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MEDIA AND THE BIOTECH REVOLUTION

By Dayna Watson
  

Just as a photograph gives only a fleeting glimpse of what it intends to capture, the international media gives people of the world a very narrow view of what the biotechnological revolution entails.Not only are there problems with the way the biotechnological revolution is portrayed in the media, there is the monstrous task of getting adequate news coverage to keep the people well informed about the constant influx of new advancements.So what has the media done to inform the average citizen??Is it plausible to assume that the media has reported the facts fairly and without bias? No, it isn't.

Journalists may preach to the world about a 'journalist's code of ethics' and about how they are trained to approach each news story as if they have no opinion on the matter. Journalists pride themselves on objectivity. But, as we all should be aware of, the news anchors on the five and six o'clock news are much more concerned about how much hairspray they can get in their hair than they are about whether the stories they report are factual. The nightly news is about appearance-how the reporters look and the importance of having a token human-interest story to show that the television station or newspaper has a compassionate side.

We must first separate two very different types of news coverage in order to critique what is and what isn't appropriate news coverage of the biotech revolution. Tabloid news in the United States as well as in Europe is the type of news that covers celebrity gossip, the controversies in the British monarchy, the American Presidency and other news directed towards individuals that wish to live vicariously through other people's (namely the rich or famous) lives.

When Madonna gets pregnant we all will be sure to find out from the tabloid news or the fluff news when, where and why it happened. Of course, I can only speak from the perspective of an American, but this news is not journalism.

One problem with the way the public perceives the biotech revolution is that, according to Dr. Richard Lee, a communication law professor at the University of Georgia, "people believe the worst" from news coverage. People in general want the bad news first and the good news last. Although this seems like a huge generalization, I myself have learned this phenomenon from each of my journalism professors who teach at the undergraduate level.

Americans, specifically, read headlines on newspapers for the most current horror story. They focus on extreme cases, on tragedies, catastrophes and natural disasters. This relates directly to the way many people feel compelled to slow down to look at a bad car accident-no matter how disturbing the sight of blood may be, we often feel compelled to look. This concept is what fuels tabloid news. People who call themselves journalists (but who clearly have no journalistic merit) use this look-at-the-bad-car-accident phenomenon to their advantage by dramatizing or 'sensationalizing' newsstories.

The second type of news coverage, hard news, is the biotechnological revolution's best hope for getting accurate, straightforward information out to the public. But there is a problem with news coverage as well. The journalists that are qualified to report on important subjects such as the biotech revolution are usually ill informed about technological advancements.

Why don't journalists have the pertinent information they need to report on scientist's findings?

Most of the news that ends up on television and in world-renown newspapers is news that is provided to journalists through public relations representatives of individuals or organizations. For presidential elections, each candidate's public relation (PR) spokesperson provides up-to-date information on the candidate's scheduled public appearances and political platform. Journalists receive faxes, e-mails and phone calls from PR representatives and form their stories directly from this information. In most cases, the newspaper or news station will replace the PR representative's name with their own and run the story as if they, the journalists, actually wrote it. Journalists, in many cases, are not even responsible for writing their own news stories.

In any other professional field, this would be seen as plagiarism, but in the field of journalism it is an intrinsic part of the business. The news stories are largely produced by organizations and individuals who have enough money to keep public relations in their budgets.

Because many of the people (scientists, governments, etc.) who are in the biotech field are using all of their dollars on biotech research and development, they have little money left to campaign for public support.

Scientists are scientists and they typically do not have the means or the ability to get their findings into a hard news story. The few journalists that do get their hands on a biotech story are tabloid journalists who sensationalize the effects of a biotech revolution.

For example, The Washington Post ran a feature story on Jesse Gelsinger, an 18-year-old who was the first person to die in the United States from experimental gene therapy (Washington Post Sept. 18, 2000).Gelsinger had a rare liver disease that made him extremely susceptible to high ammonia levels and was chosen to participate in a University of Pennsylvania study under the care of lead scientist James Wilson. The Washington Post reported that a Food and Drug Administration investigation after Gelsinger's death "found numerous regulatory violations by Wilson's team, including the failure to stop the experiment and inform the FDA after four successive volunteers suffered serious liver damage prior to the teen's [Gelsinger's] treatment."

"In addition, the FDA said Gelsinger didn't qualify for the experiment because his blood ammonia levels were too high just before he underwent the infusion of genetic material,"? said a reporter for the Washington Post. The lawsuit filed by the Gelsinger family reveals business affairs that "clouded the judgments of the university, the medical dean and Wilson. Both the university and Wilson had equity stakes" (Washington Post Sept.18 2000).

When the public heard about Jesse Gelsinger, the biotechnological revolution suffered greatly. Scientists lost public support, morale, and monetary donations for further funding because they heard of the consequences instead of the benefits of biotechnology.

The truth is that there are clear benefits of the biotechnological revolution. Scientists now have a clearer picture of the Human genome and can begin to identify genes that cause hereditary illnesses. Scientists can genetically engineer foods with additional nutrients and help to develop an existence based on sustainability. We can live longer, healthier, more productive lives and possibly avert death by using artificial intelligence.

But first we have to get all these wonderful ideas and information out to the public before the anti-genetic engineering watchdog groups voice their own concerns. Anti-genetic engineering groups, some of which include the Christian Coalition and a number of large insurance companies, have certainly been heard around the world because they have the money to publicize their message. The biotechs, however have countered back with an extensive campaign to inform people about their work. Dr. Jane Rissler, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an anti-biotech watchdog group said, "I suspect that many scientists are quite worried that this technology, which is the star to which they have hitched  their wagon, will lose support. This, in fact, coincides with the industry's own $50 million a year campaign to rally public opinion in this country" (A Call For BiotechnologyEuly 2000).

If the bio-tech industry is spending $50 million trying to get public support then why isn't the public getting the message?

The greatest media obstacle currently facing the bio-tech revolution is the debate over the use of human embryos in medical research. A public relations campaign to override the heartfelt opinions of millions of people would be nearly impossible in the United States. You cannot change opinions in public relations, but you can make changes go over more smoothly in the public eye.

So, the way to secure hope for continued research is to not use the media at all. You cannot market the use of human embryos with a smile on your face and expect the people to bow down and agree to your pitch. Biotechs would, instead, be best suited using a great deal of the budgeted $50 million to support a pro-biotech candidate for presidency, cross their fingers and pray.  

For additional information: 

A Call for Biotechnology to Be Used for the Developing World By CAROL KAESUK YOON (July 2000)

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A30464-2000Sep18.html

 

 


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