The State of the Science in the Media: Stem Cell Research, Public Opinion and Politics

31 03 2011

By: Sarah Sonies

Michael J. Fox in a campaign ad for a pro-stem cell research candidate.

A few years ago, stem cell research was a hot-button issue in the media—especially if we take a look back at the 2004 presidential election. The issue of stem cell research was hotly contested with much of the mainstream news media covering the political debate and discussion of the pros and cons of stem cell research.

The controversy over funding for stem-cell research was part of nation coverage of elections, with even celebrities like actor Michael J. Fox getting personally by endorsing candidates who were pro-stem cell research.

The coverage of the issue undeniably peaked in 2004, even transcending traditional political party lines. The late President Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, also garnered a lot of media coverage when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston advocating for stem cell research funding. One of the reasons Reagan spoke is because his father suffered from Alzheimer’s, which is a disease that, according to the MSNBC article, would be amenable by stem cell research.

However, it cannot be disputed that stem-cell research is rarely discussed in the high-profile way now that it was almost seven years ago.

So—what happened? Meaning, where is the media coverage of stem-cell research now? Surely, it is still an important issue but why is no one talking about it? The coverage and discussion of the issue has been sadly limited since September when the National Institute of Health was granted permission to resume funding for stem cell research by a judge in the United States Court of Appeals from the District of Columbia.

The ruling was in response to a U.S. judge blocking President Barack Obama’s executive order expanding stem cell research on Aug. 23. The granting of the appeal on Obama’s executive order was surely a notable victory for NIH, but since the appeal was granted the media coverage of this issue has been disappointedly sparse.

This issue could be related to a lack of public understanding about the information available about stem cell research. According to a 2010 Virginia Commonwealth University Life Science survey about public opinion and science, 44 percent of Americans are unclear about the differences in stem cells.

Low rates of media coverage and public understanding could be due to the political framing of the issue. Nisbet, who has been covering stem cell research since 2001, discusses the politicization of stem cell research on his blog, The Age of Engagement, in the wake of the late August decision.

Nisbet’s blog states that the politicization of the stem cell debate has just driven a wedge between political parties and individuals.

Nisbet writes:

“This hope for cures and economic growth was often taken too far by many advocates, most notably John Edwards, who in 2004 infamously declared that if John Kerry were elected, Christopher Reeve would be able to walk again.  The Wedge strategy also had a notable influence on public opinion. …  Democrats and Republicans began to appear right around 2004 when Dems turned to stem cell research in their campaigning.”

The observations Nisbet makes on his blog certainly ring true –the more politicized the issue of stem-cell research becomes, the more it confuses the public as they feel as if they should pick a side on an issue they are only vaguely informed about.

When only the controversies of this issue are covered, it really does not facilitate an increase in public awareness, unfortunately leaving the public often caught in the middle of a media storm that just covers the issue in the frame of a heated debate.

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