Ethics to Hype: How Media Frames Regenerative Medicine
Public opinions can greatly influence governmental policy and thus can have a large impact on Regenerative Medicine (RM) and Stem Cell (SC) research. Because of this, it is tremendously important for the public to be informed of scientific advancements and what they mean. Additionally, it is vital that researchers are in-tune with how the public perceives RM research. News media is the primary way the public learns about scientific and medical breakthroughs. So in what way does the media portray RM and SC research? Do these articles promote unrealistic expectations? And what topics about RM research does the media focus on? These and other aspects of news stories greatly impact how the public perceives RM and SC research and can ultimately impact scientific advancement.
Kalina Kamenova and Timothy Caulfield from the University of Alberta have written a perspective in Science Translational Medicine discussing how printed media in the UK, US and Canada has portrayed RM and SCs over four years. The authors identified and examined all articles about RM and SC research from 14 newspapers between the start of 2010 to the end of 2013. The compiled statistics about the publications give interesting insight to trends in the focus and overall tone of RM and SC news articles. The research examines differences in news publications between countries, the types of stem cells discussed, estimated timelines presented for generating clinical treatments, and more. Their results give a glimpse into how the media portrays RM, how this portrayal has changed over the years and how major events in the field of RM may or may not influence that perception.
What insights did the article present?
Several interesting observations were made about the trends found in RM and SC research news stories. But before discussing these findings, it is essential to understand how decisions made by media outlets influence an audiences’ perspective and opinions on topics and events.
One must recognise that it is impossible for media outlets to cover all news stories. Nor can they relay all the numerous facts and information of a story. Choices must be made. ‘Agenda-setting’ is the selection of what stories a new agency chooses to cover. News media also use story ‘framing’ to highlight specific facts while omitting or placing less emphasis on other elements. These decisions may or may not be deliberate, but ultimately they influence what topics the public is aware of, as well as the public’s perspectives and opinions.
Kamenova and Caulfield’s analysis of newspaper articles emphasises how news agencies have greatly shifted the way they frame RM and SC research. Rather than focusing on social, ethical and legal contexts of RM and SC as they did in the 1990’s, newspaper articles between 2010 and 2014 placed a much greater emphasis on new discoveries and how they will be translated into clinical treatments. Of the 307 newspaper articles analysed, 37.1% focused on clinical translation and 22.8% discussed new scientific discoveries. Only 1.6% of the articles focused on the ethical issues of RM and SCs. This shift in framing RM and SC research can also be seen in the number of stories that focus on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The authors point out that previous studies showed hESCs were the primary focus of most news coverage between 1998 and 2010, whereas data from 2009 to 2014 shows hESCs are the focus in only one fifth (21.5%) of articles.
Interestingly, the United Kingdom reports on advancements in regenerative medicine much more frequently than the United States or Canada. Almost half of all the newspaper articles examined over the 4 years came from the UK. Additionally, a greater proportion of the articles in the UK have an optimistic tone about RM research advancements compared to articles from the US and Canada.
The majority (57.7%) of all newspaper articles between 2009 and 2014 presented the future of RM and SC research in a positive and optimistic tone. Surprisingly, this positive tone was maintained even after Geron Corporation announced that it was ending their pioneering stem cell program to treat spinal cord damage. This was seen by many individuals in the field of RM as a large set-back, yet it did little to change the positive tone of subsequent news stories after the announcement. On the other hand, it was observed that cautionary statements started to be more prevalent in articles. Additionally, articles started to shift the timelines and forecasts for when a SC research discovery would result in a publicly accessible clinical treatment from ‘10 years or less’ to saying the ‘distant future’.
The issue of public expectations conveyed by the media is perhaps the most interesting and important insight to Kamenova and Caulfield’s perspective. Their data show that of the 307 articles examined, 212 (69%) indicated that SC treatments would be realized in 5 to 10 years or less. In many cases these are overly optimistic timelines for translating SC research discoveries into clinical medicines. There is a general concern among RM and SC researchers that the public has unrealistic expectations about how soon treatments will be available with some claiming that the news is primarily responsible for over-hyping scientific discoveries. But, where do the timelines presented in news articles really come from? In some instances journalists themselves or industry representatives had suggested these timelines, but most (64%) of these 212 articles had timeline expectations based on information or quotes supplied by scientists. Kamenova and Caulfield use this rather surprising insight to emphasise the need to inform RM and SC researchers about the importance of communicating realistic timelines with the press and the impact this information could have on public expectations.
What does this mean for patients?
People should be aware that they only hear a small fraction of all the achievements, discoveries, failures and controversies that occur in science. Lately, news stories about RM are filtered and framed by newspapers to present RM developments with a particularly positive tone. It’s good to be excited and have a positive outlook, but it is also important to not over-hype discoveries and promote unrealistic expectations. Exciting news stories may not be showing the limitations of a discovery and might present unrealistic timeframes for developing clinical treatments. These are often done inadvertently because the people involved, including scientists, are excited about the research. Importantly, this article highlights that SC and RM researchers should learn to clearly convey information to the press and realise that supplying unrealistic timeframes creates hype and unrealistic expectations. Even the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has now noted how important appropriately communicating research is in their latest research guidelines (section 4). Lastly, just because news stories have shifted their focus from the social, ethical and political issues surrounding SCs to scientific discoveries and clinical application does not mean that these ethical issues have gone away. Rather it is the contrary; new discoveries are constantly raising questions that researchers and governments must carefully consider. Being aware of how the media presents RM stories and decides on what stories to cover will greatly help people curb unrealistic expectations and understand that they are only seeing a small glimpse into the ever-changing world of RM and SC research.
Further information and links
This summary is based on the original article ‘Stem cell hype: Media portrayal of therapy translation’ by Kalina Kamenova and Timoth Caulfield, Science Translational Medicine 2015’. A journal subscription may be required for access.
Timothy Caulfield has also written a short and interesting article for The Globe and Mail titled ‘When we hype our science, discoveries are diminished’. It tells his perspective on hype over SC research, why good science communication is important and how the media impacts research and scientists.
An enjoyable comic called Hope Beyond Hype: A Story of Stem Cells from Discovery to Therapy has a related theme to Kalina Kamenova and/or Timothy Caulfield’s perspective article, but is more oriented towards stem cell research and clinical trials.
A key factor in understanding and interpreting news articles about stem cells and regenerative medicine is to know more about it. A power point presentation by the Stem Cell Education Outreach Program is a great resource to start learning more.
Written by Dr Ryan Lewis, edited by Dr Jan Barfoot and reviewed by Timothy Caulfield.
Updated by: Ryan Lewis