Lots of ink/digits for embryonic stem cell study; what does it mean?

On the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Boyce Rensberger delivers a good overview analysis of a study that got a lot of news coverage this week. He wrote:

“The Web today is loaded with stories on one piece of news and containing such phrases as “for the first time,” “an important achievement,” “a major step,” “a groundbreaking achievement.” Science journalists can imagine why; some editor asked why they should run this story now, and the hype machine had to be cranked up.

The news was that a research team found a new way to create something that resembles an embryonic stem cell without using in-vitro fertilization and confronting moral objections from some people. Unfortunately, the resulting cells cannot be used to treat anybody.

Depending on who you read, the hope-diminishing facts come early in the story or relatively late. Among the best at balance was the AP’s Seth Borenstein. His lede graf gives the news and adds, “But the first-of-its-kind result comes with a big hitch.” The second graf, twice as long as the lede, explains the problem and deftly puts the result in perspective.

Rob Stein at the Washington Post waits until the third graf to temper readers’ conclusions. After calling it a “a long-sought, potentially pivotal advance,” Stein’s third graf says, “The scientists so far have managed only to produce genetically abnormal cells useful for research.” As printed on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, that third graf includes the clause: “but they were confident they could overcome that hurdle.” That phrase does not appear Stein’s original story. As edited by the Chronicle, Stein’s story also hails the advance as something that could lead to creating “cells that could cure widespread suffering.” This is a good example of how a reporter’s original story can be warped by editors at other publications.

But hang on. Faraway editors can and often do mash-up different reporters’ stories to make their own hybrid. The Seattle Times picked up Stein’s story but made its third graf say this: “The first-of-its-kind result comes with a big hitch,” a sentence lifted from Borenstein’s AP story. Is it plagiarism? Maybe not. At the bottom of the story the Seattle editors appended this note, “Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.”

Other takes:

In one of the cleanest balanced stories, The Boston Globe’s Carolyn Y. Johnson gets the news and the downside into her first sentence.

Nicholas Wade’s story in the New York Times, backs gingerly into the news.

Time’s Alice Park says the advance moves stem cell research closer to its ultimate goal, but that it “also moves science closer to human cloning.” Up go the red flags. She links the new technique to the one used to create Dolly the sheep.

Eryn Brown writes in the Los Angeles Times that the research moves medicine closer to treating…and then she lists the usual range of dread diseases. Talk about hope and hype.

The lede on CNN’s version, written by Miriam Falco, begins with the tried-and-tired, “For the first time…” At least it omitted the unnecessary “ever” from that formulation.”

On the Tracker site, all of these media references are hyperlinked. Go there for the full take.

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