Journalism and stem cell research 101

If you think general religion coverage is bad, try mixing it with media coverage of science. Then try to find a reporter who handles it well. It’s almost impossible. Back when I started at GetReligion, I could have posted daily on the errors in coverage of what used to be an extremely hot-button topic — stem cell research that destroys embryos.

In various media reports, embryonic-destroying stem cell research was shortened to “stem cell research.” This did a disservice to the debate on numerous counts, most importantly being that there was no debate over using stem cells that didn’t require the destruction of human embryos.

Demagoguery abounded, aided by a media onslaught that characterized one side as “pro-science” and the other as “anti-science.”

Much of the debate has been resolved by something you probably haven’t read terribly much about in the media: the tremendous success of stem cell research that doesn’t destroy embryos and the struggle for success with stem cell research that does. Also, the reporting simply got better. Distinctions were made between the two types of research and as reporters got more comfortable with the basics, they were able to write up those differences with greater ease.

So it’s weird to come across a story that muddles everything again. It comes from FoxNews.com and is headlined “Catholic Church gives its blessing to stem cell research in new book.” Of course, the Roman Catholic Church never withheld its blessing from stem cell research, however much this disrupts the narrative of its anti-scientific approach. It simply opposed — along with a great many other human rights activists and bioethicists and religious adherents — that research that destroys human lives.

To wit:

In the past 20 years, stem cell research has been thrust into the medical spotlight as celebrities like Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeve have advocated for it.  Also, numerous studies have shown stem cell therapies have successfully treated a plethora of diseases.

And now, with the release of The Healing Cell: How the Greatest Revolution in Medical History Is Changing Your Life, the Catholic Church has given its stamp of approval on adult stem cell research by discussing the many ways these therapies work for the greater good.  In fact, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote the book’s introduction, which was co-authored by Dr. Robin Smith and Monsignor Tomasz Trafny, along with Max Gomez.

Stem cell therapy isn’t anything new. Using bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia, which started more than 40 years ago, is essentially the same procedure.  Through this process, doctors extract stem cells from the bone marrow and transplant them into the body to replace damaged cells caused by blood and bone marrow cancers. Sometimes cancer patients use autologous cells – cells harvested from their own body – and sometimes they use donated cells from another person’s bone marrow.

OK, so Fox and Reeve are known for their activism in favor of stem cell research that destroys embryos. That’s the first paragraph. Then the second paragraph is about adult stem cell research, but wrongly suggests that the Roman Catholic Church is only now giving its stamp of approval to it. That is false.

And then the third paragraph is about adult stem cell research.

The article then goes back to talking about embryonic stem cells. It nicely explains the ethical concern — its destruction is required.

We get lines like this:

The ethical concerns come from whether or not to use embryonic stem cells for research. Some people and organizations, including the Catholic Church, feel even though these cells come from blastocysts, it is still destroying human life.

Scientists often counter-argue that if these embryos are going to be destroyed anyway – why not put them to use for research and medicinal treatment?

OK, the Catholic Church doesn’t “feel” anything. It might publicly confess or state a particular belief — and that’s how it should be described — but feelings of an individual (much less corporate entities) aren’t really knowable by a journalist. It’s not the right word to use. You’ll note, too, that while the Church “feels,” the scientists “argue.” Also, when the human lives in question are being discussed by Catholics, they’re “blastocysts.” When the human lives in question are being discussed by scientists, they’re “embryos.” I’m not arguing against the use of these terms, although both of these words can be seen as euphemisms that might serve the purpose of avoiding the painful ethical decisions in play. I just find the use of words in these discussions quite interesting.

Anyway, the article notes that there are currently 4,300 adult stem cell trials compared to 26 embyronic stem cell ones. But we don’t learn anything about which trials have resulted in actual advances and which have the most promise. Instead, it just goes back to eliding the differences and jumbling everything together.

To be honest, the whole piece reads like the reporter thought a new Catholic book on stem cells was a huge change from the church’s earlier position, then realizes that it wasn’t and tried to rewrite from there.

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  • Will

    Arrgghh! WHAT is the difference between “advocating” and the ghastly “advocating for”?

    And, of course, all “scientists” take a monolithic position.

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    I think it has been commented that the sense of history for some reporters extends to when they first discover the thing they are reporting that nothing happened in the context of the story prior to the reporter’s discovery. Apparently, this must have been the first time the reporter in question had heard the RCC supports Adult Stem Cell research.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The real debate is over values. It would be nice to see some TV segments or newspaper stories delve fairly into the concept of what it would mean to a society that allowed each subgroup (like research doctors and scientists) to set its own morals in a vacuum of input from others.
    The trouble is that this has already happened on a large scale. Think Nazi Germany.
    But one of the worst legacies of the barbaric Nazi contempt for the value of human life ( endorsed and practiced by many German research doctors and scientists) is that when one brings up relevant historic examples from that era, one is written off as a borderline nutcase. Not here!! Nohow!!! NoWay!!! No debate needed!!! Much of the media then proceeds to marginalize those who clearly see chilling connections between the trajectory of some evil scientific research then and some morally runamuck scientific research today.

    • northcoast

      I think the Japanese were also guilty of using captives for medical experimentation. In both cases racial superiority was a factor.

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  • northcoast

    Poor understanding of science and technology can be blamed for errors in the coverage of events like the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but how is science involved in most coverage of stem cell research? It is just getting the facts straight. Are they using embryonic cells or adult stem cells? Is (was) the research funded by the taxpayers? How often was it explained that the legal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research applied only to use of taxpayer funds?

    • Martha

      I don’t think most journalists know the difference or are even aware that there are two kinds of stem cells. Like most science stories (unless you have a specialist reporter who knows a molecule from a quark), they rely on press releases and interviews with the scientists. And the scientists are using the media for PR and for publicity related to getting grants, so it’s not in their interest to make distinctions between embryonic and adult stem cells.

      The interesting research (from a scientific viewpoint) is the embryonic cells, but these are the ones where cures – if they ever come – will be from research into the very process of development and how genes go wrong, not from “we can tailor these to make a cure for your particular problem”. But in order to get the public and private investment, they have to show what the practical use will be – which is why all the “If we get a grant to research these, in five/ten/the short-term future years, the lame will walk and the blind will see!” emphasis in the early reporting.

      Most scientists also really do think it’s all about “anti-science bigotry” on the part of any religious objections; there is no question of human personhood or metaphysical queries, it’s just these are cells and we can use them and anything outside the purview of physical science is just hot air.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I too lament the poor coverage of stem cell science, and especially the lack of appreciation in the media for the nuanced position of groups who oppose the use of embryos, like the Catholic Church. It would also help to have a little digging, from religion perspective anyway, to find out if anyone else besides the Catholic Church opposes ESCR.

    Reporters also could do a better job at challenging the ethics of those who support it. Like the line, “Scientists often counter-argue that if these embryos are going to be destroyed anyway – why not put them to use for research and medicinal treatment?” Yeah, sick and dying adults and children are going to die anyway, why not experiment on them? Or why not harvest their usable organs now, instead of waiting until they succumb? But I guess it boils down to what the premises are, and if the premise is that life begins at conception (or not), then the ethical reasoning will proceed accordingly.

    It just seems to me that history is replete with regimes and movements that deny the humanity of this or that group, so as to exploit them in some way. It’s funny, and sad, that after the 19th and 20th centuries it hasn’t gone away.

    • Jennifer

      I agree with you and the original author that the reporting has been very confusing, if not purposely deceptive, by failing to distinguish between adult stem cell research (which the Catholic Church has always supported and actively funded over the past few years) and embryonic stem cell research which the Church opposes for obvious reasons. To answer your question about whether or not there are opponents to ESC research beyond the Catholic Church, yes, even some self-proclaimed atheists in the scientific community have spoken out against using human embryos for research. The problem is that very few journalists have written about the benefits and advancements in adult stem cell research, thereby making it seem that embryonic stem cells were the ONLY useful stem cells due to their pluripotency. The scientists that received the Nobel Peace Prize this past year proved that ESC were no longer necessary after they discovered a method to make adult stem cells differentiate as well as embryonic ones could. Not only were the adult stem cells able to differentiate, they were less likely to become cancerous and less likely to be rejected by the immune system than embryonic ones.

      Very little press was given to their advancements. So, in my opinion, it’s not the quality of the reporting, so much as the absence of the reporting the benefits of adult stem cells that is the problem. The sin of omission. If people are not made aware of the alternative, they will assume opponents to ESC research are simply thwarting scientific progress. This is not merely journalistic ignorance. I’ve followed stem cell research for many years and nearly every time a scholarly article came out online in support of adult stem cells, it was quickly buried or taken down from the internet. Opinion pieces with limited information would remain, but the articles that would clarify the importance of adult stem cells disappeared. The Bishops have since advised people to save articles rather than links on your computer, because they will be taken down until the debate dies down.

  • Jerry

    I think I’ve more than once commented that the media does not get science. Given the low level of science education in this country, it’s not a surprise at all. The number of people who don’t understand the fact of evolution, the facts about the age of the universe and how all the scientific disciplines rest on the same basis, it’s not at all surprising that we see bad reporting.

    And, as you pointed out, when we mix that ignorance with bad reporting about religion and the general desire to sensationalize news reports, we wind up with a mess.

    • Hominid

      Your point is accurate & well made. You imply (I may be wrong), however, that more extensive & better science education would improve matters. I have come to doubt this reflexively seductive notion. The majority of people are not possessed of the intellectual acumen or logical discipline to grasp scientific concepts or methodology. Half-baked familiarity with scientific matters – say a BS or MS in a science – more often than not leads to unwarranted self-assurance regarding mistaken conceptions about what science actually is and what science actually says.

  • FW Ken

    To bad the Vatican is so anti-science!

    http://www.npr.org/2011/11/01/141800862/vatican-to-host-stem-cell-research-conference

    I think they are about a million our do into the project.

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    I, a Catholic and retired engineer know nothing about embryonic research. I spent decades engineering a score of nuclear power plants, and two score fossil fueled power plants. Nevertheless, I see great parallels in this article and comments. Journalists are technically ignorant people, who consistently present the same half of the truth,. They could not survive professionally except in a society which is abysmally ignorant, particularly in science and math. They consistently search out “experts” who hold their personal bias. A recent example: The new pope was greeted by 200,000 happy devoted Catholics from his balcony but the media spent most of the air time interviewing two angry nuns who want to be priests. I am not a moral theologian but recognized biased reporting.
    It has been estimated that 95% of reporting on power plants is negative; whatever technology that works, is dangerous, whereas useless green technologies are good.
    Societies who live in fantasy land, cease to exist; historically they end painfully. I note that every US embryonic research lab is powered by a grid that is worn out. When the power goes out, for years, what scientific discoveries will flow from these cryogenic facilities?

  • Kristen inDallas

    On a related note, since when is any book with the letters “Sr.”, “Fr.”, or “Msgr.” written on the cover the official “stamp of approval” of the RCC? I note that this book was written by three independent authors, only one of whom is affiliated with the church and is published by a private, for-profit wing of the Hachette Book Group.
    Sooooo… makes me wonder, how many journalists would get away with reviewing a book written by some guy who works at some senator’s office (among other authors) that recieves a forward written by Bill Clinton, and then going on to report that the text within is essentially the same thing as an executive order?
    I’m not disputing the RCCs position on adult stem cells, I’m just more than a little annoyed with this trend of “printed in a book of any kind = official doctrine.” When reporters want to talk about the churches rubber stamp, they should be citing the offial encyclicals. But I guess that doesn’t look so newsworthy if you stop too long to ponder the date at the top…

  • northcoast

    Given that some scientists and journalists consider religious based objections to embryonic stem cell research to be anti-science bigotry, I think Martha is giving too much credit to journalists and too little to scientists. Why should a journalist who has chosen to inject his bias into his reporting weaken the argument by including inconvenient facts?

    I would argue that non-scientists are more likely than scientists to make irresponsible claims for the promise of results to be gained from embryonic stem cell research. Peer respect and trust are just too important in the science community for someone to use PR and wild claims in the search for grant money. People with less restraint and less understanding of science include friends and relatives of patients with incurable diseases, and then there are politicians. (I know some scientists seem to step over to the dark side after leaving the laboratory; such behavior can’t be good for science as a respected discipline.)

    Finally even people with an understanding of science may not appreciate the uncertainty of basic research. When stem cell research leads to better understanding of cell differentiation and fetal development, there may still be no therapeutic applications any time in the near future. Consider aids research or the work on power from nuclear fusion.

    • sari

      ” When stem cell research leads to better understanding of cell differentiation and fetal development, there may still be no therapeutic applications any time in the near future. ”

      Yes. The book was poorly reviewed–the reviewer’s ignorance and bias there for anyone to see, but data coming out the pipeline suggests real problems when adult stem cells, which nature has already designated for a particular purpose (e.g., bone marrow stem cell transplanted to bone), are forced to the pluripotent state typical of embryonic stem cells. So mollie’s comment, “Much of the debate has been resolved by something you probably haven’t read terribly much about in the media: the tremendous success of stem cell research that doesn’t destroy embryos and the struggle for success with stem cell research that does “, is inaccurate description as well. The data simply don’t support it, mainly because adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells are not equivalent as to potential or to purpose.

    • northcoast

      Should have written, “Consider the cure for aids . . .”

  • http://www.stemcellcure.in/ Stem Cell Treatment

    There are lot of research done in Medical Industry. These all are the mile stones in the medical industry.

    Stem Cell Treatment


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