Editor's Briefing

Luke Coppen's Catholic Herald Blog

The Church, embryo research and the weakness of science journalism

with one comment

Photo: Stem-cell researcher Tadashi Sato holds a dish containing stem cell growth medium, at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha, Nebraska (PA Photos)

I’m not surprised by the study commissioned by the British Government which found that almost half of science journalists say they spend most of their time being “passive recipients” of news stories, rather than uncovering stories themselves.

Press Gazette reports that 46 per cent of science writers surveyed said that most of the time they were “passive recipients” of stories. Perhaps even more worryingly, 22 per cent said they no longer had time to sufficiently fact-check stories they put their names to.

The poor standard of science journalism was evident during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Bill in 2008. Most science journalists were enthusiastic backers of the Bill and gave scant coverage to its critics, such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

During the wider debate about embryonic stem-cell research, their reports were also generally one-sided, touting the purported benefits of the research, while marginalising proponents of adult stem-cell research. With the former stalling and adult stem-cell research making remarkable progress, science journalists should revisit their work and ask themselves whether they adhered to the basic journalistic principles of accuracy, objectivity and fairness. Many Church leaders and Catholic scientists and philosophers would say they didn’t.

It became apparent during the HFE debate that some science writers were merely mouthpieces for scientists who stood to gain from the Bill (and depended upon them for a steady supply of further stories). The Government-commissioned study should prompt them to thoroughly re-examine their crucial role of informing the public about scientific advances.

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  1. I recollect that the Association of Medical Research Charities strongly supported – indeed lobbied for – the research provisions of the HFE Bill. So I believe did the two largest research charities, Cancer Research UK and The British Heart Foundation. On matters of medical research, science journalists can scarcely be blamed for paying more attention to these charities than to Cardinal O’Brien.
    If there is a Catholic scientist – as distinct from a Church leader or philosopher – who thinks embryonic stem cell research is useless (as distinct from morraly objectionable), let us see an article by him or her in The Catholic Herald.

    John Martyn

    January 16, 2010 at 3:59 pm


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