lie: Adult stem cells routinely treat or cure more than 80 different diseases, while no ESC research is anywhere near becoming a human clinical trial.

Usually, though, I see something less blatant, but perhaps more harmful: a subtle but persistent bias in reporters' choice of subject matter, interview subjects and quotes, all skewing the reader toward embryonic stem cells and away from any alternatives.

Nor am I the only one who's noticed.

I talked to a number of stem-cell researchers and the only journalist willing to be interviewed for this story and found a consensus that there's a strong media bias. What interested me most, though, were their thoughts on how and why that bias comes into play and the role of factors like attitudes toward religion, manipulation by the pro-ESC lobby, and just plain ignorance and laziness.

The whole piece is quote good.

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This page contains a single entry by Papa-Lu published on July 16, 2005 8:54 AM.

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