'Revolutionary' Stem Cell Research Breakthrough Gets Skeptical Treatment from ABC

The discovery was called “the holy grail” and equated with the Wright Brothers' first successful flight, but that wasn't good enough to lead the November 20 World News with Charles Gibson broadcast.  The news that researchers had created embryonic-like stem cells without the use of embryos was buried half-way into the broadcast and even the tease for the story was last on the list at the top of the news.

Unlike ABC, both CBS and NBC led their newscasts with the stem cell breakthrough story.  Granted, ABC's anchor Charlie Gibson was at Camp David with the President and Mrs. Bush and had an exclusive interview, but even after the interview concluded, the stem cell story didn't lead.  Gibson highlighted the Supreme Court's decision to hear a gun rights case and a story about a Mideast peace conference to be held in Annapolis.  It was only after a commercial break that the stem cell story was aired.

And Gibson gave the story a much more cautionary lead-in than either Brian Williams or Katie Couric.  While both the NBC and CBS anchors were enthusiastic about the research news – Williams called it “apparently a huge advance in science” and Couric called it a “huge scientific advancement” -- Gibson equivocated.  He said, “Scientists studying human stem cells, today, announced findings that could -- could -- revolutionize medical research.”

Compared to the other newscasts the ABC report strained to make the point that this research didn't end the debate over using embryonic stem cells to cure disease.  Reporter David Muir said that opponents of embryonic stem cell research “already” were calling for a “halt [to] all use of human embryos.”  Muir went on to quote from the website of Michael J. Fox's foundation which said “embryonic stem cells remain the gold standard.”

All three networks reported the positive aspects of the research and what the scientists need to do to overcome to make the discovery of the technology applicable.  But again, CBS and NBC enthusiastically reported the story while ABC seemed intent to throw a wet blanket on it.  Compare how the three networks concluded their reports:


DR. GEORGE DALEY, Harvard Stem Cell Institute: “These are methods that can now be used by laboratories all over the world and I guarantee you dozens if not hundreds of scientists will be jumping on this."

DR. JON LaPOOK, CBS Medical Correspondent: "The research community has been ignited by this news, literally tomorrow scientists can start using today's discovery to try to understand and cure disease.”


ROBERT BAZELL, NBC Chief Science Editor: "… first of all, starting out, this is a magnificent achievement. It is going to have results. They are going to be able to grow cells using this technique; it will be useful for research. The technical problems remain. They are very, very difficult. But if they were to be solved, yes, there would be no more ethical issues about stem cell research. But that's a long way off."


DAVID MUIR, Reporter: "But the debate is far from over. Today, Michael J. Fox's foundation, though hopeful about the breakthrough, says at this time embryonic stem cells remain the gold standard, in understanding how a cell develops. And in particular, how they convert into other cell types."

 PROFESSOR LAURIE ZOLOTH, Northwestern University Ctr. For Bioethics: "One, new path. But don't abandon all the other paths that are possible."

MUIR: "Few if any argue the scope of today's breakthrough but the discovery will surely not end the debate."

While CBS and NBC were content to present balanced reporting on a remarkable achievement, ABC's treatment was more about the debate, implying that the “gold standard” of killing human embryos is still the better route to take.

Kristen Fyfe is the Senior Writer for the Culture and Media Institute.