Stem Cells Immune From Presidential Pressures

When it comes to stem cell research, the U.S. president has little sway over the media and public opinion.

A study published this month in Newspaper Research Journal by two researchers at the University of Arizona found that news stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal were consistently positive toward stem cell research even though then-President George W. Bush opposed it.

Associate professor Shahira Fahmy and assistant professor Jeannine Relly, both from the UA School of Journalism, examined 218 news stories published from October 2004 through July 2006. They found that support for stem cell research in news stories increased even as Bush prepared to veto funding for increased research.

This is counter to the "Cascading Network Activation Model" that suggests leaders and elites set the agenda and the media and public step in line.

"We found that despite the president's outspoken opposition to embryonic stem cell research, the majority of coverage and public opinion remained in favor of the research," Fahmy said. "The media didn't play ball."

They were interested in the issue of stem cell research because of the intense public debate and political decisions. In August 2001, Bush declared a policy that would bar federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells.

As news coverage of the issue broadened, the Senate passed a bill to loosen restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research in 2006. The president vetoed the bill, even though polls showed that half to two-thirds of the public supported stem cell research.

Support for stem cell research also was found in news coverage, the study reported. Fahmy and Relly, working with Oklahoma State University researcher Wayne Wanta, determined that three-quarters of the stories portrayed stem cell research in a positive light.

They also found that while two-thirds of the sources included in the stories were "elites," such as experts and politicians, not one story used the president as a dominant source.

"Though former President George Bush may have set the agenda for the discussion about stem cell research, journalists covered multiple sides of the issue, as is the norm in the practice," Relly said. "This meant that the president was among a number of sources in the articles rather than the dominant source."

While elites, including presidents, have been found to influence press coverage and public opinion on other issues, it appears that in this situation, Bush had little influence. The question is whether similar disparity might be found on certain issues with the current president.

"I think it is time for us to see whether the same pattern occurred during the debate for health care reform under the new Obama administration," Fahmy said.

The study: Fahmy, S., Relly, J.  & Wanta, W. (2010). President's power to frame Stem Cell Views Limited.  Newspaper Research Journal, 31 (3), 62-74.