At nine o’clock on Sunday morning, November 25, 2001, the online e-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine, posted an article by Jose Cibelli, from Advanced Cell Technologies, and five colleagues entitled “Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer in Humans: Pronuclear and Early Embryonic Development.” The article described a series of experiments that had produced three somatic cell-derived embryos that developed up to the six-cell stage. The article concluded that “The ability to create autologous embryos represents the first step toward generating immune compatible stem cells that could be used to overcome the problem of immune rejection in regenerative medicine.”
At the same moment, U.S. News & World Report released a copy of “The First Clone,” a story by Joannie Fischer that would appear in its December 3, 2001 issue. The article reports “… this week, scientists at Advanced Cell Technology, a small biotech start-up company in Worcester, Mass., are announcing that they have … successfully engineered the world’s first cloned human embryo…. Over the past 18 months, U.S. News has reported from inside the ACT laboratory, with exclusive access to the cloning scientists and their laboratory work.”
Simultaneously, Scientific American released a copy of an article by Cibelli, Robert Lanza, and Michael West, all from ACT, entitled “The first human embryo cloned.” The article reports:
“We hoped to coax the early embryos to divide into hollow spheres of 100 or so cells called blastocysts. We intended to isolate human stem cells from the blastocysts to serve as a starter stock for growing replacement nerve, muscle and other tissues that might one day be used to treat patients with a variety of diseases. Unfortunately, only one of the embryos progressed to the six-cell stage, at which point it stopped dividing. In a similar experiment, we succeeded in prompting human eggs—on their own, with no sperm to fertilize them—to develop parthenogenetically into blastocysts. We believe that these achievements … represent the dawn of a new age in medicine by demonstrating that the goal of therapeutic cloning is within reach.”
Cibelli, Lanza and West are careful with their language in the text of the article. They do not say that they succeeded in producing stem cells or in sustaining the dividing eggs to the 100-cell level, but the title of the article proclaims “The first human embryo cloned.”
At 9:45 that morning, CNN interrupted its morning programming with a breaking news announcement:
Martin Savidge: “We have breaking news this morning from the world of science. A U.S. laboratory says that it has successfully cloned the first human embryo. The Advanced Cell Technology scientists have been reportedly working on the project over the past several months. They describe their results in the Journal of Regenerative Medicine. The transfer of DNA into human eggs and the growth of those eggs into six-cell embryos. The findings could mean breakthroughs in treatments for deadly disease. It also means a great deal of controversy.”
At 10 o’clock, Tim Russert opened “Meet the Press,” saying:
“But first: a very significant development in the world of biotechnology. U.S. News & World Report is reporting this morning scientists have successfully engineered the world’s first cloned human embryo. Joining us are Michael West, president and CEO of Advanced Cell Technology; Joannie Fischer of U.S. News & World Report, and NBC science correspondent Robert Bazell.“And here’s the cover of today’s Scientific American reporting the first human clone, an article by Dr. West and his colleagues. And as I mentioned, today’s U.S. News & World Report, an article by Joannie Fischer. And here is what she says, scientists have finally duplicated a human embryo … ‘this week, scientists at Advanced Cell Technologies … are announcing that they have done just that—successfully engineered the world’s first cloned human embryo.’”
Russert concluded the opening 15-minute segment by saying, “An historic moment here on ‘Meet the Press.’ And we’ll be covering your battle with the U.S. Congress over the coming weeks. A new world is upon us.”
Shortly after the original posting of the journal article, Jeff Donn, an Associated Press feature writer working out of Boston, filed the first AP story on the ACT claim to have cloned the first human embryo. The AP story summarized the claims made by ACT, but noted some dissent among scientists. Donn’s story noted that Glenn McGee, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, had resigned from the ACT ethics advisory board earlier and called the new announcement “nothing but hype.” Donn reported that McGee characterized the new claim as “doing science by press release.” From the number of individuals interviewed and quoted in the AP wire story, it appears that Donn had an advance copy of the release and material and had done his homework. (Donn declined to be interviewed for this article on orders from his AP editor.)
The lead paragraphs of the AP wire story were copied almost verbatim by the Xinhua News Agency in China and Agence France-Presse, thus the world was quickly informed that the first human embryo had been cloned in the United States. In general, the foreign press repeated the claims about the success of ACT in making the clone, but dropped any reservations or doubts about the accuracy of the claim.
The AP wire story was updated throughout the day by Donn, adding new comments by President Bush, the Pope, and various U.S. political or religious leaders. Later in the day, the AP wire story added a paragraph:
“A second company quickly claimed Sunday that it had also cloned human embryos, but in unpublished research. The company, Clonaid, said that it hopes to eventually create fully developed human clones. ‘I’m very pleased that I’m not alone,’ Director Brigitte Boisselier said in a phone interview. ‘We’re doing embryos every day.’ The company keeps its laboratory location secret, citing security concerns. Boisselier said that the embryos were created by injecting eggs with a variety of other cells, but she refused to give details.”
AP repeated this release several times, including on their Online Edition. It was picked up by the foreign press, and a Japanese story reported that “two U.S. companies” claimed they have cloned human embryos. By the end of Sunday, AP dropped the Clonaid paragraphs from their running story.
Clonaid is a company created and operated by the Raelian Movement, a group founded by French journalist Claude Vorilhon, who claimed that he was abducted in 1973 by aliens from outer space who told him that all human life was cloned by the aliens in their own image and gave him the name Rael. On the Raelian Web site, Brigitte Boisselier is identified as a bishop in the movement.
Unaware of any doubts about the veracity of the ACT claims, the political and religious leadership of the world lost no time in responding to the announcement of this new scientific development. President Bush declared the work to be “morally wrong,” and numerous anti-abortion senators and group leaders demanded new legislation to ban the procedure. The Vatican was slightly more cautious, saying that if a real human embryo had been cloned, it would be a subject of concern to the Vatican, noting that the original news reports contained insufficient evidence to determine exactly what had been done.
By morning, many science journalists had looked at the ACT claim and began to raise questions about the accuracy of the reported cloning. Gina Kolata’s story in The New York Times began:
“A small, privately financed biotechnology company said yesterday that it had created the first human embryos ever produced by cloning. But the embryos died before they had even eight cells, and most died long before that. Cloning experts outside the company said the experiment was a failure.”
Rick Weiss, writing in The Washington Post, reported that:
“The cloned embryos … grew for only a few hours—long enough to form microscopic balls containing just four to six cells each. The creations … are still so unformed that some ethicists and scientists remain divided over whether they should be called embryos ….”
Seth Borenstein from the Knight Ridder News Service summarized the problem with the ACT claim:
“Some scientists were not impressed. The embryos died before they had eight cells, and most died before that. An embryo would have to grow for about a week and contain about 100 cells before it would have stem cells. ‘It’s a complete failure,’ said George Seidel, a cloning expert from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. For a first attempt, he added ‘they’ve progressed about as well as you’d expect, or slightly worse.’”
Rachel Gotbaum, reporting on National Public Radio, interviewed Dr. John Eppig, a senior staff scientist at Jackson Laboratory, who concluded that the work reported by ACT was minimal and that most scientists would not have reported this kind of preliminary work. By Monday night, ABC’s Peter Jennings introduced the story, saying “But today, the question is—did the company really make a breakthrough?”
There was broad agreement among science writers and among the scientists they interviewed that the small cluster of cells created by ACT could not have become a human if it had been implanted in a woman.
Oblivious to the reservations of scientists and science writers about whether a human embryo had actually been cloned, political leaders throughout the world moved to oppose this kind of scientific work. The head of the German physicians’ association referred to the work as a “nightmare,” and the European Commission announced its opposition to the cloning of human embryos for the purpose of producing stem cells. Japan’s ministry of science and education announced that it would immediately ban the creation of cloned human embryos in Japan.
Follow-Up Coverage and Reaction
By Tuesday, a consensus was emerging among science writers. The lead in Gina Kolata and Andrew Pollack’s story on the front page of The New York Times said:
“When Advanced Cell Technology, a small biotechnology company in Worcester, Mass., announced on Sunday that it had taken the first steps in producing human embryos through cloning, it could not report lasting success; all of the embryos it created had died. It could not even report that it had used groundbreaking techniques; its methods had already been used in animals. Some scientists even suggested that what the company was doing was not cloning at all.”
The lead in Faye Flam’s story in The Philadelphia Inquirer ended with the observation that other scientists said that the work reported by ACT “produced little evidence of a true medical breakthrough.” Flam reported:
“The embryos created by the company are ‘essentially useless for the long term objective’ of making stem cells, said Richard Schultz, a biology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘It was a failed, dysfunctional experiment,’ said Douglas Melton of the Harvard Medical School. To succeed in making medically useful stem cells, he said that the first objective is getting the embryo to grow. The next is to learn to control the way that stem cells specialize into different types of tissue. ‘They didn’t even get over the first hurdle,’ he said.”
Kolata and Pollack reported that Dr. Ronald M. Green, a Dartmouth professor who headed the ACT ethics board, said that he prefers to refer to the cells as “cleaving eggs” rather than embryos.
By Friday, reporting had turned from the ACT claim to the media coverage of the ACT claim. Anthony Violanti’s story in The Buffalo News carried the headline “Cloning Story Was the Offspring of Hype.” Violanti wrote:
“The announcement was made on a weekend, usually a slow time for news, when most regular science writers and medical beat reporters tend to be off. Advanced Cell Technology made arrangements to release the story online to a science Web site and also coordinated to have articles published in Scientific American and U.S. News & World Report. It was a full-pronged media assault. “‘How could you not jump on that story, especially during sweeps week in November,’ asked Michael L. McKean, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.”
Professor McKean’s suggestion that sweeps week may have influenced coverage decisions is particularly relevant to the decision of “Meet the Press” to collaborate with a small financially interested biotechnology company in launching their claim to have cloned the first human embryo. Nancy Nathan, the executive producer of “Meet the Press,” declined to be interviewed for this article, and Barbara Levin, the director of communications for NBC News, declined to answer specific questions about the amount of pre-broad-cast collaboration with ACT, saying that the discussion on “Meet the Press” was “thorough and accurate, and we stand by our reporting.”
What lessons can be drawn from this short history of the first cloned human embryo story? Four lessons merit some discussion.
- There is an inherent conflict between reporting the news and managing the news. In this case, a relatively new electronic journal and at least three major media organizations joined with a small private corporation that has a substantial financial interest in the outcome to promote a story about an alleged new scientific discovery. U.S. News & World Report openly admitted that they had been working with ACT for 18 months in an “exclusive” arrangement, which turned out not to be completely exclusive. In subsequent pieces, the editor of Scientific American admitted to doubts about the publication of the article by the three ACT officers, but defended his decision on that grounds that it increased public awareness of the issue. The participation of Tim Russert and “Meet the Press” in a pre-arranged media blitz is more surprising, but may have been encouraged by science correspondent Bob Bazell’s general acceptance of the ACT report as a genuine scientific achievement.
- Speed is often the enemy of accuracy. Although some news organizations had been working with ACT for months to coordinate the media blitz, other organizations appeared to be struggling to make sense of the cloning announcement. On the positive side, the AP writer seems to have had some lead time on the story and used it to talk to other sources and to raise at least some small flags about the magnitude of the achievement. CNN, on the other hand, seems to have had little advance warning and visibly struggled throughout the day. The two CNN medical correspondents featured in their coverage either had not read the original article or managed to get most of the science wrong. The foreign wire services appeared to be operating on a weekend basis and largely rephrased the AP story throughout the day. By Monday, most of the experienced science writers were on the story and the general interpretation of the first announcement turned nearly 180 degrees.
- Misinformation multiplied by reaction does not produce good public policy. Within minutes of the original announcement, reporters were asking public officials around the world what they thought of the first cloning of a human embryo, and most of these individuals accepted the premise that the scientific event had actually happened, and they proposed public policy responses accordingly. The government of Japan imposed new restrictions, and the British Parliament adopted new regulations of human cloning, largely in response to the claims that a human embryo had been cloned. Reaction led to reaction and activated virtually all of the interest groups along the pro-life, pro-choice divide. And millions of adults throughout the world now believe that a human embryo has been cloned in the United States.
- The need for expertise in reporting about science—and other equally technical subjects—is compelling. By and large, most of the professional science and health journalists recognized the exaggerated nature of the original ACT claim and treated it appropriately. Gina Kolata, Andrew Pollock, Rick Weiss, Joe Palca, and numerous other science journalists recognized the limited merit of the ACT claim and reported serious scientific reservations about the claim in their first stories. They were able to bring their accumulated understanding of biology and their network of credible genetic biology sources to bear on the story quickly and produced balanced discussions of the potential medical value of therapeutic cloning and of the limited evidence of an ACT achievement in this field. Specialization is not a guarantee, however. Unlike their print colleagues, Bob Bazell (NBC), Rea Blakely (CNN), and Elizabeth Cohen (CNN), appeared to accept the ACT claim without reservation, and the two CNN medical correspondents continued to report that skin cells had been used in the successful cloning.
Looking to the future, these lessons suggest that the era of specialization has reached journalism. The number and type of new scientific claims that are likely to be made and skillfully hyped in the future will grow exponentially, and the present structure of journalism in the United States and throughout the world appears to be minimally ready to deal with it. Editors and producers must take increased responsibility for scrutinizing new scientific claims and for conferring with credible sources from the scientific community prior to publication. Neither time nor sweeps week is an excuse for doing otherwise.
Jon D. Miller is professor and director of the Center for Biomedical Communication in the Feinberg School of Medicine and a professor in the Medill School of Journalism, both at Northwestern University.