Covering Ethical Debates about Medical Issues: Journalists in Nebraska Played a Role in Informing People about the Complexities of the Science and Ethics of Medical Research. (Medical Reporting)

By Rutledge, Kathleen | Nieman Reports, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Covering Ethical Debates about Medical Issues: Journalists in Nebraska Played a Role in Informing People about the Complexities of the Science and Ethics of Medical Research. (Medical Reporting)


Rutledge, Kathleen, Nieman Reports


Nebraskans know what to expect from the arrival of spring: sandhill cranes returning to the Platte River, forsythia bursting into yellow bloom, the Cornhusker football team rolling onto the practice field. But three years ago, spring brought with it news of something so new--and some would say so contrary to the rhythms of nature--that it stirred a troubled debate.

The revelation: Researchers at the state's medical center in Omaha had been using tissue from aborted fetuses to seek cures for diseases such as Parkinson's. Pro-life, pro-choice and other forces soon were fully engaged in strident discourse. State senators also began a contentious debate about whether to forbid the research. In the span of a few weeks, ordinary Nebraskans went from not even knowing that such experiments were possible to the discomfort of grappling with the ethics of what was happening.

It was during that troubled Nebraska spring that the idea for a reporting project called "Medical Ethics: Tough Choices" was born.

Journalists Inform the Public

The editorial board of the Lincoln Journal Star had asked for a briefing on the fetal tissue research from people who worked at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. In the closing moments of that meeting, a medical center official predicted this was just the beginning of ethical debates over state-sponsored medical research. This year debate focused on the use of fetal tissue. In future years, genetic profiling or animal organ transplants might be medical issues that spark discussion and debate.

Wouldn't it be better, I mused, if Nebraskans weren't startled by the next medical revelation? Wouldn't it be better if they had an opportunity to learn now about medical research at their state-financed medical center that some day might place before them issues that involve difficult ethical questions? Wouldn't debate be more informed, and perhaps more civil, if people had more information about aspects of medical research before it was underway?

No one could argue with the premise that it would be better to get people the information they need to weigh these ethical and political decisions.

Coming up with these ideas was the easy part. Out of these ideas grew our mission: to inform citizens and engage them in a thoughtful and civil discussion of the ethical implications of medical research. Now we needed to determine how best to do this. We settled on using the approach of civic journalism, because we wanted to reach not just scientists and other experts who have a natural interest in these topics, but also other members of our community. We wanted to encourage ordinary people to think and talk about these issues that sometimes seem disconnected from their lives. To engage the broader community, we joined forces with two local television stations and used the Internet. Through this partnership, and with the assistance of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, we worked to reinforce the sense that these are topics that a broader audience could--and should--ponder.

What follows are the basic elements of our series:

* A series of in-depth reports that appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star on four successive Sundays in January 2001. University of Nebraska Medical Center scientists explored gene therapy, stem cell research, xenotransplantation and cloning.

* A survey of opinion in Nebraska about these areas of research.

* A televised public forum in which people who weren't specialists pondered the ethical implications of medical research. A panel of citizens sat on the stage of the auditorium. As needed, the moderators called on experts seated in the audience--doctors, ethicists, interest group representatives, state senators--to further the discussion. The moderators were careful to keep the momentum with the citizens, not with the experts.

* A Web site (http://net.unl.edu/ newsFeat/med_eth/me_index. …

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