Reading the papers last week, one would have thought that researchers had achieved one of the great embryonic stem cell research advances in the history of science. “New Stem Cell Method avoids destroying embryos,” the New York Times headline blared. “Stem cell breakthrough may end political logjam,” chimed in the Los Angeles Times. “Embryos spared in stem cell creation,” affirmed USA Today.
We now know that none of this was true. In actuality, scientist at ACT destroyed 16 embryos that they had developed to the 8-10 cell stage–just as occurs in conventional ESCR. They then removed most of the cells and placed them in culture. Out of 91 early embryo cells, known as “blastomeres,” ACT scientists derived two embryonic stem cell lines.
Ethics and morality aside, this experiment was a modest advance in scientific knowledge because it proved that blastomeres can be developed into embryonic stem cells. But, it may have required most of the dead embryos’ cells kept in close proximity to derive the stem cells. Whatever the case, the experiment definitely does not prove that embryonic stem cells can be derived without destroying embryos.
Such a modest advance in science isn’t worthy of breathless headlines and ubiquitous front page coverage. So, ACT, perhaps hoping to improve its finances by generating bounteous free publicity, issued a profoundly misleading press release strongly implying that no embryos were destroyed in the experiment. And with that, the media were off and running.
But now that the truth is known, surely journalists are tripping over each other to correct the record. Not a chance. Other than a few quiet stories, such as in Newsweek and The Economist, the media have either just stopped reporting the story leaving the misimpression they created laying on the table, or as with the Washington Post editorial of August 28, actually continued the charade.
Why would so many in the press commit such blatant journalistic malpractice on a mass scale? I think I know the answer: We live in post modern times. In the current way of thinking, facts don’t matter nearly as much as narratives. In the stem cell debate, the media’s fervently believed narrative holds President Bush responsible for undermining science and depriving sick people of cures with his stem cell funding limitation policy.
That is the story the media are intent on telling, so this is the template through which all news about stem cells is analyzed–meaning that facts are not allowed to get in the way. Thus, stories that interfere with the narrative–such as the many advances in adult stem cell research in human studies–are underplayed or ignored, while ESCR-boosting news are often hyped to the hilt. With this as the context, the media’s refusal to correct the record becomes much easier to understand.
So this is the unfortunate bottom line: When it comes to stem cell science, the media is not a reliable source of credible information. And that is bad for America because without a reliable Fourth Estate, democracy founders.
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