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 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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