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Misreporting Stem Cell Research

Last week some journalists thought they had found a juicy story, full of conflict: The military was doing an apparent end run around the Bush administration's restrictive policy on stem cell research. "The Pentagon has granted $240,000 to a Swedish team for embryonic stem-cell research linked to Parkinson's disease… despite U.S. government limits on stem-cell research," reported Reuters on March 17. The president may have curtailed research "in this country," noted MSNBC host Keith Olbermann in reaction to the news, but he "never mentioned Sweden." "Let's see if we got this straight," added the Dallas Morning News. "An injection of federal money triggers the restrictions on [stem cell] research at American universities… So the Pentagon finds a university in Sweden that is happy to conduct the research."

Um, no. The supposed "Sweden loophole" – a distinction between using federal funds for American university stem cell research and research abroad – is nonsense. Despite the misleading Reuters report, the Pentagon was in fact supporting research on two stem cell lines that had been derived by Swedish researchers before the president's August 2001 deadline and were therefore eligible for federal funding. This non-story created considerable confusion, however, and underscores key deficiencies in the way journalists have covered stem cell and cloning issues in the United States. These failings aren't trivial: They've often helped to mask serious flaws in the president's policies.

In general, reporting on biotechnology issues tends to focus on conflict and drama and to be highly fragmentary or episodic, notes Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at the Ohio State University who studies press coverage of the stem cell and cloning controversies. Journalists in the major media will often latch onto these issues suddenly and when drama can be found – "UFO cult claims cloned baby," to take a prominent example from December of 2002 – and then drop them again just as quickly. This stop-again, start-again coverage pattern both alarms the public and fails to educate. Moreover, it creates a situation in which important developments that are technical in nature get ignored, while easily graspable controversies or even pseudo-controversies (the Pentagon story, various human cloning claims) get magnified.

Here's how this helps Bush. It's abundantly clear by now that the president's stem cell research policy has been a failure. Despite Bush's promise of "more than 60" stem cell lines for research in August 2001, even now only 17 are available for shipping to scientists. At least one prominent researcher has left the country in despair; states like California and New Jersey are moving in to fund research to make up for the lack of federal money; and universities, too, are setting up privately funded centers to nurture science that has been stifled by Bush's policy. All of this seems particularly inexcusable given revelations that Bush made his "more than 60" lines claim, which startled experts, on the basis of inadequately vetted scientific information. The president appears to have been more interested in outlining a victorious "compromise" than in setting good policy.

But despite ample evidence of this failing, Bush has never really been held accountable by the press. Consider the NIH's disclosure, earlier this month, that only 23 lines might ever be available under Bush's policy. This was, arguably, the biotech equivalent of failing to find Saddam's WMD. Suddenly the president's proposed "compromise" – "to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line," as he put it – stood naked in all its inadequacy, its supposed scientific foundations thoroughly undermined. Sure, there had been a steady stream of criticism of Bush's policy, but now we had numbers – from NIH, no less. Yet despite a story from the reliable Rick Weiss of The Washington Post and a few other journalists, the media largely ignored the news. The 23 lines revelation "didn't get a lot of play at all," Nisbet notes.

How is this possible? Well, the number of stem cell lines is a technical issue. And the complexities of stem cell policy – involving the dispersal of stem cell lines across the globe, conflicts over intellectual property rights, problems of line contamination, debates over the relative promise of adult stem cells versus embryonic stem cells, and so forth – are science-y and off-putting. Considerable drama may have lurked beneath the surface of the "23 lines story": the news undermined one of the president's first and most prominent policy decisions and arguably contributed to his "credibility gap." But few reporters seemed prepared to wrap their minds back around the complex stem cell issue, which hasn't been covered with any real intensity since before 9/11.

Matters get even worse when stem cell research meets cloning, with which it tends to get confused in the public mind thanks to the press. "In 2002, 30 percent of the time when stem cell research is covered, it's covered in the context of the cloning issue," says Nisbet. That's troubling for the following reason. The prospect of human cloning creates strong negative connotations for the public, conjuring up the specter of armies of look-alikes marching in lock-step. These concerns – valid or otherwise – have nothing to do with the stem cell issue, but have been allowed to rub off on it. Such confusion helps the president and pro-life interests, as an issue that truly turns on whether abortion politics should block research gets overshadowed by speculative concerns about the arrival of a Brave New World.

A similar confusion has infected the related issue of research cloning, or "therapeutic cloning." Scientists hope that by deriving stem cells from cloned embryos, rather than embryos discarded from in vitro fertilization, they will be able to circumvent possible immune system rejection issues as they seek new treatments. But though there are good scientific reasons for doubting whether cloned embryos actually have the potential to develop into normal human beings if implanted in wombs, conservatives and President Bush have consistently sought an outright criminal ban on all forms of cloning, reproductive and therapeutic alike. This strategic yoking leverages a moral fear of human cloning against scientific research that may never actually lead to that outcome. But yet again, the press's consistent failure to educate on these issues – and its tendency to create panics by covering fringe groups claiming to have produced clones – confuses the science and thus bolster's the president's policies.

Science issues aren't easy to cover, especially when they blend with politics. But inconsistent, seat-of-the pants reporting has severe consequences. There are countless parents out there whose kids have juvenile diabetes, and for whom every passing day brings them closer to the possible onset of serious complications. Many of these parents have latched onto stem cell research as the best hope for a cure. In such a situation, the last thing the press should be doing is providing a fig leaf for the president's policies.

Chris Mooney (www.chriscmooney.com), a freelance writer living in Washington, D.c=, is writing a book about the Republican Party and science.