Wesley Smith Notes Pro-Embryonic, Anti-Adult Stem Cell Research Bias in Geron Corp. Story Coverage

On November 15 (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), I compared how two of the leading wire services, Reuters and the Associated Press, covered the announcement by Geron Corp. of its decision to halt the first government-approved clinical trial involving embryonic stem cells. Reuters fairly noted that "teams working with adult stem cells -- a less ambitious area -- are making good progress." While one could quarrel with the characterization of adult stem cell research as "less ambitious" (unless you throw in cloning, which is what sometimes seems to be embryonic researchers' primary area of intrigue), its "good progress" descriptor was fair. Meanwhile, the Associated Press's coverage of the same story failed to even recognize the existence of adult stem cell research.

Wesley Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism and an influential prolife author, has observed that the establishment press has largely come down where AP did. A Friday Catholic News Agency item elaborates (bolds are mine):


After researchers in California called off a major U.S. embryonic stem cell study, a legal expert says that most major news outlets have given zero coverage to the far superior benefits of adult stem cells.

“Since embryonic stem cells were first derived, the media has told a materially unbalanced story,” said Wesley J. Smith, a lawyer and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism.

Smith said in a Nov. 23 interview with CNA that successful adult stem cell clinical trials “have either been ignored totally, or generally underplayed as story after story has claimed adult approaches offer more limited benefits than embryonic.”

His remarks come as the California-based biopharmecuetical company Geron announced on Nov. 18 that it has dropped a widely publicized embryonic stem cell research study. (actually, the announcement occurred on November 14 -- Ed.)

... However, despite the widespread advances of adult stem cell research as a potential cure, Wesley argued that media coverage on the topic has been scarce if not non-existent.

“No one forced editors and reporters to ignore the press releases and published studies that described the ongoing and very encouraging adult stem cell successes. They simply usually chose to overplay embryonic and underplay adult stem cell research in their reporting.”

Smith believes that a contributing factor to this is that the media generally view issues through a political or religious lens.

He said that “disdain for pro-life views” as well as “anti-Catholic” sentiments can impact a particular news outlet's analysis “of what constitutes an important story.”

“The media are particularly biased on 'cultural' issues and the embryonic stem cell controversy fits right in with that paradigm,” he added.

Smith offered specifics in a column appearing in the November 28 print edition of The Weekly Standard:

You would think Geron’s failure would be very big news. Instead, it turns out that the mainstream media pay attention only when embryonic stem cell research seems to be succeeding—so far, almost exclusively in animal studies. When, as here, it crashes and burns, it is scarcely news at all.

... The Los Angeles Times may be the most egregious offender. A chronic booster of Geron’s embryonic stem cell research, it reported the FDA’s approval of a human trial on January 24, 2009, in a story that began, “Ushering in a new era in medicine .  .  . ” The paper stayed on the story. In October 2010, it reported that the first patient had received an injection, then a few days later it ran a feature about the study under the headline “Hope for Spinal Cord Patients.” During the same period, however, the paper did not report the encouraging results of early human trials of treatments for spinal cord injury developed using adult stem cells.

Then last May, the Times celebrated the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine’s $25 million loan to support Geron’s study, noting that the company’s stem cell product had performed as hoped in rat -studies. Yet the day after Geron’s embryonic stem cell research unit was laid off, the Times couldn’t find the space to print the story, though the following day a blog entry ran on the Times website.

Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle, which had given front-page exposure to a local company when Geron’s trial got underway, reported the failure of that trial in a small report on the back page of the business section. The New York Times, always quick to applaud embryonic stem cell research, placed a small story at the bottom of page two of the business section. Other outlets carried muted reports, many focusing either on the business consequences for Geron and its stock price, or on the two other human embryonic stem cell trials currently underway, for eye conditions, run by Advanced Cell Technology.

No one should be surprised by the double standard. The media have always been in the tank for embryonic stem cell research, often breathlessly reporting hype and spin from company PR spokesmen as if it were hard news. This approach sprang largely from the media’s antipathy for the pro-life movement, the most prominent opponent of research requiring the destruction of human embryos.

... How did the New York Times report this story? It didn’t. The L.A. Times? A blog entry. USA Today? Nada. San Francisco Chronicle? At least it was in the paper—on page A16, under the hardly descriptive headline “Regimen Shown To Aid Heart Patients.” And so it goes.

... the malpractice that plagues reporting in this field ... is doubly regrettable, since not only are editors and reporters undermining the media’s already tarnished reputation for objectivity, but many suffering people and their families still have not heard the hopeful news generated by the ethical exploration of regenerative medicine.

That's the potential tragedy here. How many people who could be seeking and getting treatment aren't, because genuinely newsworthy developments in adult stem cell research aren't receiving the coverage they would be getting if so many in the press weren't so obviously biased against it?

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.