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Mediagenic ethics.

Mediagenic Ethics

Who has not had the experience of reading an article about some new medical controversy and finding--buried deep within the text--the (obligatory) quote from an ethicist or two? One standard form is the "there are real moral problems here" line, usually with a variant of "technology creates new ethical dilemmas" topped off with a flurry of wild and frightening questions. (What if people try to sell their brains for transplantation: Who gets to keep the money?) Another format is the "clash of ethicists": Expert number one says "I can't see anything wrong with that" while expert number two warns that it is the greatest threat to our moral fiber since back seats were put in automobiles.

A smaller number of people (but probably a substantial fraction of those who earn a living doing "bioethics") have contributed these snappy quotes. As difficult as it may be to imagine, the experience of seeing one's carefully chosen words of wisdom reduced to "sound bites" or their print equivalent can even generate a modicum of sympathy for politicians' treatment by the pess.

But it would be absurd to believe that journalists are the crass villains and ethicists the innocent victims. Most of the journalists who write regularly about ethics in medicine and science are thoughtful, responsible professionals who are sophisticated about bioethics. And ethicists are not immune to the desire to see one's name in the paper or mug on the TV. (It does wonders in comforting parents and in-laws who never could understand what you do in your work: they may still not understand, but if Dan Rather thinks it's important, by golly it must be!).

Those participating in a conference on "The Media and Bioethics" held by the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine last May heard a rare request: not to be treated too deferentially by the press. The plea was made by bioethicists who felt that journalists were too inclined to endow the mantle of "expert" on bioethicists when the very nature of expertise in the field was in controversy. The journalists, in turn, seemed to feel that reporting on bioethics was not much different than reporting on any other set of issues.

Lee Koromvokis, from the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, Alan Otten of the Wall Street Journal, Allison Bass from the Boston Globe, John Fried, editorial pages editor of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and Kathy Kerr and B.D. Colen, Pulitzer Prize winners for Newsday were among the journalists who participated. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association and Marcia Angell of the New England Journal of Medicine represented medical journals. Loma Linda surgeon Leonard Bailey came to describe his experiences as the center of media attention. People from the field of bioethics included Dan Wikler, Stuart Youngner, and this author.

The two-day conference opened quickly with complaints. Journalists took their lumps. Ethicists said that journalists often do not understand what ethicists can and cannot legitimately offer; whether ethicists' conclusions deserve any special consideration, reporting conclusions stripped of their arguments serves no one's interest. The media seems much more likely to pick up dramatic stories featuring attractive, sympathetic victims. Poor, pregnant women lacking decent prenatal care are just not mediagenic.

Ethicists and physicians received their share of criticism. People who were blisteringly critical of one another in conversations with the producer prior to broadcast could be the soul of gentility on the air: the program, in consequence, a snorer. Some individuals become known as "media hounds"; new organizations deal with this in different ways from pressure to using a wider variety of sources to an outright ban. Journalists candidly admitted, though, that a reliable source of snappy quotes was likely, in a pinch, to get the call.

The journalists were diffident about ascribing any great social purpose to their work; some at least rejected efforts to assign to them the responsibility of educating the public. But they heartily agreed that they could tell good journalism from bad and that the examples cited by their critics were instances of incompetent journalism. On their part they urged ethicists and physicians to be forthcoming with the press; to not pretend to be experts when they were not; even to take the initiative and alert them when important stories were not being covered.

The ethicists urged their counter-parts in journalism to learn more about bioethics; to ask potential sources outright who is most knowledgeable on the particular issue; to discern and describe arguments rather than mere opinions.

We ended by discussing what concretely could be done to enhance the quality of interactions between journalists on the one hand and ethicists and physicians on the other, the quality of reporting on bioethics, and ultimately the understanding citizens have of these issues. Our suggestions: get to know each other's needs and worlds better. Journalists could speak informally with groups of medical students, explaining what they do, and what physicians should know if approached by reporters. Journalists could learn more about medicine and bioethics through fellowships and the like, more of which should be offered.
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Title Annotation:journalism and bioethics
Author:Murray, Thomas H.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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