Monday, August 24, 2015

A Tale of Two Stem Cell Stories, Plus Reading the Entrails of the Media

Last week, two interesting stories popped up involving California’s $3 billion stem cell research effort.

One of the stories dealt with a matter that could affect as many as 27 million people. The other involved less than 100.

One story involved creation of important linkages that could help speed up the transformation of stem cells into cures. The other concerned little more than a change of address. 

The story about the change of address was displayed on the front page of the largest circulation newspaper in Northern California, the San Francisco Chronicle, and appeared in many other outlets. (See here and here.) Not a word was reported in the mainstream media about the development that could affect the 27 million people afflicted with arthritis in this country.(See here and here.)

For many persons, such disparities in news are puzzling and frustrating, not to mention disturbing. Sort of like trying to find meaning by reading the entrails of animals. 

Stem cell research is exceedingly important, the reasoning goes, and how can those dolts in the press ignore it? More specifically, the situation poses a continuing challenge for California’s stem cell agency, which has a hard time breaking into ink except when it moves its headquarters a few miles from San Francisco to Oakland.

So how do editors and reporters make the decisions that lead to such disparities? The first thing to remember is that -- like of all us -- the news media are most comfortable doing the things they have always done. The treatment of these two stories follows a pattern that has been established over many decades.  Newsies like “horse race” stories – ones with clear winners and losers. In this case, San Francisco "lost" the headquarters of the stem cell agency and Oakland "won" it.

The move also fit with an ongoing news theme – skyrocketing office space costs in San Francisco – coupled with high housing costs and the current conflict between the impact of high tech on the city vs. the desire to return to a past that is perceived by many as more benign.

Additionally, the stem cell agency headquarters story is fundamentally local as opposed to the arthritis research, which is not solely about the San Francisco Bay Area.

The tale was easy to report. It did not require weeks of digging or lengthy interviews to understand the science. The story was basically handed to the news media as a result of the Aug. 17 item on the California Stem Cell Report, although the move has been around publicly at least since July 23.

At our request, one longtime observer of the California stem scene, who must remain anonymous, elaborated on the situation. 
“Well, you write a blog that catches the eye of a reporter/editor. It concerns a state agency that was lured to the city to help kick start biotech, to be a lynch pin, if you like, for a new regional research base. Ten years after arriving the agency is a victim of its own success, or the city’s success, or just the economy (choose your story line here), so you have a story about a state agency moving, a city that is experiencing soaring rents losing businesses like this, and another neighboring city that stands to benefit. You can then focus on the biotech angle - 'is the city doing enough to keep businesses here' - or the people angle or any angle except the only one that really matters, the science.
 “That results in a front page article on the local newspaper – they love to put local stories on the front because it is more attractive to potential readers, and put all the national/international wire stories inside – which then leads other local news outlets to follow along. Why the delay? Because most media outlets don’t have specialist reporters anymore so they rely on some other news outlet, usually newspapers, to dig up something interesting, and they can then follow along. Radio first usually, they are rapid responders and can get stories on the air very quickly, followed by other online media and then TV.”  
We should add that the treatment of the two stories has lessons that apply to dealing with the media generally.  If researchers want to get their stories out – as they should – the first thing to consider is the needs of the media. Work into the existing framework. Don’t try to create a new one. That may take longer than getting a stem cell treatment approved by the FDA.

Find a compelling angle, one that can be summarized in a couple of sentences. Speak English. Avoid jargon and technical-speak. Talking about a “chondrogenic drug candidate targeting resident mesenchymal stem cells” will never make the front page. Talking about a relatively simple therapy, the first of its kind for arthritis, has a much better chance.

Don’t expect to find relatively well-informed science reporters at news outlets. The few that once existed are mostly gone. Be a guide for editors and reporters and help them along by providing material that answers all their basic questions.

Finally, lower your expectations. The financial crunch on the news media means less space for science stories and fewer reporters to write them. But don’t be discouraged. A good story, properly presented can find a home at some point in the media. But it may not be tomorrow.

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