New Resource Aims To Help Reporters Cover Genetics

This image was released by the National Human Genome Research Institute, an agency part of the National Institutes of Health, with the ID 85329. Retrieved via Wikimedia Commons. Click for more information.
This image was released by the National Human Genome Research Institute, an agency that is part of the National Institutes of Health, with the ID 85329. Retrieved via Wikimedia Commons. Click for more information.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Robin Bisson. Bisson is a former staffer at the UK’s Science Media Centre, and is launching a similar initiative in the US that focuses solely on issues related to genetics and biotechnology. He describes the new initiative here.

During the last few weeks I’ve frequently had two scenarios described to me. One: a scientist gets frustrated about the latest misinformation about their field playing out in the media, and would like to set the record straight but has too many demands on their time. Two: a reporter is working to a deadline on a science story and has to rely on a press release and couple of quick calls before submitting.

I’ve been hearing these descriptions while interviewing journalists, scientists and public information officers for a new project I’m setting up called the Genetic Expert News Service (GENeS for short). The aim is to work with researchers and journalists, time pressured alike, to ensure that scientific information in the pell-mell modern media environment is as robust and accurate as possible.

Robin Bisson. Photo courtesy of Robin Bisson.
Robin Bisson. Photo courtesy of Robin Bisson.

We are building a database of researchers from across North America willing to be called on when a news story comes up in their area of expertise. That story might be a newly published study, a breaking news event or an issue that’s caught fire on the web. After collecting the expert reaction of scientists, GENeS will pass that on to reporters. Timing is essential: we believe getting evidence-based information to reporters early, at the time they are on a story, is a constructive way for scientists to impact news coverage.

We will also provide an inquiry service to match researchers on our database to requests for expertise, which we will make available to any organization publishing or engaging with debates around genetics and biotechnology. A crucial role is widening the field of researchers who are engaging, and making it quick and easy for them to be involved.

This method of providing a clearinghouse of scientific expertise, designed for use by the news media, was pioneered by the UK’s Science Media Centre where I was previously on the staff. A loose network of SMCs has sprung up internationally and an exploratory committee exists for a US center, as Matt has covered on this blog. But by focusing solely on genetics and biotechnology, GENeS sits apart from these efforts. Nonetheless, I doubt we will be short of work; genetics runs through so many important and often contentious scientific developments from genetically engineered crops to stem cell research, epigenetics and personalized medicine.

Advances in genetics and biotechnology hold great potential but also throw up social and ethical questions, with impacts on health, food, and the environment. As commercial and ideological voices pile into polarized debates the view from science can get lost. GENeS intends to present that view by reaching out to the academic community for the weight of opinion on critical topics, reflecting the diversity of views within science but not perpetuating the false balance which has dogged issues like climate change and the safety of genetically engineered foods currently on the market.

I arrived in the US in the midst of the Ebola scare, during which the question of whether the virus’ genome could mutate and cause it to spread through the air was consistently making headlines, despite virologists considering this very unlikely. If GENeS had been pumping out expertise, perhaps reporters would have revisited this question less often. During media furors with strong science angles, providing a steady stream of robust information can open new leads while tempering the media’s tendency to focus on the scariest questions.

Not that journalists need to be told how to do their job. The US has some of the best science journalism in the world and, coming from a country where media innovation is half-hearted at best, it’s exciting that BuzzFeed is hiring talented science journalists and new outlets like Vox are finding success. In 2012, the internet overtook television as Americans’ primary source for science news and consumers are increasingly able to tailor what news they consume and from which sources.

For all the benefits that the array of platforms available on the web have for consumers, they also make easy to only pay attention to content which matches strongly held positions on divisive topics like genetically engineered food. Add to the mix the pressure for reporters to produce more content for the 24-hour news beast, and the steady loss of specialist journalists from major newsrooms, and it’s easy for misinformation to start circulating. It is in this environment that GENeS hopes to be a bastion of reliable, evidence-based information for journalists, policymakers and ultimately the public.

But GENeS isn’t aiming to be simply a factory for cut-and-paste sound bites. Take a look at a typical Science Media Centre offering for how lengthy, detailed and frankly unsuitable for direct use in reporting much of the material is. Many reporters I’ve spoken to say they would always prefer to get their own quotes, rather than take comments from GENeS, but that’s to misunderstand what we’re trying to do.

Comments from third party experts who have looked through a research paper provide background that is seldom available from a press release, often highlighting caveats or indicating whether the research advances or goes against the existing literature. My hope is reporters will use GENeS material to help assess whether a story is worth reporting, as a source for leads, and as a jumping off point for direct contact with researchers. I hope GENeS will be an aid to deeper reporting.

This is an exciting time for science communication. Organizations like the new Center for Scientific Integrity and the expanded Health News Review are attracting funding to shine a light on both science and science journalism. Last month a BMJ study found a correlation between exaggeration in press releases and subsequent news coverage, adding insight into how information makes its journey from researcher in the lab to reader of an article. GENeS will try to make sure that journey doesn’t end up misleading the reader.

Robin Bisson is director of GENeS and is a visiting fellow with the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL) at the University of California, Davis

GENeS will begin operating in early 2015, and is a joint project under IFAL and the non-profit Genetic Literacy Project.

If you are interested in receiving GENeS material or are a scientist or PIO wanting to collaborate, please get in touch at (202) 833-4613 or robinbisson@geneticexperts.org.

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3 thoughts on “New Resource Aims To Help Reporters Cover Genetics

  1. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Weekend reads: Silenced Anil Potti whistleblower revealed; how to identify scientific crackpots - Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch

  2. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Morsels For The Mind – 09/01/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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