Asian Bioethics Review

, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 199–209 | Cite as

Media portrayal of stem cell research: towards a normative model for science communication

  • Kalina KamenovaEmail author
Original Paper


As the field of science communication has matured over the past 50 years, there has been a significant move away from the conventional understanding that mass media’s role in the public communication of science is limited to reporting new scientific discoveries. Media have been increasingly viewed as important for the legitimation of science and scholars have recognized their agenda-setting effects and ability to facilitate interaction between the public, scientific community, policymakers, interest groups, and other social actors. This article draws on analyses of news media coverage of stem cell research between 1998 and 2013 to demonstrate the active role of mass media in validating scientific claims about discoveries in the field and shaping the public understanding of key bioethical and policy issues. It further assesses whether media, in their attempts to construct the “right” position, have instigated a rational-critical discourse on the controversy. I argue that media representations in different cultural contexts have largely failed to meet normative expectations about the democratization of public discussions on biomedical innovation, as set out in the public engagement with science and technology (PEST) model of science communication. Rather than deconstructing the major terms of science policy debates as framed by stem cell advocates and their opponents, media coverage has mostly replicated discussions in political and legislative arenas, presenting the controversy as a strict binary opposition. Media have rarely provided critical reflection on the hype surrounding breakthroughs in stem cell research, thus reinforcing the public’s unrealistic expectations about the future of this biomedical innovation.


Media Stem cell research hESC Science communication Public engagement 


  1. Brossard, Dominique, and Bruce V. Lewenstein. 2010. A critical appraisal of models of public understanding of science: using practice to inform theory. In Communicating science: new agendas in communication, ed. LeeAnn Kahlor and Patricia A. Stout, 11–39. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Bubela, Tania, Matthew D. Li, Mohamed Hafez, Mark Bieber, and Harold Atkins. 2012. Is belief larger than fact: expectations, optimism and reality for translational stem cell research. BMC Medicine 10 (1): 133. Scholar
  3. Caulfield, Timothy, Kalina Kamenova, Ubaka Ogbogu, Amy Zarzeczny, Jay Baltz, Shelly Benjaminy, Paul A. Cassar, et al. 2015. Research ethics and stem cells. EMBO Reports 16 (1): 2–6. Scholar
  4. Davies, Sarah R., Ellen McCallie, Elin Simonsson, Jane L. Lehr, and Sally Duensing. 2009. Discussing dialogue: perspectives on the value of science dialogue events that do not inform policy. Public Understanding of Science 18 (3): 338–353. Scholar
  5. Davies, Sarah R. 2013. Constituting public engagement: meanings and genealogies of PEST in two UK studies. Science Communication 35 (6): 687–707. Scholar
  6. Döring, Martin, and Jörg Zinken. 2005. The cultural crafting of embryonic stem cells: the metaphorical schematisation of stem cell research in the Polish and French Press. Metaphorik. de 8: 6–33.Google Scholar
  7. Entman, Robert M. 1993. Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication 43 (4): 51–58. Scholar
  8. Friedman, Sharon M., Sharon Dunwoody, and Carol L. Rogers, eds. 1999. Communicating uncertainty: media coverage of new and controversial science. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Gerhards, Jürgen, and Mike S. Schäfer. 2009. Two normative models of science in the public sphere: human genome sequencing in German and US mass media. Public Understanding of Science 18 (4): 437–451. Scholar
  10. Gibbs, Nancy. 2006. Stem cells. The hope and the hype. Time 168 (6): 40.Google Scholar
  11. Haran, Joan, and Jenny Kitzinger. 2009. Modest witnessing and managing the boundaries between science and the media: a case study of breakthrough and scandal. Public Understanding of Science 18 (6): 634–652. Scholar
  12. Hilgartner, Stephen. 1990. The dominant view of popularization: conceptual problems, political uses. Social Studies of Science 20 (3): 519–539. Scholar
  13. Irwin, Alan, and Mike Michael. 2003. Science, social theory & public knowledge. Maidenhead, UK: McGraw-Hill Education.Google Scholar
  14. Kitzinger, Jenny, and Clare Williams. 2005. Forecasting science futures: legitimizing hope and calming fears in the embryo stem cell debate. Social Science & Medicine 61 (3): 731–740. Scholar
  15. Kamenova, Kalina, and Timothy Caulfield. 2015. Stem cell hype: media portrayal of therapy translation. Science Translational Medicine 7 (278): 278ps4–278ps4. Scholar
  16. Marks, A. Leonie, Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, Lee Wilkins, and Ludmila Zakharova. 2007. Mass media framing of biotechnology news. Public Understanding of Science 16 (2):183–203.
  17. Mazur, Allan. 1981. Media coverage and public opinion on scientific controversies. Journal of Communication 31 (2): 106–115. Scholar
  18. Nisbet, Matthew C., Dominique Brossard, and Adrianne Kroepsch. 2003. Framing science: the stem cell controversy in an age of press/politics. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 8 (2): 36–70. Scholar
  19. Nisbet, Matthew C. 2004. Public opinion about stem cell research and human cloning. Public Opinion Quarterly 68 (1): 131–154. Scholar
  20. Pellechia, Marianne G. 1997. Trends in science coverage: a content analysis of three US newspapers. Public Understanding of Science 6 (1): 49–68. Scholar
  21. Shepherd, Richard, Julie Barnett, Helen Cooper, Adrian Coyle, Jo Moran-Ellis, Victoria Senior, and Chris Walton. 2007. Towards an understanding of British public attitudes concerning human cloning. Social Science & Medicine 65 (2): 377–392. Scholar
  22. Williams, Clare, Jenny Kitzinger, and Lesley Henderson. 2003. Envisaging the embryo in stem cell research: rhetorical strategies and media reporting of the ethical debates. Sociology of Health & Illness 25 (7): 793–814. http://10.1046/j.1467-9566.2003.00370.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Weingart, Peter. 1998. Science and the media. Research Policy 27 (8): 869–879. Scholar

Copyright information

© National University of Singapore and Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute on Ethics & Policy for Innovation (IEPI), Department of Philosophy, Faculty of HumanitiesMcMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada

Personalised recommendations