Researching bioethics issues is fascinating. It’s my job. It’s my major. It’s a pain in the ass. The problem is that few people in the news media appear to have any idea what they are actually talking about. They don’t follow the primary issues involved, so when it’s time to do a story, they don’t have any idea what to ask their sources.
Lots of reporters aren’t all that clear on who their sources should be. For example, take this MSNBC report on the Senate’s hotly debated human cloning ban, which quotes members of a fringe religious cult, the Raelians:
“[Rael] says a 4-foot tall extraterrestrial with almond-shaped eyes visited Rael, previously known as Claude Vorilhon, in 1973 and told him that life was deliberately created by scientifically advanced extraterrestrials using DNA…”
Thank heaven for NBC and its dedication to finding reliable sources.
To make a clone of an adult animal, scientists take the nucleus of a normal adult cell, otherwise known as a somatic cell. The nucleus, containing the cell’s genetic material, is injected into a female’s egg cell that has previously had its own nucleus removed. After stimulating the egg with chemicals and electricity, the egg begins to divide as if it were a normal embryo. Because it takes the nucleus of a somatic cell and moves it to another cell, the technology is known as somatic nuclear transfer.
On April 22, The Boston Globe, one of the nation’s largest independent newspapers, ran a story which stated that the technology was unlikely to be used on humans because “under the Atomic Energy Act, scientists who use nuclear materials without a federal license are subject to criminal prosecution by the Justice Department.”
Wonderful. I’m glad the reporter did her homework. After writing an entire story on the subject, she manages to mix up biology and nuclear physics because one word sounds the same. Of course, I suppose tying anything back to nuclear energy makes a story more interesting. Because cloning isn’t controversial on its own, now is it?
Coverage like this means I generally have to look through about 40-50 news articles before I can write a single paper. A cardinal rule of science journalism should be, “Don’t trust anything if it’s not from The New York Times.”
Well that’s not quite true. But after three years of studying science in the media, I can tell you that it’s best to find news sources with science or health correspondents – people whose sole job is to keep on top of current developments in these fields. Even the news wire services like Reuters and The Associated Press, whose major purpose is often to fill space in papers with little else to report, have hired such correspondents.
A Reuters story by health and science correspondent Maggie Fox is worth three by Mary Leonard, The Boston Globe staff writer.
I mean I sympathize. I really do. Especially when companies like Advanced Cell Technology, responsible for the first human embryo clone, release their findings straight to the press, who must then scramble to put out a story. It’s hard to expect all those reporters to know that any findings released directly to the press are most likely bogus because they never made it into a peer-reviewed journal, like Science or Nature. So, it took a while before the public understood that ACT’s experiment had been a failure, the embryos dying within hours of their conception.
From some of their quotes, it’s doubtful that some senators know this now.
Of course, all this is why I study science journalism – and why my thesis project is a documentary on reproductive bioethics. Someone has to straighten this out, and while I’m a long way from being able to do it myself, I suppose you have to start somewhere. For anyone who’s interested in learning more about issues like this and being a production assistant on my project, I will take this opportunity to whore free publicity from my workplace. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, year, major, contact info and relevant skills.
Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science and technology editor. He is currently completing a bachelor’s degree in sciences in the media.