Stem cells, loaded words, and the New York Times.

Science, technology, and life.
May 19 2005 9:31 AM

Clone of Silence

Stem cells, loaded words, and the New York Times.

Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney proposed four amendments to a bill supporting stem cell research. The Boston Globe headlined the story, "Romney urges changes to stem cell bill—Adds amendment to prohibit cloning." The Globe's fourth paragraph explained, "The governor has echoed the hopes of many that stem cell research may one day find treatments for diseases, and he shares the conviction that the research is important to the state … But the governor has split with a large majority in the Legislature over cloning human cells." If you read the Globe, you get the impression Romney supports stem cell research but opposes cloning.

That isn't the impression you get if you read the New York Times. The Times' report on the same proposal never mentioned cloning. "New Limits Are Proposed for Research on Stem Cells," said the headline. The lede paragraph explained only that Romney proposed "excluding a type of embryonic stem cell research" (ESCR). The story never mentioned that Romney supported ESCR apart from cloning.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Advertisement

The difference is enormous. In a poll taken two months ago by advocates of therapeutic cloning (also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT), 70 percent of likely Massachusetts voters supported ESCR, but 84 percent opposed cloning to produce a human birth. The word "cloning" was so radioactive that the pollsters omitted it from their questions about SCNT. They called the product of SCNT an "altered egg" and emphasized that "no sperm is used." When they asked voters to choose between pro-SCNT and anti-SCNT arguments, they left out the bottom line of the anti-SCNT argument: that cloned embryos would be destroyed. Instead, they said the argument's bottom line was that SCNT would "lead to cloning babies"—an empirical claim most voters rejected. Politically, "stem cells" is a winner. "Cloning" is a loser.

This is why the Times' terminology matters. I first noticed it on Feb. 10, when the Times declared, "Massachusetts Governor Opposes Stem Cell Work." I blinked. I had thought Romney supported stem cell research. I looked at the lede. It said he opposed "a type of embryonic stem cell research." What type? I read five paragraphs in vain. The sixth paragraph said he opposed "a type of embryonic stem cell research that many scientists consider extremely promising: research that involves creating human embryos specifically for scientific experimentation." I grinned at the "extremely promising" jab. Still, there was no mention that the research in question required embryo destruction. Maybe it wasn't cloning. Not until the 11th paragraph did that word surface.

The Globe showed no such reluctance. "Romney draws fire on stem cells—Opposes the use of cloned embryos," it announced the next day. The lede said the governor "did not object to stem cell research involving embryos from fertility clinics." The word "cloning" appeared in the second paragraph.

I thought the Times might ratchet down its slant. Instead, it ratcheted it up. "Massachusetts Democrats Object to Stem Cell Research Ban," the paper reported on Feb. 11. I blinked again. Was Romney prohibiting ESCR altogether? The lede said he proposed "to outlaw a form" of ESCR. Cloning? Surely the Times wouldn't use the same euphemism two days in a row. I scoured eight paragraphs but found nothing. Not until the ninth did the article clarify Romney's support for ESCR per se. In the 10th, the word "cloning" finally appeared.

Over the last three months, the Globe has repeatedly clarified Romney's position. In March, it reported that he "offered conditional support for using public funds to support stemcell research." An April story was headlined, "Romney finds middle ground on stem cells." The BostonHerald has drawn the same distinctions. "Romney seeks stemcell option; Pols push bill to create new embryos," the Herald reported in February. "Gov backs stem cell study with no cloning," it added in March. "Lawmakers work out bill to allow stem-cell cloning," it announced a month later. Herald stories routinely mention at the top that Romney supports ESCR. On April 1, the words "cloning" (in a Romney quote) and embryo destruction finally appeared high in a Times article. But by last week, they were gone again.

Romney is no innocent. Neither is Pam Belluck, the Times reporter who covers him. They know the word "cloning" has been used by conservatives to make people think therapeutic and reproductive cloning are a package deal. Maybe that's why Romney ran radio ads a few weeks ago charging that "cloning would mean creating new human life, new embryos, just for experimentation." When I asked Belluck about her avoidance of "cloning," she explained that she uses "words that have become part of the political debate" only if she can "indicate the context, political or otherwise, in which those words are being used, or the fact that the words themselves have become part of the debate." In short, she avoids the word because Romney has politicized it.

Well, yes. But "stem cell research" has been politicized, too. That phrase is now used by liberals to make people think that politicians who support publicly funded adult stem cell research, publicly funded research on some embryonic stem cell lines, and privately funded research on the remaining embryonic stem cell lines are against stem cell research. If you write in a headline that the governor "opposes stem cell work," and you write in the lede that he's trying to stop "a type of stem cell research," and you bury the description of that research, and you substitute the euphemism "experimentation" for "destruction," you aren't eliminating bias. You're adding it.

I'm sure it doesn't look that way to writers and editors at the Times. I'm sure they're calling it as they see it. But there's a word for bias you can't see: Yours.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.