The Odd Maze Of Doing Clean Science Journalism
It's not easy understanding all the nuances of particular disciplines in science even if you are in the field - science has gotten pretty precise. I have a good grasp of Maxwell's equations, for example, but I am not going to understand interplane capacitance and noise in the same way that a simulation guy at Intel will. That's why journalism is something of a thankless job. If you're a journalist you have multiple people triangulating on your defects. People with a political bent will find a political motivation (1), scientists in the field will find it either too simple or too exaggerated and people reading are likely to tune it out if it's too complex. We had an interesting example of how difficult a task it is to do clean stories that get the point across today. Mike White wrote about it in Confusion over cloning and I'll cover it from my perspective here. We get press releases from lots of different places about current news topics. I am always surprised that people consider places that just print these whole are considered sources (too many to name, and I don't want to pick on ScienceDaily and PhysOrg.com, but they are arguably the two most famous in the science field so they have to be mentioned lest we lose all sight of context) but a lot of people do consider it news if it's a press release advertising an article in Nature. Well, it isn't news. It's something written by a marketing department to get press for a researcher and the school.(3) Back to the topic. We got a press release - we get a lot of them directly but this came through two paid services that act as distributors and since Mike linked to AAAS/Eurekalert I will use our friends in Europe - titled Researchers report the cloning of a key group of human genes, the protein kinases. That's meant to grab attention from laypeople but I read it and turned it over a few times in my mind and I just knew it was going to make a whole bunch of biologists crazy. And a whole lot of people who are not biologists would read that title and get the wrong impression. So my first instinct was to get to the heart of the matter. We all do write because we want to be read so it can't be too dull but the goal in this kind of research - really the justification for financing the Human Genome Project to most of the population - is curing cancer. Given that, I first tried "Translating Cancer's Genome - Protein Kinases Get Their Own Clone." But it still bothered me. 'Translating the cancer genome' was going to be good for the audience but make biologists crazy. Using 'get cloned', as Mike "discussed was going to give people the wrong perception. I thought I had the verbage okay - toning down the hype - but the title still bothered me. So I messaged him (What? You haven't used our nifty chat feature? It's just one of the many things we are testing now that will shock and amaze you in version 2.0) to ask for guidance. He agreed that the title was going to make people crazy so I asked him how we could be interesting enough to still get read but not resort to "HUMAN CLONING - PREPARE TO BOW BEFORE YOUR STORMTROOPER OVERLORDS" (think I am exaggerating that someone will use that? Want to bet?) silliness. He came up with "Cloning Major Cancer Players: Researchers Pull the Kinases out of the Human Genome", which was excellent, but I wanted to address the confusion over cloning so we didn't look like those news articles that would misrepresent this to the audience and he laid out for me the objections he had to the phrase as they were using it - namely mixing and matching old terms in their new contexts without telling anyone. It's fine to do that in the lab but - much like Alaskans get what you mean when you use different terms for snow and people in Jamaica do not - using 'clone' while changing gears to an audience can be confusing. His clarifications for me were so spot on that I basically changed the opening to be his cloning clarification and you can read it in Cloning Major Cancer Players: Researchers Pull Kinases Out Of Their Genomes. So we fixed the title but here are also the opening paragraphs so you can see the thought process and transformation: #0. The press release version. "Although the human genome has been sequenced, research into mechanism of action of genes has been hampered by the fact that most human genes have not been isolated." #1. Our first stab at it, because want to remind people that the field is not just academic, it is converging on saving lives at some point - "While a few human genomes have been sequenced, the real work of understanding cancer (and curing it) is still a long way off because most human genes have not been isolated." Not great, but after some more collaboration we ended up with ... #2. "'Clone' is an odd term culturally. Thanks to science fiction on one side and ethical hysteria on the other, people tend to overstate the meaning of it. Back before genomes, to 'clone a gene' was to basically discover it - it meant you found the stretch of DNA encoding that gene - but now we know where almost all of the genes are. So 'cloning' in this context does not mean 'discovery' and it certainly doesn't mean Sith Lords spitting out an army of warriors to take over the universe - it means taking known genes (in tiny pieces in the genome) and isolating the spliced versions into a format that can be used in the lab." Which I think accomplishes our goals of clarity, keeping it interesting, and avoiding hype. You will have to let me know if you agree. You may also notice I changed the title from his suggestion. That's because we talked about it and generally agreed that the marketing people writing these were sometimes pulling title and concepts out of their a--es, so 'pull kinases out of their genomes' was our idea of an inside play on that. We can have some fun too, right? We're not saving lives here. NOTES: (1) We get syndicated in a few brands and I have seen the exact same story - literally identical, because they get it from us the same way - submitted as Fox News and Reuters versions of our article and the commentary regarding Fox will be that the tone of the article is slanted to the right. (2) In the interests of full disclosure, not all of these press releases are bad. We have printed plenty of them verbatim. It just isn't our primary business. Our assumption is that because our audience is a little higher end, they aren't educated by press releases, they just like to know what is happening first. (3) One thing we do that those press release people do not is link to the actual article. In a lot of cases, number of citations, including in large science sites that are for the general public like ours, are very valuable at review time. So press release aggregators that just link to a school don't do a lot of good for the actual writers. We can't always do it, because some will not have online versions yet and we have various people who write things and they have their own styles, but if you wrote something and it's referenced here and we don't have a doi link to the article, let us know and we'll fix it.