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Genetics, scientists and the media

5 May 2004
By Juliet Tizzard
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 256
In BioNews this week we report on a Canadian study which suggests that genetics is not overhyped by the media. For many people involved in genetic research or clinical services, the findings may come as a surprise. Feeling rather under siege from the media, they sometimes assume that coverage is more negative than it really is. The study, which looked at genetics stories published in broadsheet newspapers in Canada, the UK, the US and Australia, showed that this assumption is not accurate. Rather, 89 per cent of genetics stories are either not exaggerated at all or make slightly exaggerated claims.

However, the authors of the research are quick to point out a limitation of their study. They only focused upon articles in newspapers which reported on studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In this situation, journalists have an original paper and, more often than not, a press release from which to glean their information. However, because the media interest in science has made public figures of some scientists, journalists often report on developments which occur well before publication in a journal

For example, the enormous media interest in embryonic stem cell research has made even announcements about a scientist's intention to carry out research headline news. Professor Ian Wilmut, made famous by the intense media interest in the cloning of Dolly the sheep, has made a number of comments in public about his intention to move from animal cloning to the creation of cloned human embryos for research purposes. Eighteen months on from his first announcement that he would like to use cloned human embryos in research, Professor Wilmut has yet to be granted a license to carry out the work. And so, a number of journalists have written stories about research that hasn't even started yet, let alone been published in a journal.

It is perhaps this kind of science story which does more to overhype genetics and associated areas of research than stories about published research. But it's difficult to know who to blame for this: the journalists for giving the impression that research is more advanced than it really is or the scientists for talking it up before it has even begun.

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