The Controversy Over Stem Cell Research and Medical Cloning

Matt Nisbet

Tracking the Rise and Fall of Science in the Public Eye

Nearly three years have passed since President George W. Bush, in his first nationally televised address, announced his decision on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. The decision, characterized at the time as perhaps the most important of Bush’s presidency, marked the climax of a summer 2001 debate that catapulted the stem cell issue to the top of the U.S. political and media agenda. Although many competing events and issues have surfaced since Bush’s decision, the controversy over stem cell research remains divisive and unresolved. Part of the sustained conflict of the issue has been driven by its redefinition, as stem cell research has become closely linked to human cloning regulation.

For the past two years I have been studying the social dimensions of the stem cell and cloning issue, applying a generalizable framework that helps us understand how science controversies emerge and develop across policy, opinion, and media arenas. I have focused on the forces shaping media attention and media framing (or definition) of the debate, gathering quantitative indicators of coverage based on an analysis of over 1,000 news articles and press reports appearing in national newspapers, national broadcast news, and National Public Radio. I have also tracked public opinion relative to stem cell research and human cloning, drawing upon an analysis of over 200 poll items culled from national surveys, with findings summarized as longitudinal indicators of public attention, knowledge, moral evaluations, generalized support, and reactions to proposed policies. The first stage of this ongoing research project has recently been published in two different academic journals (Nisbet, 2004; Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch, 2003). In this column, I report on findings specific to media coverage, and in a future column I will discuss trends related to public opinion.

Framing Science Policy

Since the end of World War II, most areas of science have enjoyed bipartisan support, leading to heavy government sponsorship and funding. However, on certain issues, such as nuclear energy or embryo research, conflict has emerged. In these cases where policy actors disagree about science policy, they “go public” by lobbying the media as a way to gain an advantage in the policy debate. In going public, competing actors employ several tactics.

First, both sides try to control the agenda, or how much attention an issue receives. Gaining more attention to an issue is especially important for an interest group that feels locked out of current decision-making. Increased media coverage brings an issue out into the open, potentially expanding the number of groups that might have a say in decision-making.

Second, both sides in a debate also try to control the type of policy arena where decision-making takes place. When it comes to science policy, two categories of policy arenas can be identified. Administrative policy arenas include regulatory and funding agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, or the National Science Foundation. Current allegations of Bush White House tampering notwithstanding, in these arenas, scientists are generally favored, and decisions are made based on technical grounds. The other category includes overtly-political arenas such as Congress and the White House. Though the scientific community maintains influence in these arenas, other interests such as the religious right, citizen groups, and environmental groups, have equal if not greater influence. In these contexts, moral and political arguments rather than technical ones often win out.

Third, is the competition to define or “frame” issues. Framing involves a contest to emphasize certain dimensions of an issue over others, thereby helping to construct meaning. Frames lead policymakers, journalists, and the public to draw certain conclusions and attributions about the causes, consequences, and solutions to an issue, and frames also shape how much attention an issue receives.

Policy debates often include two categories of frames. The first category involves technical definitions of an issue. When framed in technical terms, an issue is less provocative, there is generally limited media and public attention, and debate tends to be relegated to administrative policy arenas. The other category includes moral frames. These frames ignite visceral responses, spark media and public attention, and often mobilize diverse interest groups and sectors of the public to become involved. When debate moves from administrative arenas to overtly political forums such as Congress and the White House, issues usually become predominantly defined in moral and ethical ways. In fact if an interest group wants to shift decision-making away from administrative contexts and capture the interest of Congress and the White House, the best strategy is to push moral definitions of the issue into the media.

How do technical and moral frames apply to the stem cell controversy? Before 1998, research on stem cells-mostly from noncontroversial sources such as bone marrow and umbilical cord blood-was framed in highly technical terms, focusing on the release of the latest scientific findings or emphasizing the details of funding and applications of research. These technical dimensions, while important, don’t touch on political emotions or grab much attention. What changed in 1998? When the discovery of human embryonic stem cells was announced, and Science magazine proclaimed the event the breakthrough of the year, research advocates and opponents became energized around the question of funding research that necessitated the destruction of human embryos. Both sides, in order to mobilize public and political support for their preferred outcomes, framed the issue as a moral matter. Opponents discussed the violation of religious doctrine and the impact of “playing God.” Research proponents emphasized the moral implications of not moving ahead with research that might offer “breakthrough miracle cures.”

Although competing policy actors engage in a frame contest to define an issue, journalists often prefer their own unique form of framing. Beyond any “real world” conditions, issues that receive the greatest amount of attention from journalists are those that are most easily dramatized or narratized. In order to generate coverage of an issue on a daily or weekly basis, journalists need to be able to see a clear beginning and end to an issue, with coverage increasing up to some climax, such as the passage of a bill or legislation, with media attention afterwards generally subsiding until a new event or source of conflict emerges around an issue that throws the topic into a fresh narrative cycle.

The strategy or conflict frame plays a key role in journalists’ ability to narratize the policy world. Journalists who employ strategy frames in covering an issue focus on who’s ahead and who’s behind in deciding a policy battle. Reports focus on the “political game,” the day-to-day tactics of policy actors, the coalitions amassing on both sides, while personalizing the issue to focus on just a few political figures. In part due to the narrative needs of journalists, media attention to an issue often peaks when the strategy frame is most prominent in coverage.

Not all journalists, however, prefer the strategy frame. As opposed to political reporters, who specialize in the “politics of the palace,” science writers, on the other hand, view issues generally in terms of technical frames. But given the priority placed on coverage of politics in news organizations, and the greater number of political reporters than science writers, one indicator of when media attention and the strategy frame are likely to rise is when there is a shift in newsbeats around an issue from coverage dominated by science writers to coverage dominated by political reporters.

Analyzing Media Coverage

In order to test this framework for understanding shifts in media attention to and definition of the stem cell debate and other science controversies, my colleagues and I collected all news articles specific to forms of stem cell research appearing in the New York Times and Washington Post between 1975 and 2002, ABC Nightly News and CBS Evening News between 1990 and 2002, and NPR Morning Edition and NPR All Things Considered between 1990 and 2002. (For television and radio, we were limited by archive availability.)

In addition, we tracked “real world” indicators of developments surrounding stem cell research, including the number of published scientific studies on the topic, the number of statements made before Congress, the number of press releases distributed via the PR Newswire, and the number of polls publicly released. Using various government reports and other archived documents, we also segmented policy development into stages, identifying the type of policy arena-administrative or overtly political-where debate was primarily taking place.

We analyzed the frames appearing in the news by employing quantitative content analysis, a standard technique in the social sciences for the reliable and valid measurement of the features of news texts. A team of three coders scored each article for the prominence of technical frames such as the release of a new scientific study, or coverage of the general scientific background of the issue; as well as the prominence of frames that focused on the moral and ethical dimensions; or frames that focused primarily on strategy and conflict. Frames were coded as “2” if they appeared in the headline or lead paragraphs of an article, “1” if they were not prominent but present, or “0” not present. In each of the newspaper articles, we also recorded whether the author was principally a science writer or a political reporter.

The coders were trained and then tested on 150 articles and news reports, so that by the end of training, coders agreed 80% of the time (correcting for chance) in scoring the articles. With this type of reliability, it is likely that a different team of trained coders would be able to apply the same coding scheme and reach essentially similar results.

Evaluating Media Performance

In terms of several “real world” indicators of issue development, as Figure 1 indicates, scientific output since the early 1990s has been generally linear, exhibiting steady increases in published scientific articles each year through 2002. Shifts in the amount of Congressional testimony specific to the issue reflect the movement of the issue from generally administrative arenas through 2000 to the overtly political in 2001. Although Congressional attention was stimulated to a degree in 1994 as Congress debated lifting a moratorium on embryo research, heavy Congressional attention to the issue of stem cell research did not occur until 1999, sparked by the announcement the previous year of the isolation of human embryonic stem cells for the first time. Congressional attention peaked in 2001, but remained sustained at slightly lower levels in 2002, as medical cloning along with the viability of the President’s proposed stem cell lines were debated.

figure 1

Despite tremendous growth in scientific output, and heightened Congressional attention post-1998, Figure 1 also indicates that trends in media attention from the elite newspapers follow a very different pattern. Even though research on stem cells derived from bone marrow and other sources has been ongoing since the 1960s, there was very limited coverage of stem cell research for nearly three decades. Yet even after the discovery of human embryonic stem cells for the first time in 1998, media coverage lags behind the rise in “real world” indicators through 2000, dramatically spikes in 2001, and then declines in 2002.

What explains the limited media attention to the issue of stem cell research between 1998 and 2000, despite the rapid rise of various “real world” indicators of scientific and political activity? An examination of trends in media framing of the issue provides one explanation. As Figure 2 indicates, until 1998, when media attention was minimal, media coverage was dominated by technical frames and definitions, focused primarily on the release of new scientific information or the scientific background of the issue. Post-1998, both moral and strategy frames begin to increase in prominence, peaking in 2001, and then declining slightly in 2002. Technical frames during this time decrease in prominence sharply.

Part of the reason for the rise in prominence of moral and strategic frames post-1998 is that various competing actors began to emphasize these moral frames as a way to gain strategic advantage. Policy debate had also moved from administrative and technical arenas to overtly political arenas such as the White House and Congress where moral framing is often preferred.

figure 2

The shift in frame prominence is also attributable to a shift in news beats. As of 1998, more than 70% of news articles on the topic of stem cell research were authored by science writers, compared to just 10% of articles by political reporters. This ratio shifted sharply in 2001, with roughly a 50/50 split that year in coverage between science writers and political reporters. The increased attention and coverage by political reporters helps explain the increased prominence of the strategy frame, the decline in prominence of the scientific or technical frames, and the sharp spike in media attention. By 2002, however, when media attention had declined, and the strategy frame’s prominence had dropped, coverage by political reporters was back to just about 10% of news articles.

Science as Moral Panic and Political Game

The framework and results presented help us understand cycles of attention and definition of a scientific issue across policy and media arenas. The outlined relationships include the policy arena where debate takes place, the media lobbying activities of competing strategic actors, and the journalistic need for narrative and dramatic structure. An important part of this process is the shift in coverage across news beats, from specialist journalists to political reporters.

Specific to stem cell research, for most of the history of coverage, when media attention was relatively minimal, news reports featured strong emphasis on the scientific and technical aspects of the issue. Yet, in 2001, when media attention spiked, relatively few news reports emphasized the scientific and technical dimensions, and instead focused on strategic and moral considerations linked to the debate.

For scientists and professionals engaged in science communication activities, these findings should be somewhat disturbing. Major institutional efforts by government, industry, and universities are made on a daily basis to communicate with the public through the mass media about the nature of new scientific discoveries. Yet in the case of science controversies, when media attention (and therefore public attention) can be expected to be greatest is when the media define an issue not in terms of science, but as either a political conflict or a matter of morality and ethics.


Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Professor of Communication, Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, a CSI technical consultant, and writes regularly on science, politics, and a more focused life at