Pulling Heartstrings and Straining Credibility: The Media Promote Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Media outlets preyed upon people's emotions this week in its reporting of President Barack Obama's decision to overturn the Bush Administration ban on federally-funded embryonic stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cell research is a hot topic among pro-life advocates because it involves the destruction of human embryos in order to obtain the stem cells needed.

CBS' Chip Reid said of embryonic stem-cells during the March 6 Evening News “Scientists believe that by turning them into cells damaged by injury or disease, they can treat or even cure everything from spine cord injuries to Alzheimer's disease to diabetes.”

Typical of ABC's Lisa Stark's weekend reporting on the issue was her explanation during the March 6 World News with Charles Gibson: “The president's move will free up federal dollars for more widespread research on embryonic stem cells, the so-called master cells of the body. Supporters say it may lead to cures for diseases, such as diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimers.”

What these reports ignore is that embryonic stem cell research has not produced any positive results Daniel S. McConchie, vice-president of government affairs for Americans United for Life, wrote, “Ten years after the first isolation of embryonic stem cells, there is not a single disease that these cells can cure.” He adds, “Scientists have been conducting research on mouse embryonic stem cells for over 25 years and are yet unable to cure mice.”

Also, reporters didn't mention the report last month that fetal stem cells caused a tumor in an Israeli boy who was given an experimental treatment for a rare brain disease.

But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

One-Sided Reporting at its Worst

Or a sad story. The networks made sure to feature people who felt that the federal funding ban contributed to their personal tragedies.

CBS' Bill Plante highlighted the story of Henry Stongin-Goldberg during his March 9 report on The Early Show. Stongin-Goldberg died at the age of seven from a rare blood disease that his parents believed could have been cured by embryonic stem-cells. Henry's mother, Lori Strongin, told Plante, “it is too late for us to have helped Henry, obviously, at this point, but it is not too late for us to stand up by the president's side and applaud this incredibly wonderful thing.”

Strongin and her husband Allen Goldberg attended the March 9 signing ceremony.

During ABC's March 7 Good Morning America, Kate Snow interviewed journalist David Iverson, who produced the documentary, “My Father, My Brother and Me” about his family's experience with Parkinson's disease. Iverson and his brother currently suffer from the disease and it caused the death of their father. Iverson told Snow that if frozen human embryos “can be used for some benefit, for people with Parkinson's or many other diseases, as your report noted coming into this segment, then, I think you can look at this as actually a pro-life position.” 

ABC's Stark featured the Ryan family in her March 6 and 7 reports. Tim Ryan and his two children have Type 1 diabetes. Ryan told Stark, “We've lost eight years already. We're just excited to see that the research will finally get a chance to prove itself or not.”  

Stark also featured Roman Reed, a paralyzed man, on her March 8 World News Sunday segment. Reed stated, “President Obama cares. He's taking a stance on suffering. He's taking a stand for cures.” Stark concluded her piece with the emotional appeal of “Roman Reed is convinced, one day, that stem cell research will allow him to walk again. The first step, he says, will come tomorrow at the White House.” 

None of the reports on ABC or CBS mentioned the fact that researchers have found 73 different diseases that can be helped by adult stem cells, including Type 1 diabetes, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease. And again, embryonic stem cells haven't produced a single positive result.

Ideology Trumping Objectivity?

The stem cell episode again proves there is no statement Obama can make too outrageous for the media not to swallow and propagate. Along with the executive order, Obama issued a memorandum claiming it was his intent to insulate “scientific decisions across the federal government from political influence,” according to the Washinton Post.

With their talking points and their marching orders, media outlets used Obama's decision to once again decry George W. Bush for daring to allow morality to inform public policy. ABC's Diane Sawyer introduced senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper's March 9 Good Morning America segment with, “After eight years of highly inflamed debate as we know in the Bush Administration, President Obama is  expected to lift the eight-year-old Bush Administration ban on federal embryonic stem cell research.” With Bush and his “politics” out of the way, maybe the debate will only be slightly inflamed. Or just kind of red and sore.

Sawyer perfectly set up Tapper's segment, which devoted more time to discussing opponents to Bush's ban on federal funds for embryonic stem cell research than it did to Obama's new policy. Tapper included a 2004 clip of Nancy Reagan saying, “Congress has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers. I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this.”

Tapper also featured a 2006 clip of actor Michael J. Fox saying, “I care deeply about stem cell research.”

Sawyer ended the segment with a statement by Fox:

Today is a new day. I'm thrilled to see President Obama has honored his commitment to get politics out of science. The last few years have been incredibly frustrating for patients and researchers who believe that embryonic stem cell research has the potential to bring better treatment to many of the patients. I commend the president for recognizing the inherent value of research freedom and creating an environment in which it can flourish.

ABC also heavily depended on Dr. George Daley of the Children's Hospital Boston for commentary:

    March 6, World News with Charles Gibson: “This is one of the fastest moving areas of science and yet we've been restricted. We've been operating with one hand tied behind our back.” March 7, Good Morning America: “It's allowing scientists to use all of the tools available, all of their creativity, to move as quickly as possible towards cures.” March 8, World News Sunday: “The new Obama decision is really putting patients first. It's putting patients over ideology. It's going to allow the science to move forward as quickly as possible.”

A March 9 Washington Post headline screamed, “Obama Aims to Shield Science From Politics.” Staff writer Rob Stein wrote in the article:

The decision by President George W. Bush to restrict funding for stem cell research has been seen by critics as part of a pattern of allowing political ideology to influence scientific decisions across an array of issues, including climate change, and whether to approve the morning-after pill Plan B for over-the-counter sales.

Harold Varmus, co-chair of Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, told Stein, “We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs. This is consistent with the president's determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy.”

Stein failed to quote any opponents of embryonic stem-cell research in his article and depended solely upon Melody C. Barnes, director of Obama's Domestic Policy Council and Varmus for commentary. Thank goodness there's no ideology or politics involved.

USA Today's March 9 article, “Obama Links Scientific Research to Protecting 'Free Thinking'” followed the same track as Stein's, and refused to cite any opposition to the decision.

ABC and CBS did quote Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Center in various reports. However, the quotes they used sounded like so many more shots in the culture wars rather than statements in a reasonable debate about the merits of embryonic stem cell research vs. adult stem cell research.

Far from rejecting stem cell research, Perkins reasonably stated in a March 6 press release, “We should be increasing funding for adult stem cell treatments, which have been used to treat patients for over 70 diseases and conditions, and we should fund the historic achievements in reprogramming ordinary skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells without compromising ethics by destroying life.”

Yet, these are the statements used by CBS and ABC:

    Reid on the March 6 Evening News: “The Family Research Council, a leading anti-abortion group, released this statement, arguing that “taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for experiments that require the destruction of human life.” Snow on the March 7 Good Morning America: “The Family Research Council last night called this decision, quote, “a slap in the face to Americans who believe in the dignity of human life.” Perkins on the March 9 Good Morning America: “At best it's ethically and morally challenged. And at worst it's a complete misuse of taxpayer dollars in leading America down the wrong path.”  

Once again, the media painted pro-life conservatives as knee-jerk ideologues that bring nothing to the debate over stem-cell research.

What is it called when people only provide one side to the story in order to play on people's sympathies regarding a particular topic?


The media has not been reporting this week. It's been pushing liberal propaganda as absolute truth.

Why are they so afraid to report the other side?  

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.