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Reporting with Caution

There's a news item running on the wires about a young woman who fell into a vegetative state following a traumatic brain injury. She shows no outward signs of consciousness, but researchers were curious to know whether brain scanners would pick up any activity. So they talked to her. Among other things, they asked her to imagine walking through her house. As she did that, her brain scans looked similar to those of healthy volunteers.

Now, this is simply an anecdote. This 23-year-old woman doesn't really tell us anything about anybody else in a vegetative state. Science magazine, which is publishing the finding (subscription required), also published a commentary warning people not to leap to broader conclusions about brain activity in people in this state. (No responsible physician would suggest that the physically atrophied brain of Terry Schiavo could have responded in this way).

It's also not clear what this tells us about the woman herself. As the commentary in Science magazine noted, brain activity doesn't mean the woman is conscious. For one thing, she could not make any voluntary movements even though that part of her brain appeared to be entirely intact.

We, as journalists, are loath to wade into a story that is so suggestive, but so easily over interpreted by people who understandably hope against hope that a loved one in a similar state might not be as far gone as they appear. We don't want to feed false hope to anyone in a truly tragic situation. In this case, NPR's science and health desk simply didn't have the staff to report a story that would, in essence, end where it began — offering no clear insights, but raising many questions. As we sat around discussing it, though, we dearly hoped that our colleagues at other news outlets would treat it with the great caution it deserves.