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Artificial retina gives woman limited vision after decades of darkness


2 Star

Artificial retina gives woman limited vision after decades of darkness

Our Review Summary

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.


Why This Matters

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.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

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. 

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


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.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story draws on three sources, all of whom are self-interested:

  • The ophthalmologist who is treating the featured patient. It’s likely he has a financial relationship with the device maker, though it is not reported whether this is the case. 
  • A vision expert from an advocacy group, whose treatment center is one site where the testing is being done
  • A vice president of the firm that makes the device

At least one independent source should have been consulted. The self-interest of the three sources used should have been explained.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


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.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

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.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


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.

Total Score: 3 of 9 Satisfactory


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