December 14, 2005

Two “Breakthrough” Stem Cell Stories Get Very Different Media Coverage: Guess Why

Filed under: Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 3:01 pm

(Cross posted at

Two “breakthoughs” in stem-cell research announced at roughly the same time have, based on Google News searches, received very disparate treatment in news coverage.

(Note: The screen shot that follows was taken at about 10AM on December 14. The “hours ago” indicator is only for the lead item listed. Coverage of both stories began in the early AM hours of December 13.)


The first, originally covered by the Louisville Courier Journal, is about adult stem cells and how researchers are claiming that they can be made to do all the tricks that, until this “breakthrough,” embryonic stem cells have been thought to be able to perform:

University of Louisville researchers have coaxed stem cells from adult mice to change into brain, nerve, heart and pancreatic cells. That could lead to treatments for human diseases and end the debate over embryonic stem cells.

“We have found a counterpart for embryonic stem cells in adult bone marrow. This could negate the ethical concerns,” said Dr. Mariusz Ratajczak, leader of the research team and director of the stem-cell biology program at U of L’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center.

You can see that this adult stem cell “breakthough” had only 31 “related items” in a Google News search as of about 10 AM today, with no apparent coverage by the Associated Press or the New York Times. United Press International is the only major wire service or major newspaper that has mentioned the story.

The second, primarily covered by The Washington Post’s Rick Weiss (“Human Brain Cells Are Grown In Mice”) appeared on Page A03 of the paper on Tuesday, December 13, and is about embryonic stem cells:

By injecting human embryonic stem cells into the brains of fetal mice inside the womb, scientists in California have created living mice with working human brain cells inside their skulls.

The research offers the first proof that human embryonic stem cells — vaunted for their potential to turn into every kind of human cell, at least in laboratory dishes — can become functional human brain cells inside a living animal, reaching out to make connections with surrounding brain cells.

But this embryonic stem cell “breakthough” had 305 “related items” in a Google News search as of about 10 AM today, including coverage by the Associated Press and the New York Times.

There are probably two factors at work here:

  1. A relatively minor factor is that Louisville, where the adult stem cell “breakthrough” has been reported, is in the Midwest, considered a scientific backwater by much of the press.
  2. I believe that the much more important factor is that adult stem cell “breakthroughs” reinforce the arguments of prolife advocates that embryonic stem cell research destroys human life and is scientifically unnecessary because of progress with adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cell breakthroughs, on the other hand, legitimize the views of those who believe that working with embryos is the only way to ultimately achieve disease-conquering treatments, and that prolife concerns about destroying little humans are irrelevant at best, and standing in the way of human progress at worst.

Given their well-documented mostly proabort beliefs, there’s little doubt that the large majority of Mainstream Media reporters have a bias towards embryonic stem cell research, which is why the embryonic stem cell story would be expected to received broader coverage. Indeed, it has.



  1. I think the disparity could be because the mice with human brain cells have more sci-fi, Dr. Frankenstein appeal. I know the idea of mice with swollen, bald, pulsating heads creeps me out. ;)

    The print version of the Enquirer picked up both stories. They ran in the same column.

    Comment by Jeff Sinnard — December 14, 2005 @ 5:00 pm

  2. Interesting point about the Enquirer.

    The Frankenstein element you noted is one of many reasons why prolifers find ESCR so repulsive.

    Comment by TBlumer — December 14, 2005 @ 5:13 pm

  3. Good post. I had wondered about any bias in media coverage for embryonic versus adult stem cells.

    Comment by Camy Tang — December 14, 2005 @ 9:31 pm

  4. #3-Thanks.

    Comment by TBlumer — December 14, 2005 @ 9:52 pm

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