Errors of Omission Can Distort As Well

Sometimes reporters get what they say right, but still short-change readers for lack of a few simple words of elaboration.

In a story today about Christian conservatives and the upcoming Republican convention, Anne-Marie O’Connor writes: “[Michael] Reagan said he would not use the podium to delve into contentious issues, such as government backing for stem cell research, which the Bush administration supports in a limited form.”

It’s technically true that the Bush administration supports government backing for “a limited form” of stem cell research. The president announced three years ago that the government would provide funding only for research into existing cell lines, of which there were said to be 60 worldwide.

But it’s since emerged that only 21 of those lines are available to researchers, and a number of the 60 lines Bush cited have failed to become viable — a fact that sharply limits federal grants to fund ambitious research.

As the Boston Globe reported in May, “it has become clear to American scientists that the Bush policy has put them at a disadvantage compared with many of their colleagues overseas.” The New England Journal of Medicine recently expressed concern that because of Bush’s policy, promising research opportunities are being missed, or soon will be. And, along with John Kerry and Nancy and Ron Reagan, many scientists are calling for a less restrictive approach. Recent polls show that most Americans agree.

O’Connor didn’t have the space here to cover all the ins-and-outs of an admittedly complex issue, but there was a concise way to render the information with more specificity than the one she offered. To wit: “[Michael] Reagan said he would not use the podium to delve into contentious issues, such as the president’s policy of funding stem cell research only for certain stem cell lines which existed as of August, 2001, which has been criticized by Democrats and many scientists as overly restrictive.”

Stem cell research has become a hot topic in the presidential campaign. That means reporters need to do more than just characterize the candidates’ stances on contentious issues in ways that are technically accurate. They also need to place those stances within the context of whatever debate swirls around them.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.