HOLMES REPORT: DeNiro film could be a godsend for opening a meaningful dialogue on genetic research

When organizations come under fire in the news media, the decision about how (or even whether) to respond is a difficult one. But when they come under fire in popular entertainment media - like books and films - the choice has to be even harder.

When organizations come under fire in the news media, the decision about how (or even whether) to respond is a difficult one. But when they come under fire in popular entertainment media - like books and films - the choice has to be even harder.

So far, the medical-research community has been largely silent about the new movie Godsend, starring Robert DeNiro, which presents an overwrought and potentially damaging view of the possible consequences of stem-cell research. The movie taps into existing hysteria about cloning, telling the story of parents who lose their infant son and turn to the world's "top genetic engineering researcher" (DeNiro) to produce a clone. But when he turns eight, a sinister side of his personality emerges. Godsend is the latest in a long line of reactionary works of fiction that present scientific and medical progress in a sinister light. The whole issue of cloning was at the center of Jurassic Park (the book and the films). Michael Crichton's latest book, Prey, presents an equally scary scenario involving nanotechnology. The scientific community is often reluctant to engage these works of fiction because to do so would be to grant them legitimacy. Beyond that, scientists are often loath to speak out because the rules of media discussion are alien to them, as different as they are from the rules of scientific debate. But the reality is that entertainment does influence the popular imagination, often shaping opinion. Consider The China Syndrome's impact on attitudes toward nuclear power. At least a film like Godsend offers an opportunity for the scientific community to educate the public about the facts of genetic research, to explain that the reality is both less sensational and more dramatic, and to stress the potential to save and improve lives. So far, most of the criticism of Godsend has come from reporters. For example, Kristin Philipkoski, writing in Wired: "The movie is the kind of publicity that people who want to outlaw all human cloning could only dream of. Whether the filmmakers realize it or not, the message is clear: Scientists who want to clone are evil, or mad, or both; cloning should not be done, period." Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, has also expressed concern about the film's impact. Writing for MSNBC, he says, "Thanks Hollywood. Just as people were beginning to understand cloning, you put greed before need and made a movie that risks keeping ordinary Americans afraid and patients paralyzed and immobile for many more years." Other voices must be raised to make sure sensationalistic and regressive views do not dominate the debate.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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