Stem cell perspective . . . finally

prenti1Since we've been looking at so many bad examples of journalism about embryonic stem cell research, it might be worth looking at one paper that has been doing a bit better. On Monday, the New York Times had a news analysis, house editorial and news story on embryonic stem cell research.

The editorial calls for Congress to remove a restriction on federal funds that prohibits the creation of human embryos for the purpose of research that destroys them. And it has really harsh words for people who think such research is immoral.

The news analysis -- which means, in journalism terms, that it has a great deal of leeway in how it presents information and how much opinion is included -- is also highly supportive of embryonic stem cell research. And yet I was struck at how it was much less biased than half the "straight news" stories I read about the matter:

However, the president's support of embryonic stem cell research comes at a time when many advances have been made with other sorts of stem cells. The Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka found in 2007 that adult cells could be reprogrammed to an embryonic state with surprising ease. This technology "may eventually eclipse the embryonic stem cell lines for therapeutic as well as diagnostics applications," Dr. Kriegstein said. For researchers, reprogramming an adult cell can be much more convenient, and there have never been any restrictions on working with adult stem cells. . . .

Members of Congress and advocates for fighting diseases have long spoken of human embryonic stem cell research as if it were a sure avenue to quick cures for intractable afflictions. Scientists have not publicly objected to such high-flown hopes, which have helped fuel new sources of grant money like the $3 billion initiative in California for stem cell research.

In private, however, many researchers have projected much more modest goals for embryonic stem cells. Their chief interest is to derive embryonic stem cell lines from patients with specific diseases, and by tracking the cells in the test tube to develop basic knowledge about how the disease develops.

It goes on to describe various troubles with embryonic stem cell research, too. Considering that this comes from a news analysis advocating for embryonic stem cell research, this is helpful balance that was missing from many other news stories.

And Sheryl Gay Stolberg's news account of the embryonic stem cell decision was a breath of fresh air compared to the gushy praise in other "news" stories:

President Obama's directive on Monday to "guarantee scientific integrity" in federal policy making could have a far-reaching impact, affecting issues as varied as climate change, national security, protection of endangered species and children's health.

But it will not divorce science from politics, or strip ideology from presidential decisions.

This last statement is not her opinion -- it's backed up by everyone quoted in the story. She goes on to note how Obama's directives were full of language about separating science from politics but she also interviews policy advisors in the administration and finds that they say policy will still be made by the politicians.

She speaks with some scientists who are elated by the decision even if they say they know that policy will still be made on the basis of "values." It's just, in essence, that they feel closer to his values. She also discusses how the Bush Administration got its reputation for not being friendly to science. I think that's probably the weakest part of her story. To wit:

The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, maintains an "A to Z" list on its Web site of "case studies" in what it calls the politicization of science under Mr. Bush, like his decision to devote federal money to programs promoting abstinence education despite studies showing that such programs have limited effectiveness.

The Union of Concerned Scientists might sound like a very impartial group but in issues I have covered -- from genetically modified science and organic food to the precautionary principle -- they tend to be extremely ideological. I don't think that's bad, but it should be mentioned in a story such as this.

Also, do studies show that abstinence education has limited effectiveness? That's one way of putting it. You could say that the studies show that abstinence education has the same effectiveness as birth control training. But for some reason we don't get stories decrying funding of other kinds of sex ed despite their "limited effectiveness."

But I digress. The ending of the story included some great quotes from Bush administration officials. I know it seems like common journalism sense to include quotes from the administration that is being bashed by so many other people in your story, but quite a few reporters seem to have trouble with this. Stolberg talks to them and they say that the charges are baseless. They say they took the counsel of scientists and used it to make a policy determination that reflected Bush's values, just as Mr. Obama is doing and will be doing.

Here's the kicker:

In the end, said Ed Gillespie, the former counselor to Mr. Bush, all administrations use science in service of a political agenda.

"Administrations come into office with a point of view," Mr. Gillespie said. "The people in office tend to highlight those facts that support their point of view -- not because they're quashing dissent or not being scientific, but because this is what helps inform their thinking. A lot of scientific data can't be refuted, but a lot of science is subjective. And even irrefutable science can be value-laden."

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