In March 1997, the world learned that it may be possible to
produce a cloned individual from an adult mammal. The universal
question was, How long before someone will try it with humans?
On January 6, 1998, National Public Radio reporter Joe Palca
broadcast the answer: in the coming months, if Chicago-area
physicist and sometime fertility researcher Richard Seed has
The 10-minute dialogue touched off a media storm, with newspapers
and television jumping on it all across the country. But science
writers everywhere are questioning the story's validity. Is
Richard Seed credible? Is there a realistic chance that he'll
get the backing he needs?
Right now he doesn't have the money, he doesn't have a firm
commitment from the physician who will perform the procedure,
and he doesn't have an infertile couple willing to undergo the
procedure, Palca admitted during the segment. Many science journalists
were left wondering where the news value was.
Several prominent ones refused to cover it. Among those was
Robert Lee Hotz, a science writer at the Los Angeles Times.
He wanted confirmation that a fertility clinic was on board
with the plan. In his report, Palca indicated that he had met
with members of one such clinic that would consider doing the
procedure, but Palca didn't identify those sources. Having written
a book about the fertility research in the 1980s, Hotz had a
pretty good idea who the people at the clinic were . . . some
are more adventuresome than others. I made some guesses and
called, but I couldn't get anyone to 'fess up' [in time for
my] deadline, Hotz recalls. So he dropped the story.
Joel Shurkin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning freelance science writer
formerly at the Philadelphia Inquirer, says he wouldn't
have covered the story at all, citing the improbability of Seed
ever succeeding at cloning a human being. When somebody just
mouths off pie in the sky, it isn't a news story. . . . I was
much less upset at Joe than all the others who followed it as
if it were a news story. What ever happened to news judgement?
What irked both Shurkin and Hotz is that many reporters picked
up the story from Palca's report, without confirming his sources.
The news media has become less a gatherer of news and more a
disperser of news. Joe did original research and the others
didn't. . . . [Dispersing news] is a whole new role for the
media, and it's one I don't like, says Shurkin.
Palca saw one particularly troubling article the next day;
it quoted Seed as saying that he already had people lined up
to be cloned. He never said that to me, Palca recalls. My next
question would've been: What are their names? I think there
was a lot of unrigorous coverage. Still, John Gever, who writes
drug industry trade newsletters, saw the story as an opportunity
to educate. Look, here's how I see the Seed story. We have Dolly,
right? So we know it's possible to make a genetic copy of an
adult higher mammal. Now here's a guy with a modicum of credentials
going around saying he's going to start a human cloning clinic.
He's asking people for money to get it underway. He is apparently
the first person to do so. This is news! . . . The welter of
reasons why Seed is unlikely to make it actually happen don't
detract from the newsworthiness, they are part of the story.
Palca clearly had a similar attitude. Seed probably will not
be able to clone anyone, but he is just the kind of person who
might try. I don't know whether the publicity will make it harder
or easier for him to try. . . . I used Seed to present the issues
surrounding cloning, he says.
On the surface, the journalists seem to disagree. But they
are intent on educating the public as well as informing them,
and such is the creed of almost any science writers worth their
salt. There is no denying that the sudden possibility of human
cloning - considered the stuff of science fiction just ten months
before - captured the fascination of the lay public, and more
than a few ivory-towered scientists. Of course there are also
looming ethical and regulatory conundrums to shake our heads
at for years to come. Some science writers argue that although
Seed is unlikely to succeed in his quest, the wide coverage
serves as a forum and catalyst for public debate on a technological
development that could transform our lives in the not so distant
future. The question at hand seems to be, Is human cloning really
likely to come around soon? Or will costs, technical limitations,
and societal jitters keep cloning in the realm of science fiction
far into the twenty-first century?
The answer, of course, depends upon which scientist, which
regulator, and which science writer you ask. One could well
argue that because part of the role of journalists is to interpret
events (they have to, if only to decide which ones to chronicle
in each day's edition), it is to society's benefit that different
journalists - each with unique training, background, and ethical
bent - should come to different conclusions about the newsworthiness
of a planned cloning fertility clinic. Some wrote stories with
a hint that investors should be smelling a moneymaker, while
a few reported that such a scheme is unlikely to succeed, and
serious discussion of the matter is premature. Other journalists
focused on regulatory or ethical issues, while some listened
to the NPR report, scanned the press releases, and chose to
put the matter aside in favor of another topic they believed
more deserving. Of course, quite a few listened to the report
and then regurgitated it, with little analysis or helpful insight.
But such is the price we pay for freedom of the press. News
coverage is probably forever doomed to be dicey. But there are
good, meticulous science reporters out there producing thoughtful,
intelligent news and analysis of research. They're out there.
They're just not always easy to find.
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