pp. 424-425 in Bioethics in Asia

Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

Copyright 2000, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with the author.

F22. The Mass Media and Bioethics in Medical Genetics

Kiyotaro Kondo.

The University of the Air, Chiba, Japan

1. Introduction

Bioethical aspects in medical genetics are further imposed by ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) governing mass media, when the issues go in public through journals or audiovisual means. This brief review discusses some problems in ELSI in genetics in health and disease publicly reported or debated in journals or over broadcastings. When issues related to bioethical aspects of medical genetics are exposed to the public through the writer or audiovisual media, it is necessary to take account of ethical considerations in place in the media.

The University of the Air has introduced rules consisting of 8 articles in addition to the broadcasting Act (Hoso-Ho). These rules aim to assure appropriateness in its own broadcasted education programs. They protect first of all human rights and dignity, assure fairness in dealing with religion, law, politics, economy, arguments in the courts, etc., exclude advertisements and mandate the broadcasting of corrections if errors are found.

Individual human rights are of special concern in the ELSI of medical genetics. After exposure in the media human rights can be badly, and sometimes, irrepairably violated. Mass media sometimes promote public prejudices against genetic stigma. Today genetic problems are often treated in commentaries, reports, debates, etc. This trend is welcome, but besides factual errors, the lack of a specific code sometimes magnifies tragedies, and makes treatment of issues excessively sentimental.

The media can nevertheless be a powerful means to eliminate such prejudice through public education. In this regard, the mass media itself must be informed and aware of progress in science and the changing attitudes of the public.

2. Todayfs Sciences and Accountability of Scientists

Sciences require more money, coordination, social supports, administrative superstructure, and political maneuvering etc., in todayfs society. Progress in sciences profoundly effects individuals and the society, thus citizens have the right not only to know, but to participate how to promote or suppress the course leading to such a progress. Scientists, therefore, have responsibility to explain what they are doing, asking manifold responses from the society.

There are numerous social responsibilities of scientists. There are many proposals in this regard. Sieghart et al (1973) pointed out that a scientist ought to: 1) refuse to do works unethical, 2) choose to do work where there is an urgent social need, 3) influence other scientists directly expressing concerns about their social responsibilities, 4) think out consequences of his work, and 5) inform the public.

Modern science ventures into much unknown territory. Often, it encounters with a conflict with traditional values and even with the conventional ethical principles, particularly when new frontiers are explored. If the works are done in an area of particular social impacts, the scientist has the responsibility to make the issues open to the public. Scientists can claim no special rights however, other than those possessed by every citizen, except those necessary to fulfill their specific responsibilities.

Recent achievements of genetics and its applications in medicine and related areas are good examples of works that require these considerations because they very often technically manipulate such matters which so far belonged to the God, thus jeopardize traditional values.

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3. Useful and Undesirable Aspects of Mass Media

Mass media are sometimes referred to as the fourth Power, besides legislation, administration and justice. Mass media, among others televisions: 1) report promptly new discoveries or new applications in genetics, 2) review on selected timely issues, 3) make public education and enlightening in genetics and its ELSI, 4) eliminate traditional prejudices against inherited stigmata, etc.

These potentials are often so great. A scientist is offered opportunities by mass media in which he can introduce his own works. The media thus provide him with important chance to fulfill his responsibility to the society. Mass media themselves are informed with progresses an desirable interpretations in science. Undesirable aspects of mass media include : 1) its enormous risk to damage individualfs right inrestorably by destroying his privacy, 2)misinformation to the public by erroneous reports and reviews, 3) provocation of prejudices and conventional wrong understandings pertaining inherited disorders, 4) promotion of repugnances against novel progresses.

In order to avoid these and other undesirable aspects, there are laws at the national level, regulations and know-hows in each media, recommendations by expertise. In Japan, the Broadcasting Act (Hoso-ho, 1950) mandates fundamental affairs in broadcastings by means of radio or television. Each media corporation has own regulations. Moreover, expertise and lay criticisms and opinions contributed to each news or review articles are useful resources for concurrent ELSI on specific problems. Affairs related to genetics are among the issues for which the public are highly sensitive, as we witnessed on the birth of Dolly, or a cloned sheep in Great Britain in 1997.

NHK (Nihon Hoso Kyokai -Japan Broadcasting Agency) is a non-profit independent agency founded by 100% -investment by the Government of Japan. The Constitution of Japan prohibits the Government to own broadcasting capabilities. NHK has own regulations. Its Domestic Version (1959) has 14 articles to assure correct standards of materials they make on air. Details are not quoted here, but protection of human right is the prime principle, and they are mandated to correct if errors are broadcasted.

3. Bioethics and Mass Media

In a complex society today, a scientific achievement cannot be alone and neutral. Mass media, not only having to cope with their own ethical standards, are ought to and capable to support scientists including geneticists to fulfill their accountability to the public.

Through these activities, it is possible to evaluate how the public responded to each specific issue made on air. NHK accumulated such responses and analyzed them so that they avoid troubles and keep to be neutral. This is somewhat different from the attitudes of the mass media in the western countries, which often express their own opinions to a controversial matters without being neutral . In Japan, mass media is supposed to present various alternative ideas in a strictly gneutralh setting so that people think free and decide their own attitudes.

NHKfs materials are so valuable to evaluate current trends and variations of lay opinions to neutrally presented news or reviews on todayfs genetics. Unfortunately however, they are not open to study.


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