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


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.

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  1. 1.

    This is a plausible explanation of why stem cell research in the early years of controversy ranked so high on the US media agenda and received an unprecedented coverage in comparison to other emerging technologies. Traditionally, policy debates over biomedical research in the USA take place within the administrative policy arena, i.e., the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Policy decisions within these institutions are routinely made by scientific and technical experts, with limited input from interest groups and the public. The stem cell controversy appeared to be an exception from this tradition of insular decision-making on scientific issues. For further discussion, see Nisbet et al. (2003).

  2. 2.

    The report Stem Cell Research: Medical Progress with Responsibility, released August 2000, included recommendations by an expert group led by the Chief Medical Officer, Liam Donaldson (hence “Donaldson Report”). These policy recommendations provided the basis for the HFEA (Research Purposes) Regulations of 2001, passed by the House of Commons on December 19, 2001. The full text of the Report is available from:

  3. 3.

    See President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13505—Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells signed on March 9, 2009, which ended an eight-year ban on federal funding for research on new hESC lines (URL:


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Correspondence to Kalina Kamenova.

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Kamenova, K. Media portrayal of stem cell research: towards a normative model for science communication. ABR 9, 199–209 (2017).

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  • Media
  • Stem cell research
  • hESC
  • Science communication
  • Public engagement