Panel investigates media reporting on science and politics of stem cells

5 min read

Stem cells, politics, “fairness,” and what one participant termed “the disintegration of traditional journalism,” were all on the bill at Thursday night’s (Oct. 18) public forum titled “Stem Cells and the Media,” hosted by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

A panel of four science journalists who have extensively covered the stem cell “story” gathered in the Radcliffe Gym to discuss and debate the challenges and complexities of stem cell research coverage by the mainstream media.

“This is the most political issue in science,” said William Saletan, a national correspondent for Slate magazine. Due to what Saletan called “organized political gamesmanship,” which he says both supporters and opponents of embryonic stem cell research engage in, the media has come to cover the topic as a political story.

“We are not trying to tell people how to think,” said Dan Vergano a science writer for USA Today and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard this year. Vergano said he considers his most important job to be fair to the reader, rather than to provide extensive coverage of political rhetoric. “If someone says something insane, we don’t put that in the paper,” Vergano said, laughing.

According to panelist Mary Carmichael, a Newsweek general editor based in Boston, scientists get shoved to the side in the stem cell debate by those in favor of, or opposed to, various types of stem cell research. “When politics start to influence the science, you can’t take it [the politics] out” of the coverage, she said.

“Science education in this country is in shambles,” Carmichael said, commenting on the decline in the amount of science coverage by the media over the past decade.

Gideon Gil, health and science editor of the Boston Globe, said that since 2004 the paper has carried about 340 stories on the science or politics of stem cells, including those in a 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning series by Gareth Cook — a series Gil edited. In the same period of time, Paris Hilton, a celebrity best known for her celebrity, was the subject of more than 370 stories in the Globe.

RNAi technology, which many believe has great scientific potential for curing diseases, was only written about in the Globe 35 times since 2004, Gil said. “Controversy draws media coverage,” he added, explaining why stem cell research and politics received 10 times the coverage given this other promising area of science.

The problem may be twofold, said Slate’s Saletan. Bombarded with scientific information, readers can be overwhelmed and confused when trying to understand the differences between various types of stem cell research. While embryonic, adult, and umbilical cord stem cell research raise different issues, readers may be too blinded by political rhetoric to understand the intricacies and arguments involved in each type of research. According to Vergano, reminding readers about the political debate is the only way to put the stem cell story in context for many of USA Today’s readers.

Saletan added that newspapers do not do a good job of explaining the science behind the research, sacrificing specifics for political spin. He criticized The New York Times for, as he put it, dancing around controversial issues — for example, avoiding use of the word “cloning” and instead using the term “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” which Saletan said only confused readers and hid the real subject from them.

However, he praised the Boston Globe and Boston Herald for their straightforward coverage of the Massachusetts legislature’s 2005 battle with former Gov. Mitt Romney over promoting stem cell research in the state.

The second problem, according to Saletan, is that reporters become complacent after familiarizing themselves with stem cell research, and are reluctant to cover other areas of pure science.

Gil added that many of the stem cell stories covered by the media involve research that has yet to be replicated or verified by other scientists. And while there appears to exist a booming foreign industry for fake stem cell cures, the forum participants all agreed that the widespread closing of foreign news bureaus forces many newspapers to neglect such topics, instead limiting foreign reporting to wars and terrorism.

Saletan turned the discussion to the subject of coverage of ethical issues, noting that the destruction of embryos is not the only issue that should concern the public when trying to determine what is morally right. With advances in stem cell research, he said, scientists are, in effect, working to turn human beings into a means for curing those with chronic illnesses.

All four panelists agreed that education was of paramount importance when reporting on the stem cell debate. Gil said he read voraciously and talked to a number of scientists about stem cell topics before reporting on the subject.

Carmichael noted that the political aspect of the debate can be useful when trying to get the facts straight. After confusing two types of stem cell research in an article, she received a large number of angry calls and e-mails, which, among other things, helped her sort out her confusion. While proponents and critics continue to spin political rhetoric concerning the stem cell debate, according to Carmichael, “[the scientists] want to make sure you get it right.”