CNN Student News delivers repurposed hyped science news

Gary Schwitzer is publisher of (@HealthNewsRevu on Twitter). He supports improving health and science literacy in young people. He tweets as @garyschwitzer.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-7-59-39-amCNN Student News is described by the company as “a ten-minute, commercial-free, daily news program designed for middle and high school classes.”

Commercial-free may be true in that nothing labeled as a commercial appears.  But news that feels like a commercial is another thing.

This week, CNN Student News told kids about the 2016 Nobel Prize for medicine being awarded to biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi. It’s a great idea to get students interested in science, and to profile outstanding work such as Ohsumi’s.

But then the student newscast shifted immediately to a story about a biotech company that confused at least one 7th grader watching it – and struck his Dad, Yale’s Dr. Joseph Ross, as being a bit odd – and a bit like an ad.

Dr. Ross wrote to me:

“This story caught my attention after my son, who is in 7th grade, came home telling me about a story he saw at school on the Nobel prize in medicine. He described the work, explaining injecting RNA proteins as medical therapy, and I thought to myself: “That’s not what won the Nobel prize.” We watched the story together and I was surprised at how CNN briefly covered the Nobel, without describing the work in any substance, and then transitioned to a long story on a biotechnology company whose work is very much under development, having never been proven or confirmed in human clinical trials. I could see how my son would have been confused by the story. I was flabbergasted.”

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-7-36-12-amYou can watch the newscast yourself.  The story in question appears about 7 minutes deep.

Here’s some of the story transcript – and my comments in red:

“For years, incurable diseases like cancer and HIV have stumped scientists. But if there`s a cure for those diseases right under our noses, literally?” (Not off to a great start, implanting notions of cures for cancer and HIV right out of the starting gate.)

“….At biotech startup Moderna, they believe the key to treating rare diseases is to trigger the body to heal itself, to make its own medicine.” (Hmmm, a smart 7th grader should wonder:  Why this company?  Is this the only company that believes that? Or the only company that is working on an idea like that?)

Later, the story tries to describe a fairly complex concept about “injecting your body with messenger RNA molecules” and work Moderna has done.  Work that CNN called a breakthrough.

“And that breakthrough has led to potential treatments for a wide range of conditions, from heart disease to cancer.”  (Besides cure, breakthrough is another of our 7 words you shouldn’t use in medical news.)

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-7-37-02-amTo its credit, the ending – just as the anchor intro did – included some caveats:

“But research is still in its early stages. Moderna recently started their first two human clinical trials and has plans for at least four more.”

But smart news consumers – and that’s presumably what a student newscast is supposed to foster – should ask things such as: “What can go wrong between the pre-clinical research stage and actual human trials? What other, comparable work is being done by other companies?”  Indeed, students didn’t hear any independent perspective in the story – just company spokesmen. As Dr. Joseph Ross of Yale asked: why this company and why now?

Ross wrote to me:

“They do a good job of explaining that the therapies are untested and unproven. But still, why would they cover this company? Why would CNN devote so much time to an experimental technology, stating the company’s name prominently, even with appropriate caveats. It seemed like an advertisement, which I thought was inappropriate as ‘news’ for a younger generation of students who are just beginning to learn about science, technology, and medicine.”

Well, Dr. Ross, let me try to posit a possible partial answer to your questions.

What may look like a decision to teach young students about science and about this particular biotech company was actually just a case of shovelware – which PC Magazine defines as “a derogatory computer jargon term that refers to software bundles noted more for the quantity of what is included than for the quality or usefulness.”

The story was not apparently produced just for students; it had already been delivered to the broader CNN audience two months earlier, with the question mark journalism tactic of claiming whatever you want to, followed by a question mark – “Is this the cure to cancer?” in this case.

CNN is the cure for cancer?

The 3 ½ minute “adult” version – if we can call it that – that first appeared in CNN’s “Miracle Mile” feature (miracle, alongside cure and breakthrough, is another of our 7 words you shouldn’t use in medical news) – was chopped down to about 2 minutes for the student version.  After all, if you’re going to pitch premature promotion of just one company’s work out of context from the rest of competing research, we don’t want to overwhelm the kids with another 90 seconds of it.

CNN simply shoveled into the Student News something they had already reported in the same questionable but unquestioning manner to its broader audience.

Recap: we should encourage health and science literacy among younger students.  There are some admirable efforts around the globe to do so.  But it should be done carefully, with special efforts made to educate and to help young people hone their critical thinking and analytic skills.  It should not just be repurposing one-sided commercial-like material from another part of your news empire.

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