The Only Stem Cell News Biased Media Sees Fit to Print

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on November 19, 2011

By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

Remember Ron Reagan’s nonsense speech about embryonic stem cell research (actually human cloning research) at the 2004 Democratic Convention? Media swooned at the garbage and the hype (e.g., Parkinson’s cures around 2014, “self repair kits” stored in hospitals). (Here’s my deconstruction in NRO.) Come to think of it, the media still reports the issue as if Reagan’s propaganda were true, e.g., often boosting slight gains in ESCR breakthroughs while dramatically under reporting much more impressive adult stem cell research advances.

Item in point of the media’s malpractice in this field: The collapse of Geron’s embryonic stem cell program has been underwhelmingly covered by the media–which, given the cymbal and drum treatment the Fourth Estate gave to the first ESCR human trial–represents a particularly glaring example of the journalistic bias that has marked reporting in this field since its inception.

I decided to take to the Weekly Standard to complain. From “All The News That’s Fit to Forget:”

You would think Geron’s failure would be very big news. Instead, it turns out that the mainstream media pay attention only when embryonic stem cell research seems to be succeeding—so far, almost exclusively in animal studies. When, as here, it crashes and burns, it is scarcely news at all.

I note that the Washington Post is an exception and then give some examples:

The Los Angeles Times may be the most egregious offender. A chronic booster of Geron’s embryonic stem cell research, it reported the FDA’s approval of a human trial on January 24, 2009, in a story that began, “Ushering in a new era in medicine .  .  . ” The paper stayed on the story. In October 2010, it reported that the first patient had received an injection, then a few days later it ran a feature about the study under the headline “Hope for Spinal Cord Patients.” During the same period, however, the paper did not report the encouraging results of early human trials of treatments for spinal cord injury developed using adult stem cells.

Then last May, the Times celebrated the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine’s $25 million loan to support Geron’s study, noting that the company’s stem cell product had performed as hoped in rat -studies. Yet the day after Geron’s embryonic stem cell research unit was laid off, the Times couldn’t find the space to print the story, though the following day a blog entry ran on the Times website.

From HEADLINES! to a blog. Classic.

I give other examples: SF Chronicle, back page of the business section; NYT, small item on page 2 of the business section. Most of the stories on Geron’s rout from the field focused on the business consequences or spent more time looking at the two small human studies for eye conditions from Advanced Cell Technology than analyzing what this might mean to the sector as a whole.

I suggest reasons for the in-the-tank approach and then note that an important adult stem cell human success story came out the same day as the news of Geron’s fall. What kind of coverage did it receive? In the USA, scant:

How did the New York Times report this story? It didn’t. The L.A. Times? A blog entry. USA Today? Nada. San Francisco Chronicle? At least it was in the paper—on page A16, under the hardly descriptive headline “Regimen Shown To Aid Heart Patients.” And so it goes.

I conclude by asking readers to engage in a little mind experiment:

Imagine if a human trial using embryonic stem cells had shown improvement to damaged human hearts. You can just see the banner headline in the New York Times and the breathless announcements on the network news. The thought experiment makes blatantly obvious the malpractice that plagues reporting in this field—which is doubly regrettable, since not only are editors and reporters undermining the media’s already tarnished reputation for objectivity, but many suffering people and their families still have not heard the hopeful news generated by the ethical exploration of regenerative medicine.

Scientists are part of the blame for this, because they often hyped the potential for embryonic stem cells and sniffed at adult stem cell research for political reasons. First impressions cut deep. But the Geron story shows that the media isn’t negligent in its reporting. It willfully keeps people in the dark.

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