The journalistic challenge with a story like this is to balance hype and hope. This review takes in both the broadcast segment that appeared on CNN and the similar but longer print version that appears on the CNN web site.
First, by choosing a study subject who has had promising but unspectacular results, the story provides a more realistic view of outcomes than would a piece wrapped around a subject, like one referred to in the story, who is said to be able to shoot baskets.
Second, the story supplements positive comments with those tempered by realism. Eight paragraphs are devoted to purely positive comments. Four tamp down expectations with more realistic statements about the limits of current outcomes and future benefits. Five paragraphs are internally balanced with positive and tempered views.
The tempered comments come lower in the story, however, and follow an opening anecdote brimming with emotion and hope. The story ends in a similar fashion. Taking all things into account, the story tilts too positive.
What could have balanced the scales?
A quote from a truly disinterested source. All three sources in the story are involved with the research: a physician treating the patient, a source from an advocacy group involved with the research, and a spokeman for Second Sight Inc., the company that makes the device.
The perspective of an ophthalmologist who treats patients with retinitis pigmentosa, yet has no involvement with development of an artificial retina, could have added balance.
And finally, the story fails to put this device in context of other artificial retina development efforts and other technologies intended to improve or restore sight. The result is a false sense that we are learning of a dramatic breakthrough of one device. Not true. Many other devices and treatments are in development, enough so that a government agency is supporting them all. The viewers should have been told that.
For a long time researchers have worked to develop devices to restore vision to the blind. This CNN segment on early testing of one company’s second-generation artificial retina provides a useful snapshot of one product as it’s being used on one patient.
The story fails to mention the cost of the technology being used in the research, a figure that is certainly available.
For example, the New York Times – when it reported on this work 3 months ago – simply asked the manufacturer, who said the device "would cost up to $100,000."
At a time of debates about controlling the costs of health care, reporters can play an important role by reminding the public that every breakthrough has a price tag.
When a news organization decides to report on early Phase I research in 14 patients so far, it runs the risk of implying that benefts exist when, indeed, they have not yet been proven.
There are numerous studies of various artificial retina devices dating back at least 15 years, including those published by this device maker. A diligent story would have at least discussed those results to provide context.
The story fails to mention any potential harms, including risks of the surgery and whether remaining vision, or retinal and surrounding tissue, could be damaged.
The story fails to point out that there are no hard data on outcomes–that essentially at this point the results are anecdotal. It could have simply emphasized that in this phase I trial – with 14 patients – it is too early to tell what the real benefit would be.
The story does not exaggerate the prevalence or impact of retinitis pigmentosa. The first few paragraphs use overly emotional language. But the condition is real, blindness is disabling and the story ultimately portrays the condition accurately.
The story draws on three sources, all of whom are self-interested:
At least one independent source should have been consulted. The self-interest of the three sources used should have been explained.
The story fails to compare this artificial retina with similar products in clincial testing, or to other approaches to restoring vision that are in development.
It also fails to indicate what standard care is for patients with retinitis pigmentosa, and whether treatments exist to stablize or slow the progress of the disease.
The story plainly says that only 14 people in the U.S. are involved with a study of the artificial retina device, making it clear it’s not in clinical use.
The story incorrectly implies novelty of this device.
Many companies and research teams worldwide are pursuing artificial retinas; some others’ technologies are more technically advanced. Indeed, there is a federal government program to support the many development efforts.
Other treatments to restore vision are being researched actively.
Oddly, one of them was featured in a September 2009 story that appears on…CNN’s website.
The story does not draw excessively from a press release. But it has an interesting provenance nonetheless.
Second Sight Medical Products Inc. issued a press release in May announcing new enrollments in the study featured in this report. Several stories in the popular press followed.
The New York Times article published on Sept. 26 bears similarities to the CNN story, including a focus on the same study subject, Barbara Campbell.