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January 26, 2011

Mind the gap: study examines newspaper coverage of stem cell tourism

by David W. Grant

Mindthegap How do newspaper articles portray stem cell tourism? 

A research team at the University of Alberta recently asked this question, and their results were published last month in the journal Nature. Their conclusions were both surprising, and hopeful.

The team, led by Timothy Caulfield, analyzed tonality, agenda setting and framing in 445 newspaper articles on stem cell tourism, dating from October 2006 to September 2009. The results: (1) newspaper articles portrayed stem cell tourism largely in a positive tone, and (2) this trend increased with time. In terms of content, (3) the articles were primarily about individual patients, their hopes and fears, and the specific treatment plans or its supposed scientific approach, rather than the potential risks associated with an unproven treatment or the current scientific limitations on which it is based, or the many clinical, economic, and policy questions about stem cell therapy that remain controversial and largely unanswered.

Importantly, this discourse contrasts sharply with the academic literature and clinical literature. Academic discourse focuses on the scientific unknowns, such as how these cells behave and how long they stay alive once they’re inside the body, and the policy issues surrounding their use, such as how the technology will be regulated under the current FDA approval system (which evolved to deal primarily with the chemicals of the pharmaceutical industry and not a rapidly advancing field based on living cells).

The formality of printed news seems to give credibility or suggest truthfulness to what is typically unapprised word-of-mouth belief about stem cell tourism. Consequently, the public is not receiving sufficient information on which to base decisions and judgments regarding stem cell treatments offered abroad. This significant gap in reporting leaves people vulnerable to exploitation by rogue clinics that continue to draw money from patients around the world and operate outside the realm of scientific reporting and peer review.

Stem cell scientists and organizations have been talking about these dangers for nearly a decade.  But preliminary data from the study indicates that scientists might be able to alter media reporting trends.  It seems that when scientists directly address the media and public, it can affect how stories on this issue are reported: the study found that the tone of articles was less positive during the time the ISSCR released its Guidelines for the Clinical Translation of Stem Cells. This is hopeful: if scientists try to increase the public’s understanding of stem cell biotechnology, it can potentially also improve the balance of news reports.

While the study didn’t analyze all types of news media, it did demonstrate a robust way to measure that elusive “how is the public affected by scientists engaging them” question, at least as reflected in newspapers. It would be interesting to expand this study to other media sources in order to get a more comprehensive picture of how public opinion is shaped by media reporting. One wonders, for instance, if newspapers are the most important news source for the public (how would you even measure that?). Other sources of news (such as magazines, television, online communities or blogs) could be more influential and do they demonstrate the same reporting habits and trends? Certainly, these are areas for future study.

To follow-up my question at the outset: how do newspapers report on stem cell tourism?  The answer seems to be ‘poorly’. There’s a large gap between the real dangers of stem cell tourism and what is reported to the public. But can that gap be consciously minded, like the gap crossed to enter subway cars?  Exciting preliminary evidence indicates that the scientific community may be able to impact news reporting -– the equivalent, perhaps, of a visual or auditory reminder to “mind the gap”. So the bigger question might be: How do we sustain such an effort to shift the focus of news stories towards the very real dangers of stem cell tourism?

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