Once I was asked to write a caption to a photograph of a mouse with a human ear on its back. At the time, I was news and magazine editor at a daily newspaper in Berlin. I had not a clue as to what to tell readers about this image. But the picture in front of me was triggering a million thoughts.
How should one think about human body parts being bred on or in animals? How would the availability of all kinds of human tissue and donor organs change both medicine and society? Would millions of lives be saved by this, or would only the wealthy be able to afford the benefits of this scientific advance? Would fewer people be killed for their organs in other countries?
And that is why the Page One editor wanted it on the front page. He just didn’t bother to make room for a full story. So I just didn’t bother asking him and decided to put a story about tissue engineering—the science behind the photo—on the section’s back page, which was my part of the paper to edit. The next day, this editor told the editor in chief that I was confusing our daily newspaper with Nature, thereby endangering circulation.
This happened in 1996. I remember wondering, even as I struggled to write this caption, how some editors could possibly describe science writing as unimportant, non-political and serving only a niche market. Yet, many did.
Back then in Germany science stories were not regarded as being worthy of a prominent place in newspapers. Science writers scanned academic journals and filled the spots above or next to large advertisements with news of what they found. It didn’t require much ingenuity to figure out that there was something wrong with the way my paper and the rest of the German media were about to shake the foundation of the way we lived, thought and acted. (In 1997, for example, when for the first time a courtroom verdict was released over the Internet—in the Louise Woodward nanny trial in Cambridge, Massachusetts—we still did not have access to the Web at the B.Z., Berlin’s largest daily newspaper.)
It was only when I moved to Cambridge in 1998 and became a science writer that I was aware of how much effort is required to do the kind of reporting I’d wanted to see in our newspapers. It was important to walk into the science labs (instead of just reading science journals) and report in an amusing and enlightening way about how scientists clone mice, grow skin, or modify genes in organisms. Through this reporting, I wanted to intrigue and educate readers back home and perhaps raise their awareness of the cen-trality of these issues in their lives.
I discovered, however, that science writing requires more than the ability to understand the science and the guts to confront scientists, some of whom believe everyone should know the little realm they are operating in. It requires more than the ability to use language in an explanatory yet captivating way and to find metaphors of all kinds and social contexts.
When reporting about cutting-edge science, journalists often are among the first who translate a scientific finding into common language. When doing so, they must ask some general questions about the findings that move away from dependence on the scientific lingo. The findings need to be embedded into a commonly understood context. Without a concept of the universe, for example, the discovery of a new “moon” would not make any sense. Without a basic grasp of mammal reproduction, new technologies such as cloning would not only not be understood but wouldn’t raise the concern that they should. All of this can be difficult for the science writer who has to think about communicating ideas and concepts that in many cases were previously unthinkable. To accomplish this, journalists must first overcome their own biases, fears and limitations.
With cloning, for example, it took a while for the concept to sink in, even for those who wrote about it. Until Dolly, the cloned sheep, the notion that reproduction could be possible without some kind of fertilization was unthinkable in the general public. Six years after the news broke, the topic continues to challenge our ability to imagine an utterly different future in how we live and reproduce. Cloning challenges our definition of what life is, when life begins, how a person’s identity is constituted, and so forth. It also forces us to make decisions about how to use technologies such as cloning in the future.
The Context of Cultural Assumptions
It is the job of journalists to try to provide the many levels of ingredients necessary for people—scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, politicians and the general public—to engage in thoughtful discussion about such discoveries. At times, this can also mean exploring differing cultural approaches toward the same findings or technologies. For example, in Europe, there has been consistent resistance against genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), which has its roots in two decades of a strong ecology movement and in a cultural orientation that emphasizes the individual’s right to know and a belief in nature’s unpredictability. In the United States, in contrast, the cultural notion is that nature can be designed to people’s convenience, and if GMO’s make agriculture easier, more efficient, and economically more successful, then farmers should use this technology.
Because of these different orientations, Europe engaged in an often heated debate on the dangers of GMO’s. Some of the results are a demand for testing how modified corn would influence the existing plants, requirements to label GMO-food, and a call for further research into the dynamics of gene manipulations in plants and the implications for humans and the environment. In the United States, on the contrary, there was little discussion about risks and a lot of discussion about how genetically modified rice could solve some of the world’s food problems or how enriched vegetables could make vaccination unnecessary.
These cultural differences offer journalists writing about science an expanded context in which to report their stories. By acknowledging particular cultural biases, reactions to scientific findings and advances can be better understood. And by introducing arguments and approaches different from our own, it offers readers the opportunity to rethink and reassess the issues from some new perspectives.
On my first assignment in the United States, a German family magazine asked me to rewrite a story about children and computers. The original article, written by an established German author, was apocalyptic in its tone: Children would lose empathy and their social skills if they used computers before the age of 12 because they would become angry and violent from sitting in front of the machine all the time. Basically, the article suggested that there was no hope. Parents were advised to lock away the dangerous machines. The magazine’s editor said, “I can’t leave parents alone with this problem. We need to help them understand and handle this change.”
The story reflected the mood in the general public at the time. In the Germany I had left, the computer was the dawn of the day the world would fall apart. In the United States, however, the computer was the symbol of a better future. Researchers praised it as the perfect learning tool for children: On it, they could learn according to their own speed, interests and abilities, argued U.S. computer advocates. By combining these two perspectives, I broadened my horizons as well as the article’s. Interviews with scientists in both countries allowed for a layout and discussion of challenges and risks, some of which had been invisible to experts immersed in their cultural assumptions.
Taking a look at other countries’ conflicts and struggles with new technologies can help avoid feelings of either blind anxiety or naive excitement. This is a good reason to call a British scientist in addition to those in the United States. Or why not call colleagues in Tokyo to ask about Japan’s approach towards GMO’s, embryonic stem cell research, or cloning? In the age of the Internet, contacts to such experts are not hard to find.
In Germany, Journalists Spark Public Debate About Bioethics
In Germany, there is a very visible example of how national taboos can be broken and discussed by journalists. For decades, historical events had prevented Germans from discussing bio-ethics. When terms such as “designer baby” surfaced in the media, Hitler’s horrible practices were quoted and, in Germany, the topic was buried. However, after the decoding of the human genome in the spring of 2000, the national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine not only published the entire code on six pages but also began each day to publish full-page interviews with scientists, philosophers and politicians from Germany, the United States, and other European countries. The paper had Craig Venter (director of one of the genome projects) team up with the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and had Cardinal Karl Lehmann as well as the chancellor explain and discuss their view of life sciences.
Other newspapers, especially Süeddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, joined the debate with more explanations on the science behind stem cell research and genetic testing. They brought the voices of other bioethicists and scientists onto the front pages and thus into the public limelight. Correspondents described how the governments in the United States, Great Britain, and France were handling the issue. Our nation’s history, which once prevented such debate, now forced a more meticulous and lengthy discussion than any other nation’s.
As a result, a national committee on bioethics was formed. A group of members of the German parliament traveled to the United States in 2001 to study the science as well as the way policymakers dealt with it. New words such as ‘biopolitics’ emerged in the debate; words like stem cells and cloning became part of the common vocabulary. And while two years ago a German politician could happily admit not having the slightest idea what a gene is, he would make news confessing such ignorance today.
Within the German media, there now exists a beat called “science politics” or “bioethics correspondent.” These positions are filled with journalists interested in both science and politics, both national and international. It is an essential newspaper beat. It’s the beat I was trying to imagine existing on that day when I first saw the mouse with a human ear on its back. Only then, it seemed unthinkable.
Stefanie Friedhoff, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, is a freelance correspondent based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.