OK, gentle readers, raise your hand if you thought -- after years of mainstream news consumption -- that the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to all stem-cell research? You see, that's the strange thing about the Los Angeles Times story that just ran under the headline: "Vatican signs deal to collaborate on adult stem cell research."
The second deck then noted: "The unusual agreement with NeoStem allows the church, which opposes embryonic stem cell use, to be seen as taking a constructive role in one of the most promising areas of medical research."
The key word in that top headline, of course, is "adult."
Yet another interesting word in all of that is this one -- "unusual."
You see the whole top of this story is framed in the assumption that readers will not think that the Vatican would sign on to this research agenda. That's the twist, the big surprise. Thus, readers learn, right at the get-go:
As chairman and chief executive of her own company, Dr. Robin Smith is a significant player in the world of biopharmaceutical products and research. Self-confident, poised and well traveled, she is used to dealing with movers and shakers.
But when she negotiated an agreement with her company's latest business partner, she didn't deal directly with the top executive.
He is, after all, the pope.
In an agreement that tends to elicit the response "Really?," the Vatican recently signed a $1-million compact with Smith's New York company, NeoStem, to collaborate on adult stem cell education and research.
Note that response again: "Really?" Why does the Times think this is how readers will respond?
After all, the story quickly notes the obvious:
The partners will hold a conference in Rome in November that is expected to attract some of the world's leading experts on adult stem cells, the less controversial cousins of embryonic stem cells. The Roman Catholic Church staunchly opposes the use of embryonic cells in research or medical therapy, a position that has put it at odds with many scientists and many practicing Catholics.
The agreement enables the church to be seen as taking a constructive role in one of the most promising areas of medical research.
The hinge point in this debate is, of course, clear -- using cells from unborn humans vs. cells from adult stem cells. The adults do not have to die in order to take part in the study.
So why does the story assume that the PUBLIC would find this story surprising? Also, why does the newspaper need to assume that the Vatican's motives in backing the research are less than sincere, which is how I think many readers will take that lovely twist of the knife, the one that says that, "The agreement enables the church to be seen as taking (italics are mine) a constructive role in one of the most promising areas of medical research."
Here's the point: The story assumes that readers will be slightly shocked that the Vatican is backing this science project. Yet the Vatican's motives are easy to see.
So why the surprise?
Perhaps the surprise has something to do with many journalists consistently portraying the Vatican as the opponent of scientific research, period. Yet the Vatican can enthusiastically endorse this very promising line of research -- because of a shared moral and ethical worldview on the sanctity of all human life, including that of the unborn.
The only reason for readers to be surprised is that it is unusual to read an accurate mainstream story about this topic. There is no other reason to be surprised.