PBS attempts balanced report on animal research, falls short

Aug 21 2008 Published by under Animals in Research

I note that PBS has a segment under it's "Religion & Ethics newsweekly" website entitled "Animal Testing Ethics". The page has both the video segment and a written transcript. From all appearances they appear to be trying to present a balanced look at animal research but they either fall into some imbalanced framing traps or intended to strike an imbalanced tone overall.

The first bit of anti-animal-research framing is the use of "Testing" in the title. The entire piece is in fact focused on animal research, not product testing. The ARA types, of course, intentionally and consistently use "testing" as their frame because they are trying to evoke images of the Draize test of ocular toxicity for yet more cosmetic products whenever anyone thinks about the use of animals in research for any purpose. Such as finding treatments for childhood cancers, Alzheimer's Disease and the like. The point being that surveys suggest that people are much less likely to be in favor of the use of animals for cosmetic testing than they are for the use of animals in actual scientific research. This is a no-brainer, right? I mean, I have no use for any additional cosmetic type products myself- happy enough with the available soaps, shampoos and whatnot that I already use (I should be clear that I am happy that products were safety tested, I just think that I do not require any additional products be evaluated). The more one can frame animal research as an activity with very high costs and minimal (or preferably frivolous) benefit, the more one can decrease support for animal research that the population might in fact strongly support in absence of framing and false propaganda. A big thumbs-down to PBS for using the Research=Testing frame.
The bit then goes on to feature Dr. John Young who is the Director of Comparative Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles and Chairman of the pro-animal-research group, Americans for Medical Progress. Dr. Young invites the cameras into several animal labs which is, admittedly, rarer than it should be. In an ideal world I strongly support such efforts because it is my view that the public perception of what an animal research facility looks like is not at all consistent with reality. The video shows some mice and pigs and in the latter segment Dr. Young explains some of the virtues of the pig as a model of human cardiac disease.
The PBS piece also features comment from Dr. Peter Singer who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. Dr. Singer accuses animal research of "speciesism" which is attributable in his mind to the Judeo-Christian tradition and antithetical to "evolutionary theory". Actually I think they did Dr. Singer a disservice because frankly the parts they included of his arguments against animal research are pretty weak; I've heard parts that seem better founded. Not that they are correct, just that they are not so obviously in error.
So no tremendous problem right?
Right. Except the piece is also littered with animal protest footage and some traditional sketch-appearing footage of monkeys, allegedly in research protocols. As the voice-over puts it:

"Nationally, a larger debate continues over the morality of using animals in laboratory experimentation, like these scenes captured by activists' hidden cameras."

And this is a very sneaky bit of framing. How are we to know what in the heck is going on here? Are these research protocols, in fact? Were these procedures under IACUC approval? Are they what the seem to be and are they the sort of thing that is currently approved? It is impossible to tell. So one is left with the impression that these are standard, approved and highly typical procedures. Can we investigate this a little more?
One of the clips looked like monkeys were put into a closely-fitting lexan tube, the sort of restraint stress protocol which is common for rodents. I did a little PubMed for "monkey restraint stress" and the closest thing I came up with was this paper, which restrained monkeys in their usual housing cages thusly:

During restraint stress, a movable posterior wall was moved to press the animal to the anterior wall of the metabolic cage. The body and limbs were not firmly fixed.

Quite different. The rest of the papers describe "restraint" procedures which again are very different from stuffing an animal in a close-fitting Lexan tube. I'm not saying such procedures don't exist but they do not appear to be common in the PubMed-accessible, recent literature using the most-obvious search strategy.
The point here is to show that PBS erred in showing these clips if their intent was to present a balanced report. The clips were presented in a context which suggests that they are typical depictions of "laboratory experimentation". This was never explored and on a quick scan of experimental literature it seems a bit bogus to establish the implication. Might this be a traditional technique in drug company research? It might be, but then it would still be bogus to present this in the context they did. The context they presented the analysis was clearly academic, experimental research with a biomedical focus. Research that should end up in the literature that is accessible with a PubMed search. The fact that this technique is nowhere to be found in recent literature involving monkeys, that this technique is to be found in use with rodents and that there are published alternative techniques to generate the same restraint-stress objective suggests that what PBS had done is to present the same factually inaccurate representation of animal research that is favored by the disingenuous activist groups.

4 responses so far

  • BobbyEarle says:

    I have noticed a progressive "dumbing-down" of some of PBS's science programs, such as NOVA, and I include this piece in that mix as it is dealing with the use of animals in research. I don't know the numbers, but I would guess that the average person on the street has this idea of animal research as mere "testing", as you described. Instead of the balance promised, I think we got just a reflection of the general consensus...just like the Evening News© gives us.
    As PBS, and I would think NPR, are relying on more and more corporate sponsorship, perhaps this is to be expected.
    I used to rely on PBS for the balance that was really needed here. Not so much anymore.

  • Paul says:

    Your reference to framing is appropriate. I've noticed that when animal research is discussed in the media it tends to be forced into one of two "frames".
    I think of the first as the medical research frame, which will usually involve some discussion of the research and why it's interesting. While you will sometimes find discussion about the extent to which a particular bit of research will be relevant to human clinical use there is almost never any reference to the fact that anyone is trying to force (through legal or illegal means) scientists to stop doing such work.
    The second is the animal testing debate frame, where the controversy is the story. As a consequence the scientific aspects to the story tend to be relegated to a supporting role, and the terms used will tend to be those used by anti-vivisectionists.
    There are times when you read newspapers where it's hard to believe that the same person edited both stories.
    A challenge for advocates of animal research is how to develop a relationship with the media that enables them to change the frame of the "animal testing debate" so that it becomes the "animal research debate" and gives more time to science. Having said that the media often sexes up stories, either by over hyping an interesting piece of research or by using the inflammatory language of AR activists, so changing the current situation will not be easy.

  • Mark says:

    I agree, it seems that one of the biggest problems is the "all or nothing" mentality of the media's framing of this issue.
    Of course we need tighter standards on experiments - the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees are biased, and the Federal Animal Welfare Act doesn't cover most animals used in research, leaving tens of millions of rodents and rabbits to suffer terribly (especially psychologically) in inadequate conditions.
    You don't have to hold a "rights" view to oppose this, and to support major reform. Take a look at the most influential work EVER in this field, which did it all without any "rights" or "all or nothing" views: "Animal Liberation" by Peter Singer, the Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. Click my URL to go to the Amazon page for it.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    the Federal Animal Welfare Act doesn't cover most animals used in research, leaving tens of millions of rodents and rabbits
    Statements like this are one of the reasons I got going with this little series of posts. Rodents are exempted from some of the AWA provisions by the Helms amendment, yes. This most emphatically does not mean that there use is unregulated or do-whatever-you-want. It is essential for legitimate actors on the animal welfare side to understand this and to demonstrate that they understand this to be taken seriously. Rabbits are not exempted to my knowledge.
    suffer terribly (especially psychologically) in inadequate conditions
    Sounds bad, as always. Got any rationale for that? Cites? Evidence? What does it mean for a rat to suffer "terribly (especially psychologically)"? What are "inadequate conditions"? Do you just intuitively anthropomorphize? If so, there is no basis for discussion because we shoot right back to the top-level argument of an arbitrary belief or preference. The realm of theology. As long as that is recognized fine, but don't try to argue along a testable, fact based line of attack without real rationales or evidence or falsifiable hypotheses. If you do have ways to measure the suffering of a rat objectively, do you have any reason to think that these objective measures have not been used wherever possible to design housing and use standards? Did you read the regulatory guidelines I've been linking to and follow back on the citations used as the basis for the guidelines?
    As I said at the outset of this series, don't cite me Singer unexplicated as if this is meaningful. Make an argument that shows that you know what you are talking about. That you have come to an independent judgment based on knowledge, and that you don't simply parrot gospel.

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