“The Scientists Were Stunned”

confused That’s how an article on a widely reported news story begins in today’s Chicago Tribune. It’s titled, simply enough, “Woman in a vegetative state exhibits brain activity.” Of course, an article like this contains a few obligatory “Duh” paragraphs, like this one:

But new research suggests that “islands” of brain function may exist in people believed to be in a vegetative state, according to the Science report. And scientists wanted to know if important signs that a patient was assimilating input from the outside world were being missed.

Also, of course, an article like this is not without bias:

It’s the only case of its kind, reported in the Friday issue of the journal Science.

“The only case of its kind”? How could the writer of the article (Judith Graham) possibly know that this instance of a 23-year old woman who is now exhibiting brain activity after having been diagnosed as being in a “vegetative state” is the “only case of its kind”? Qualifiers like “documented” serve an important purpose. When they’re omitted from a news article, it’s rather telling. Bias rears its ugly ahead again later in the article:

But there’s no indication this young woman’s experience is common. “This is a case of one,” said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a neurologist at Weill Medical College at Cornell University. “I strongly suspect future research will show there are not significant numbers of patients who might be in this condition.”

Let’s look at that first sentence again:

But there’s no indication this young woman’s experience is common.

What indication is there to suggest that this young woman’s experience is not common? The tepid remarks from the neurologist (“…strongly suspect…not significant numbers…might be…”) don’t do much to back up Graham’s assessment that “there’s no indication this young woman’s experience is common.” In cliché fashion, the article also contains the remarks of an “expert” — Graham quotes one Dr. Fred Plum, whom she identifies as “an expert on vegetative states.” (What qualifies the good doctor to be labeled as an “expert” on this matter, she doesn’t say.) Graham once again inserts bias in the concluding paragraph, in which she notes the “contrast” between the unnamed 23-year old woman and the late Terri Schiavo:

…Schiavo’s brain suffered profound oxygen deprivation–a condition with a much worse prognosis–and Schiavo lived 15 years without regaining any discernible form of responsiveness.

It’s interesting that she neglected to mention that Michael Schiavo repeatedly refused to allow Terri to undergo treatment that may have allowed her to regain, at the very least, a “discernible form of responsiveness.”

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