The scene was the National Academy of Sciences, the palace of the American scientific establishment. Marble columns. Walnut paneling. One of the neoclassical buildings that give Washington, D.C. its imperial feel. Only on this day, the building was home more to circus than science. That’s how it felt to be in the throng of reporters chasing three self-described cloning researchers around the foyers and Great Hall, trying to press them on their alleged plans to clone human beings.
It was August 2001, and the press was beginning to grapple with the prospect of human cloning. The three “cloners” had been invited to speak at a conference on the subject, and at each break we would pounce. We chased Brigitte Boisselier into a dimly lit stairway, where she’d hoped to confer with her lawyer. We chased Italian fertility doctor, Severino Antinori, to the men’s bathroom and then—in one of the day’s few gestures of restraint—waited outside as he conducted his business. When he emerged, Antinori was greeted by a crowd of reporters and a half-dozen camera lights.
Of course, this is just what Boisselier and the other cloning advocates wanted. They were there to gain attention and ultimately, I believe, to make money on their cloning claims by attracting investors or clients. And we obliged them with stories that introduced their names to people around the world—Antinori, his then-colleague Panos Zavos, and Boisselier, an official with the once-obscure Raelian Movement, a religious group fixated on sex and UFO’s. We, in the media, made them famous.
Hyping the Cloning Story
In itself, I saw nothing wrong with this. Personality is a key ingredient in the cloning story, which is also a rich combination of science, sex, business, ethics and very serious questions about legal constraints on disease research—spiced with a generous dollop of creepiness. It’s an irresistible mix for any reporter. Besides, it was the national academy that gave the cloning advocates the podium that day; the media followed the academy’s lead. (And, before that, Zavos, Boisselier and her religious mentor, who goes by the name Rael, had been called to testify by none other than the House of Representatives.)
But as we chased this rich story, as journalists we could—and should— have done much better for news consumers. Cloning truly presented a dilemma for the press. Usually—but not always—the standard for determining that a scientific claim is valid and newsworthy is its appearance in a peer-reviewed journal. These journals require that independent scientists review an experiment’s methodology and results: They reject papers that fail to measure up. Even then, good reporters need to ask around to make sure that a published paper represents good science.
Clearly, that standard seemed too fastidious for the human cloning story. A reporter who waited for Antinori or Boisselier to publish findings in a journal might wait forever, since there was little evidence that these people really intended to clone anything. At the same time, to do so would be taking a pass on an important story. Merely by stating an intent to clone, Antinori, Zavos and Boisselier had touched off a national (and fascinating) ethics and public policy debate, not only about producing cloned children, but also about whether cloning should remain legal as a tool for making stem cells for disease research.
But too often our stories seemed to lack any standards at all. On several occasions, Antinori, Zavos and Boisselier made Page One of major newspapers merely by restating their claim of an intent to start cloning. What evidence did we present that they were even trying? What was the evidence they might succeed? None of them had experience with animal cloning. And when scientists with deep experience tried producing cloned human embryos, they either got nowhere or produced embryos with only a few cells.
When we did challenge their claims, reporters often fell into a simplistic is-not, is-too style of reporting that gave equal footing to the “cloners” and their better-credentialed doubters. This kind of “balance” is not always helpful or credible because it elevates dubious or unsubstantiated claims beyond their merit. At the national academy meeting, for example, Boisselier claimed she had found a set of genes that could tell her which cloned embryos would turn into healthy children and which were destined to be deformed. Under traditional circumstances, a scientist who failed to show the evidence for repeated claims like this would be dismissed out of hand, banished from serious debate. And yet the press continued to report and promote Boisselier’s cloning claims.
Some of us reported frivolity along the way, such as Antinori’s hunger strike to protest “persecution” by Italian authorities. What was the low point? Undoubtedly, it was CNN’s decision to give live and uninterrupted coverage to Boisselier’s announcement that she had produced the world’s first cloned child—a claim that has never been backed with even a proffer of evidence. By presenting this unsubstantiated claim to such a wide audience, CNN’s decision surely forced other media to report on it, as well.
Good Reporting on Cloning
There has been a lot of good journalism about cloning, even though many reporters are unschooled in the science. We’ve felt our way through the complexities of cloning as well as the related issues of stem cell research and the broader “new biology” of the gene. But even as we did this, we might have looked for a few lessons from the world of political reporting.
Like political candidates, Antinori, Zavos and the Raelians put themselves on the public stage and made claims as to why they deserved trust and power—in this case, the power to step into a possibly dangerous science without oversight. When people make a bid for power, journalists try to check them out thoroughly. Whether covering a campaign for president or town council, we go after some basic information about the people who want power: Who are they? Where does their money come from? What skills do they really have? And what does their history tell us about how they would use power?
A check of Zavos’s background, for example, shows that a Kentucky hospital had once terminated an employment contract with him, alleging “unethical and illegal” behavior. A watchdog board at another former employer, the University of Kentucky, cited Zavos for failing to follow federal rules that protect people in medical experiments. His lawyer was disbarred, in part for helping Zavos hide assets after he was ordered to pay damages in a civil suit. When Zavos swore out a criminal complaint against one of his own employees, a judge, in an unusual rebuke, said the action was “vindictive” and not in good faith.
Zavos was given hours of television time to defend his cloning plans, and he appeared in countless news reports. But these other details about his professional life were rarely mentioned. If news consumers had been told about them, they would have been in a better position to judge his claim that he could be trusted with the potentially dangerous technology of human cloning. Most scientists, after all, claim that cloning could well lead to deformed children, at least with current techniques. And, in undertaking cloning, Zavos said his goal was to offer hope to infertile couples—people who may be vulnerable and willing to pay large sums in their hopes for a child. (Zavos has denied wrongdoing in his professional life and has maintained that his actions were legal.)
Similarly, a more thorough background check on Boisselier and the Raelians would have left consumers better prepared for the colossal claim of the first cloned child. Well before they started talking up cloning, the Raelians had a long history of conducting stunts to gain press attention. They handed out condoms at high schools. They bought a billboard advertisement welcoming spacemen to earth. They issued endless press releases on the news of the day. For consumers trying to judge whether the group had truly produced a cloned baby, this history of publicity stunts was important context. But it, too, was often absent from news stories.
Moreover, the group had tried a cloning stunt once before, setting up a “company” to offer cloning services for a hefty fee. In reality, it was nothing more than a post office box in the Bahamas, something Rael admitted in a book he wrote on cloning. “For a minimal investment, it got us media coverage worth more than $15 million,” he wrote. “I am still laughing.”
We could have also better explored why the Raelians had an interest in cloning to begin with. My theory, after talking to group members and former members, is that the claims about cloning were all about helping Rael keep control of his group. It takes money to run a religious sect, and the Raelians rely on their members to make donations and to sell Rael’s books. But keeping people engaged is difficult. Members get bored, drift away, and cut off the stream of money and free labor.
Cloning was a perfect antidote. It gave Raelians a sense that they were part of a historic project and that it was worth staying engaged. When Congress and the media took the group’s cloning plans seriously, it confirmed for many members that Rael’s vision of a coming scientific utopia was accurate. It told them that their hard work for the group was worthwhile. And it exposed the Raelians to a wide audience, potentially bringing in new members.
Keeping a sharper focus on motive, finances and personality can produce good stories throughout our coverage of science. In showing that many of us missed some good reporting opportunities, journalist Neil Munro has noted how we often fail to explore the commercial interests of scientists who enter the public debate. His critiques, in the National Journal in 2001 and The Washington Monthly in 2002, examined the multiple and overlaying interests of medical researchers who were arguing for freedom to use human embryonic stem cells and cloning techniques.
In many cases, Munro found, these scientists had major stakes in private companies that were involved with stem cell research. But, in most cases, reporters and scientific associations identified them only by their university affiliations. These commercial interests did not necessarily invalidate their arguments for broad scientific freedom. But they added color, and we would not have left similar information out of our reporting on people seeking political power.
In the news trade, few things make us happier than a shift in political power. Power shifts give us plenty to write about, and we know how to cover these stories well. Today, science is offering another kind of power shift: We are gaining the power to reshape life through genetic manipulation, stem cells and cloning, a power once held only by nature, or God, or fate. It is an important change and one that tends to produce overhyped claims about future cures or scientific results.
Often, journalists cannot ignore these big claims. But asking the familiar questions about personality, motive and finances will produce stronger stories and provide the kind of transparency news consumers deserve.
Aaron Zitner covers science policy for the Los Angeles Times, working out of the newspaper’s Washington, D.C. bureau.