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This entry analyzes the relationship between bioethics and social communication, taking into account both the traditional media and the new ones (especially those related to the Internet). It will be important to see why bioethics is frequently present in the media and the importance of this fact, particularly in connection with the phenomenon of the “globalization of bioethics.” After considering certain problems in that relationship, some suggestions will be made for a better use of the resources of the media in the ﬁeld of bioethics.
It is a fact that the social media present issues of bioethics and talk about bioethics itself. They do it very frequently. In our circumstances today, we must consider both the “old” media (newspapers and magazines, radio and television, cinema, etc.) and the “new” media, upon the arrival of the Internet (websites, blogs, and social networks). The media play an important role in the phenomenon of the “globalization of bioethics” – the fact that the issues of bioethics are now studied, discussed, taught, and regulated, in all geographic regions and cultures of the planet. This entry will discuss the reasons why, in our globalized world, the media, old and new, talk much about bioethics and what is the link between bioethics and the media. Subsequently, the importance and the inﬂuence that the media have in the ﬁeld of bioethics will be examined. From this analysis will emerge the need to consider some of the problems that arise in this relationship between bioethics and the media. Finally, some suggestions will be offered as a means to improve that interaction.
The Fact: Bioethics Is In The Mass Media
The media speak often of bioethical issues and bioethicists speak most often in the media. The media cannot ignore topics of great interest and social impact such as those subjects now considered classic in bioethics (abortion, medically assisted reproduction, organ transplants, euthanasia), nor do they want to set aside the last frontiers of life sciences (neurosciences, stem cell research, medical human enhancement). Bioethicists are often invited to speak by the media; or they choose to be regularly involved in it; or sometimes bioethicists complain about the way journalists present some delicate and complex bioethical problems.
Somehow, it can be said that mass media and bioethics need each other. Newspapers and magazines, radio and television, and cinema are some of the traditional forms of communication media, but now it also includes the new media, present in the Internet and accessible from any computer and any tablet or smartphone.
Typing on the Google search engine (in May 2015) the word “bioethics,” it appeared in 1,740,000 documents. Numbers are also very high if you look for this term in other languages: in French “Bioéthique,” 1,270,000; in German “Bioethik,” 399,000; and in Spanish or Italian “Bioetica,” 670,000. Even more impressive numbers are obtained if the search is on some of the bioethical topics: “abortion,” 5,330,000 and “stem cells,” 1,830,000.
The Web has become in recent years a tremendous resource for global communication and the exchange of global information and documents. One can speak of a “virtual community” that “browses” in the rivers and streams of this complex and anarchical network always growing and constantly on the move. Precisely for this reason, the Internet has also become a mirror of the cultural and social reality of our time. And the imposing presence of the issues of bioethics in the maze of this network is an unmistakable sign of the fact that bioethics itself has become one of the most signiﬁcant and characteristic cultural phenomena of our time.
The Internet allows instant and easy access to the content of virtually all classic media. It also allows anyone to publish their own materials and thoughts in an easy and economical way. Recently, with the arrival of blogs, forums, and social networks, the issues of bioethics are treated also in a multidirectional, dialogic, and interactive manner.
New Media And The Phenomenon Of The “Globalization Of Bioethics”
The irruption of the Internet has contributed substantially to the phenomenon of “globalization of bioethics.” Bioethics and its topics are treated and discussed in various ways in all countries of the world, in all societies and cultures. Undoubtedly, bioethics is primarily global because life is global, as is the pursuit of health with the help of medicine, as is the human desire to discern between good and evil and to lead ethically the personal behavior and that of others.
But bioethics has also globalized because of global communication and information on the issues of life and health that the Internet has made easy, fast, and truly universal.
Today, a person in Australia can read the news of bioethics published in an American newspaper at the same time that the New York citizen does (indeed, she could read it before, because of the time zone). One who lives in the Argentine Patagonia can read the scientiﬁc journals or the publications of bioethics as can do the person in Alaska, Europe, or Africa.
Not only that, these various persons can also converse and discuss in an immediate way on these issues through social networks, now spread throughout the world.
Globalization, therefore, of data, news, and knowledge but also globalization of problems, opinions, trends, and behaviors is deﬁnitely one of the causes of those tensions that sometimes occur between some governments and several Internet global services.
Today the only barrier against globalization is language, and even this is not insurmountable, due to the expansion of the English language and the use of computer programs for automatic translation.
Why Do The Mass Media Talk About Bioethics
The observation of the fact that the media is interested in bioethics and that it is also present globally in the new media may seem trivial. It is worthwhile, however, that we wonder why there is this signiﬁcant presence.
The media speak of bioethics because this affects the “public,” that is, a large number of people. The issues it deals with are indeed important for individuals and for society. In fact, the problems faced by bioethics have to do with life, death, health, science, and the future of humanity.
Often these issues or cases present complex ethical problems and distressing dilemmas. They frequently trigger lively controversies, with the participation of experts, institutions, but also, the general public. Today, people participate in heated discussions at home or in the restaurant on euthanasia, assisted reproduction, cloning, and genetically modiﬁed organisms.
The media can be also interested in the issues of bioethics because it is easy to present them with a pinch of morbidity, more or less hidden, which attracts the attention of the most distracted. Bioethics “sells” easily.
It is interesting to consider the issues of bioethics having in mind the characteristics the journalists consider in order to identify something as “newsworthy”:
– Novelty: often the bioethical issues are connected with some new scientiﬁc achievements, new laws, and new situations.
– Signiﬁcance: many bioethical issues are important for a great number of persons and for society in general, since life, health, and human dignity are at stake in them.
– Human interest: frequently, the problems and dilemmas in bioethics are connected to personal stories, in which human values and emotions are involved.
– Proximity: in some cases there is an intuitive perception that those cases and those problems, even if they occur far away from us, touch us closely.
Similar considerations can be done in relation to the presence of bioethics in the Internet.
The Relevance Of The Media For Bioethics
Somehow, the media cannot today ignore the issues of bioethics. Conversely, bioethics cannot do without the mass media. According to Tishchenko and Yudin, bioethics, by its very nature, needs the social media (cfr. Tishchenko and Yudin 2011, pp. 8–13). Until recently, in their view, the role of the media in the ﬁeld of medicine was reduced to that of “popularization”: the presentation and dissemination of complex issues in an understandable way for the general public. But the role of the media in the case of bioethics goes far beyond mere “popularization.” Actually, bioethics emerged thanks to the awareness that biological and medical sciences must be accompanied by extrascientiﬁc, human, ethical, and social considerations. One of the facts that led to the birth of bioethics was the creation of the ﬁrst ethics committee, established at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, to decide which patients should access to the just invented machine for hemodialysis. The committee was composed of seven persons who were not physicians. Albert Jonsen (1997, 1998) states that the constitution of the committee created an important new persuasion that would impact forever on the development of bioethics: doctors cannot solve alone some critical ethical dilemmas. It became clear that doctors should work closely with specialists in various humanistic ﬁelds, as well as with the public.
Bioethics, in fact, focuses on the effort to help make correct decisions from an ethical standpoint in the ﬁeld of research and medical or biological interventions. Given that decisions should be made by patients (or the patient’s families in some cultures), it is necessary that they are adequately informed and have the opportunity to learn, through public debate, the various views and opinions on a particular bioethical issue.
The media allow access to necessary information and to know and be part of the public dialogue on bioethical issues. Also, bioethicists, aware that the issues dealt by them are in the public interest, have, in using the media, an important instrument to know the problems that arise and concern society.
In this sense, “Bioethics [.. .] is critically dependent on the mass media, where such discussions most organically reside and without which the ﬁeld simply could not exist” (Tishchenko and Yudin 2011, p. 8).
Speaking about the importance of the media, it is also important to consider their real inﬂuence: “News media accounts of issues in bioethics gain signiﬁcance to the extent that the media inﬂuence public policy and inform personal decision making” (Goodman 1999, p. 181). It is clear that the impact of mass media – already very well studied in terms of their psychological and sociological effect – plays an important role in the conﬁguration of the vision and understanding of the general public about these issues. Moreover, being frequently problems that are really new and, therefore, not studied systematically in the years of schooling, the only information and formation that the vast majority of people receive comes from the media.
It is true that the information, opinions, and messages expressed in the media do not necessarily affect deeply in each individual publication or talk show. But the frequent repetition of a particular message creates a trend in the public opinion that can become deeply rooted and universal. As Peter Simonson says, “[.. .] people often encounter the media in half-distracted ways, while cooking dinner or waiting in a doctor’s ofﬁce [… but] it is the broader, repeated patterns of media texts that are signiﬁcant, for it is these that are most likely to register with audiences” (Simonson 2002, p. 36).
This author analyzes some of the effects generally caused by the media, applied to bioethics. First, the media affect in giving to bioethics and bioethical issues (but also to scholars and institutions of bioethics), a “public status.” He quotes Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton: “the mass media bestow prestige and enhance the authority… of selected policies, persons, and groups” simply by giving them attention, “quite apart from any editorial support” (Lazarsfeld and Merton 1960, pp. 492–512). This way, also in the ﬁeld of bioethics, “stories appearing in the media confer status on the ideas, institutions, and people they portray, regardless of the speciﬁc content or spin of those stories.” The media, in fact, contribute greatly to establish the themes and issues that count. It is the effect called “agenda setting”: “news doesn’t so much tell us what to think but instead what to think about” (Simonson 2002, p. 35).
Finally, there is also the phenomenon of the “two-step ﬂow”: the issues, cases, and opinions launched by the mass media spread further, in personal conversations, replicated by people especially interested in the topic. This phenomenon is strengthened today in an extraordinary way with the instruments for interaction created by the social networks. News and opinions can circulate in a very fast and wide way thanks to the easy “sharing” that one can do with his “friends” in the network; some of them will share them with their friends. News, opinions, and cases can easily become, as people say today, “viral.” These new forms of communication have undoubtedly an important role by encouraging the dialogue and discussion, sharing of views and values which, as it was said before, form part of the very nature of bioethics. The awareness of the importance of the media in the ﬁeld of bioethics leads to the consideration of some of the problems that arise in the relationship between these two realities.
Some Problems And Conflicts
According to some authors, there is a kind of “dissatisfaction” among bioethicists in connection with the way the media treat the issues and problems of bioethics. Among bioethicists who have spoken in this sense are, for example, Albert Jonsen and James Rachels (Simonson 2002, pp. 32–35).
Perhaps in part for this reason, there is, as some experts notice, an inadequate attention by bioethicists in general on the relationship with the mass media. Others point to a certain reluctance of bioethicists to intervene and participate in the public debate through the media. Leaving this task to the journalists, they then complain that the latter present the problems of bioethics in an inadequate or completely wrong fashion.
On the contrary, some consider that bioethicists, as other members of the academic world, are often too eager to appear in the newspapers or in the television screen. Some bioethicists criticize their colleagues of excessive appearances in the mass media. They would be motivated by a vain desire of public notoriety and would be superﬁcial in the way that they, too, treat the problems of bioethics (cfr. Andre et al. 1999).
All this highlights some intrinsic problems in the relationship between bioethics and the media. It is almost as if they were two individuals forced to relate, in a situation of frequent conﬂict. In fact, the difﬁculties of this correlation are not merely circumstantial, but come from the different nature of these two realities, bioethics and social communication (cfr. Evans 1999). By their very nature, the newspapers and other media pay attention to the ﬂeeting and transient issues addressed in bioethics. They identify and focus on what is current and newsworthy, as said before. Necessarily, they deal with issues that happen now, and, after a short time, these issues are not interesting anymore to them.
Often communicators prefer human stories and treat them emphasizing their emotional, dramatic, and even polemical aspects. Contrariwise, bioethics deals with problems that are complex, which sometimes require a range of knowledge in different disciplines: biology and medicine, ethics, and law. Bioethics deals with issues that are of public interest, but that many times require a philosophical deepening. For example, it is necessary to have a conception of human life and death in order to reﬂect on some problems connected to the end of life or the research with human embryos. For this reason, bioethics requires a thoughtful contemplation and a “reﬂective conversation” with colleagues and other members of society.
Many issues addressed by bioethics require an analysis that must be necessarily detailed and lengthy; one cannot adequately explain certain ethical problems in a few words, especially for the general public.
The difﬁcult relationship of the two areas, mass media and bioethics, is also linked to the difﬁculties of the relationship between mass media and science. According to some authors, several communication problems in bioethics are related to the communication of science. Unsolved problems in social communication of science will generate problems in the understanding of bioethical issues (cfr. Balistreri 2004).
Some years ago, Nature published an editorial speaking about the “decline of science journalism.” The article says: “[.. .] the general feeling is that the quality of science coverage in the conventional media is declining as is the media’s ability to play a watchdog role in science, ferreting out fraud or other misconduct” (Editorial 2009).
That scientiﬁc information is especially problematic is demonstrated by the fact that the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) has decided to publish its own code of ethics, although there are almost 50 different codes for journalists (in the USA only). They did it because they perceive that none of those codes address the unique challenges of covering complex health-care topics.
Scientiﬁc information, and speciﬁcally that in medicine, has the same problems or very similar to those mentioned earlier about bioethics. If they are journalists to inform and communicate on issues of medicine or bioethics, often one can sense the lack of an adequate preparation in the various disciplines involved in this discipline (in addition to the problems of speed, brevity, and superﬁciality, earlier discussed). If they are doctors or bioethicists to intervene in the newspapers or in television, their lack of mastery of a language and a style appropriate to those media is easy to perceive (Nelson 1999).
In all this, one has to face the reality of the growing and intrusive new media, especially those related to the Internet and mobile devices. The abovementioned editorial of Nature attributes the decline of science journalism in a good part to the phenomenon of the World Wide Web. The Internet is causing, among other things, the reduction of the work of the science journalists within the traditional media (especially newspapers, radio, and television). Much of the population goes now to the Internet to look for information, opinions, and so on. But people, in general, are not interested in searching information about certain topics if they do not receive a ﬁrst alert on them; something that often happens thanks to the traditional media. That raises a new problem concerning the relationship between old and new means of communication, and bioethicists must know this relationship if they want to use adequately any kind of media.
On the one hand, the new media add speed to speed, precariousness to precariousness. News and opinions appear on the Web not a day, but a minute after the fact. With the same speed with which the text or video appeared in the Net, it may disappear from it.
On the other hand, the Web allows authors to devote more space to news and especially to the exposition of their views. Using the Internet pages and blogs, bioethicists can express themselves, explaining also the necessary details and indepth scientiﬁc or philosophical considerations. Furthermore, they can express their thoughts, in a short manner or in a more articulated talk, in audio and video recordings.
There is also the possibility of using interactive systems, such as forums and social networks.
With these tools, in addition to express their thoughts, the bioethicists may also provoke dialogues and discussions or intervene in them. This way they can somehow “test” the thought and feeling of the people on the issues of bioethics. But, obviously, there is the risk, even more than with the traditional media, of superﬁciality and ambiguity. It is interesting to note that some organizations of physicians have created professional guidelines on the use of the social networks (cfr. DeCamp 2013). They are conscious of the importance of these means and also of the fact that their use may be wrong and must be properly oriented. This means that the bioethicists who want to use these means properly must know them, understand their dynamics and their limits, and learn their language.
It is unrealistic to think that the mass media will stop talking about the issues of bioethics or pretend that they change their nature or their fundamental characteristics. Rather, it would be desirable that bioethicists pay more attention to the media and to their relationship with bioethics.
For this purpose, it would be good if bioethicists are more aware of the importance of the media and try to better understand the beneﬁts that can result from a good relationship with them. As it was said above, the media contribute, if nothing else, at least to bringing to the attention of the general public the problems studied by bioethics.
It would be important to help the professional journalists to deepen their awareness of their great responsibility to adequately communicate such complex and important issues as those of bioethics. This awareness should prompt them to turn seriously to the reliable sources of information and to properly gather the opinions of experts in bioethics. Equally, the sense of responsibility will lead them to try to move in the limits imposed by the nature of the mass media but without failing in an excess of oversimpliﬁcation or hyper-emotion.
They should apply the four principles proposed by G. Schwitzer for the journalism in the health arena: professionalism, autonomy, accuracy, and accountability (cfr. Schwitzer 2004).
It would also be desirable that journalism regain the important role of supervision and public consciousness it had during the 1950s and 1960s, when it served as a kind of “early warning system” in front of the ethical issues raised by the great medical advances: a role that seems to be now considered less important, due to the spread of bioethics itself (cfr. Rosenfeld 1999).
For their part, bioethicists can better exploit the potential of the mass media. They can help journalists to understand and investigate the ethical issues they wish to bring to the general public, through interviews or explanatory texts. They can also take action by writing or speaking in the ﬁrst person in the media. Especially in this case, they should learn the language and style that makes effective communication in and through the media, accepting to be advised and even formed by communication experts.
Moreover, for the bioethicists who are aware of the phenomenon of “globalization of bioethics,” the use of the new media can be very interesting. On the one hand, thanks to them they can now get any kind of global information to have a wide view of the problems affecting different places, cultures, and religions. On the other hand, they can make use of those same new means to spread the messages they consider globally important. Finally, they can elicit dialogues and discussions through the Internet, easily and efﬁciently.
It seems opportune to take into consideration the four “provisos” proposed by M. Evans when he speaks of the relationship of bioethicists with the media (cfr. Evans 1999). First, bioethicists should not think that all the issues that are important to bioethics may be processed through the “window” of newspapers or usefully be treated even in the most serious media. For that same reason it is important not to allow that the “agenda of bioethics” in general and even the identiﬁcation of what is central and what is peripheral to it be dictated by what primarily interests the media. It is a legitimate task of bioethics to help to orient the really relevant social issues without letting the topics be dictated by the criteria of newsworthiness. It is suitable, therefore, that bioethicists are able to identify relevant issues, certainly thanks to the information and instances exposed by the media but also through the dialogue between bioethicists themselves. Further, the bioethicists, who may know cases, people, and data which are signiﬁcantly sensitive, must respect the conﬁdentiality as a moral duty, mandatory for journalists but also for themselves. Finally, the two parties (journalists and bioethicists) should maintain a mutual ethical scrutiny, although respecting the role of the other party. The bioethicist must have an attitude of critical attention to the way the media treat the problems. On the other hand, the academic bioethicist also plays a serious role in the development of health policy, and therefore his positions are a matter of public interest, and it is right that they are investigated by the media as they do for any other player in the same arena.
The awareness of the importance of the mass media, old and new, in the ﬁeld of bioethics and the effort of bioethicists to relate in a more suitable way with the world of information will help them to be more effective in their daily work. After all, this work has to do with research, meditation, dialogue, and also communication – many types of communication.
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