“The all-consuming news story in biology last year – this decade, really – is the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 system and its practical application for gene editing,” biologist Stuart Firestein wrote in 2017.1 Justifying this attention is the fact that CRISPR/Cas92 makes it possible to make targeted, heritable genetic changes in a selected sequence of the DNA of a living cell. “Already the molecular system, known as Crispr, is being used to make genetically engineered laboratory animals more easily than could be done before, with changes in multiple genes,” noted a 2014 article in The New York Times. “Scientists hope Crispr might also be used for genomic surgery, as it were, to correct errant genes that cause disease.” 3 In December 2015, Science magazine named CRISPR its breakthrough of the year.4
Because changes to the germline are passed to successive generations, CRISPR’s capacities elicited the prospect of cures at the same time as they raised ethical concerns. “Because CRISPR is poised to revolutionize research,” a 2015 editorial in Science said, an international community of scientists gathered at a summit to address the implications of this technique for modifying human germ cells and embryos, articulating guidelines that clarify the ethical bounds for researchers, funders, and publishers. “With questions of safety, need and ethics still unanswered,” noted The Los Angeles Times, “the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine; the United Kingdom’s Royal Society; and the Chinese Academy of Science agreed that ‘it would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing.’” 5 The concerns voiced at this summit were reflected in the press. A subhead in The Guardian read: “‘Deep and disturbing questions’ surrounding diseases and designer babies examined at summit as experiments get closer to altering human heredity.” 6 Shortly thereafter, Congress barred the use of federal funds to review drugs or biological products related to human germline modification.
Two years later, the scientific community generated headlines with another statement about the ethics of germline editing. “Recent scientific advances have made genome editing more efficient, precise, and flexible than ever before,” noted the 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) titled “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance.”7 The report continued: “These advances have spurred an explosion of interest from around the globe in the possible ways in which genome editing can improve human health. The speed at which these technologies are being developed and applied has led many policymakers and stakeholders to express concern about whether appropriate systems are in place to govern these technologies and how and when the public should be engaged in these decisions.”
A recent Google news search using the acronym CRISPR yielded more than a half-million results. Since media reporting is the lens through which the public is exposed to debates about scientific advances, we narrowed the focus in this second report of the Annenberg Science Media Monitor to determining how the media have framed the ethical issues associated with CRISPR/Cas9. The Science Media Monitor, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center that is supported by a grant from the Rita Allen Foundation, examines the ways in which scientific discovery is portrayed in the news.
To examine the media coverage of ethical issues involving CRISPR, a team of three coders examined five years’ worth of news headlines elicited in a search for “CRISPR/Cas9” and “ethics” (for search strategy and inter-coder reliability see Appendix).
The results produced 857 articles from mid-2012 to mid-2017. A headline analysis suggests that:
- Coverage that includes a reference to ethics is more often framed positively or as balanced than framed negatively
- Recurrent hopes and fears shape and are shaped by communication about this new tool
- A substantial spike in coverage occurred in December 2015, when the NASEM convened a summit on the issue and Congress voted to prohibit the Food and Drug Administration from using federal funds to review drugs or biological products relating to human germline modification
- As one might expect, uses that affect humans, including human food consumption, are a prime focus of ethical inquiry.
1. Coverage is more positive or balanced than negative
2. Recurrent hopes and fears reflected in headlines
Positive headlines largely tracked the discovery narrative that is the central storyline used by media to portray significant scientific findings. In this narrative, an honorable scientist or group of scientists engages in forms of inquiry that lead to the discovery of knowledge that has a specified value. Headlines portraying CRISPR positively can be grouped into one of the following six categories:
Profiles of biochemists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier who discovered that enzymes could be used to engage in genome editing
Descriptions of the process, uses, and outcomes of CRISPR
The transformative nature of science
A scientific appraisal of the value of the technology
Research in progress
Balanced headlines tend to frame the science in terms of trade-offs between hopes and fears, benefits and risks, while neutral headlines focus on the debate:
Benefit and risk
Describe or call for debate within the scientific community about the technology’s ethical implications
Express a need for caution in using the technology
Negative headlines capture fears of scientific overreach, highlight activities inconsistent with societal values, or raise concerns about unanticipated or poorly understood consequences. Headlines portraying CRISPR negatively can be broadly placed in one of the following six categories:
Science is moving too fast toward ends at odds with accepted values
CRISPR uses violate nature
Scientists are playing God by editing genes
The technology may have unintended consequences, including misuse in weapons of war and misuse by amateurs
Expressions of concern by the public
Unrealistic expectations are being raised
3. The 2015 spike in coverage dealing with ethics
Questions about ethics moved into media coverage when genes in human embryos were edited. The number of reports that include a reference to ethics spiked when an international group of scientists met to explore issues surrounding gene editing and again when Congress prohibited federal funds to review drugs or biological products “in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification.”
- August 17, 2012 – Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier, and Martin Jinek of the University of California, Berkeley, publish a landmark paper demonstrating the use of CRISPR/Cas9 to edit DNA at specific sites. (0 articles in the 14 days following the announcement)
- February 15, 2013 – Feng Zhang of Harvard University publishes a paper outlining the use of CRISPR to edit the genomes of both mice and humans. (0 articles)
- April 18, 2015 – Chinese scientists are reported to be the first to edit genes in human embryos, sparking controversy over the ethics and consequences of human germline editing. (49 articles)
- December 1, 2015 – NASEM convenes the International Summit on Gene Editing, gathering international experts to discuss issues surrounding gene-editing research. (93 articles)
- December 18, 2015 – As part of the law authorizing the federal budget, Congress prevented “public dollars from being used to review drugs or biological products related to the genetic modification of human embryos.”8 (33 articles)
- February 1, 2016 – Britain approves gene editing in human embryos. (62 articles)
- January 26, 2017 – Researchers at the Salk Institute report the use of CRISPR in the creation of human-pig chimeras, developed to grow human organs. (10 articles)
Importantly, this pattern of coverage suggests that the December 1 NASEM summit elicited a level of attention consistent with a capacity to help shape policy makers’ perceptions of the ethical issues surrounding uses of this breakthrough tool. The meeting was mentioned in 24 of the articles appearing in our search.
From the February 2017 release date of the report “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance” to early September 2018, 108 newspaper articles explicitly mentioned the meeting.
4. Uses that affect humans, including human food consumption, are a prime focus of ethical inquiry
During the period that we studied, a number of events involving the ethics of using the CRISPR technique were covered more frequently than others. These included the first human embryos to be genetically modified using the technology, a resulting discussion of “designer babies,” fears about eugenics, genetic modifications or genetically modified organisms (GMO), the existence of mosquitoes engineered to combat disease transmission, and genetically modified pig chimeras used to grow human organs.
To determine how the media have covered ethical issues raised by the development and use of CRISPR/Cas9, a team of coders analyzed the headlines of 857 news accounts published over the five-year period from July 2012 to July 2017. A LexisNexis English language database search was performed for the terms (CRISPR) AND (ethic!) from July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2017. This examination includes headlines that framed print and online news, magazine stories, blogs, and television news reports.
|Source type||Number of headlines|
|Source type||Number of headlines||Percentage of headlines||Alpha (inter-coder agreement)|
(CRISPR/Cas9 is shorthand for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Cas9 refers to CRISPR associated protein 9).
Pollack, A. (2014, March 3). A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/health/a-powerful-new-way-to-edit-dna.html
Science News Staff. (2015, December 17). And Science’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year is…. Science Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/12/and-science-s-2015-breakthrough-year
Healy, M. (2015, December 3). International gene editing conference declines to ban eventual use in humans. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-gene-editing-ban-20151203-story.html
Associated Press. (2015, December 1). Scientists debate ethics of human gene editing at international summit. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/dec/01/human-gene-editing-international-summit
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24623
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 (Public Law 114-113). (2016, November 9). Retrieved from http://scipol.duke.edu/content/consolidated-appropriations-act-2016-public-law-114-113
The Annenberg Science Media Monitor is supported by a grant from the Rita Allen Foundation.