Sunday, September 11, 2005

Coverage is Right Medicine for Stem Cell Agency

News coverage of the first grants from the California stem cell agency pretty much delivered the message sought by its leaders.

"Stem Cell Grants Begin," "Medical Schools Get Stem Cell Grants," "Stem Cell Funds Awarded," "Stem Cell Agency Awards $39 million" -- those were some of the headlines.

Subordinated was the reality that the agency does not yet have the money. Even more deeply subordinated were complaints about the grant process from critics.

Which is just what stem cell chairman Robert Klein and president Zach Hall like to see. Hall told reporters the agency wanted to counter its critics and their negative message with a positive move. The two leaders also indicated they wanted to have grants ready in place to aid in their fundraising pitch to philanthropies.

What most people saw or heard across the country was The Associated Press story by Paul Elias. That is the one that turns up most often in Internet searches and also the one that would used by thousands of newspapers, radio and televisions.

He wrote, "California's $3 billion stem-cell agency began awarding its first research grants yesterday despite legal challenges that put its future in doubt. 'This is really a historic and important occasion for us,' said Zach Hall, interim president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine."

In California, the most thorough story appeared in The Sacramento Bee. Reporter Edie Lau wrote, “Selecting the recipients was an arduous process that took the board the better part of the day, and revealed some of the weaknesses in a system that is still being invented.”

David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and president of the California Institute of Technology, said the working group's recommendation to fund 60 percent of the applications was too generous,” Lau said.

“Citing the stringent standards of the National Institutes of Health, Baltimore said, 'Were we to go with 60 percent at NIH reviews, many of us scientists would be very uncomfortable with the quality.' "

Reporter Alex Raksin of the Los Angeles Times focused on grants to schools in the paper's circulation area. He did not mention until the fifth paragraph that no funds were available.

At the San Jose Mercury News, the first paragraph on reporter Steve Johnson's story said, "The board overseeing California's stem-cell research institute Friday awarded $12.5 million in training grants to 16 applicants around the state -- including five in the Bay Area -- despite not having the money yet to pay for them."

At the San Francisco Chronicle, David Perlman, the paper's science editor, wrote, "Leaders of California's $3 billion stem cell research agency announced their first multimillion-dollar grants Friday to train dozens of scientists in the field -- but where the money will come from remains uncertain."

The bulk of the material in all the stories dealt with the grants, how much, to whom and what they are for.

The coverage had some downsides, apart from the issue of funding. The story broke late on Friday on a day when other events continued to dominate the news. While it is unlikely that the grant announcement would have ever been front page news, one good way to bury a story is to run it out late for Saturday papers.

Also lost in the shuffle for the most part was the appointment of Hall as permanent president, which could have been peddled separately from the grants on another day as a good sign that the agency was moving forward. Repitition of a message is an important PR tool.

TV and radio coverage was largely missing, and is likely to continue to be missing unless the agency can generate events that play to the interests of those media.

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