Were journalists ‘fabulously naïve’ about human genome?

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

As Tinker Ready reported on the Nature Network’s Boston Blog, the luminaries gathered for Harvard’s panel on the 10-year anniversary of mapping the human genome, particularly the Broad Institute’s Eric Lander, had some strong opinions on media coverage of the event. Here’s Ready’s description of the spiciest bit:

Lander blamed the press for unrealistically high expectation for the human genome.
… Lander said that expectations for the impact of the research were “fabulously naïve. Journalists wrote about how we were going to have drugs for all these disease in the next decade. Somebody was smoking something. This was just nuts.”

The next day, on her Boston Health News blog, Ready revisited that particular quote for a bit of fact-checking. She went back to initial reports from The New York Times and USA Today, and tried to substantiate the claims of Lander, the lead author who himself wrote, at the time, that “The scientific work will have profound long-term consequences for medicine.”

Without spoiling Ready‘s post, I’ll just say she found some examples of restrained, responsible journalism. Were there a few hyperbolic quotes? Yes. But they came from scientists.

4 thoughts on “Were journalists ‘fabulously naïve’ about human genome?

  1. Andrew Holtz

    A few years ago I met with an executive of a cable TV network. He dismissed all the show ideas I had prepared. He said he wanted shows about all the miraculous cures that genetic discoveries were about to deliver.

    Having been on this beat since before the identification of the Cystic Fibrosis gene (which quickly led to a cure for that ailment… not), I recognized that I couldn’t satisfy his desire; yet I had no doubt he’d find others to produce those shows.

    He was merely following what his audience research told him: that viewers want to hear that something (genes or scans or ancient knowledge or whatever) will rescue them. Plenty of solid journalists, anchored by facts and experience, try to resist that desperate tide of hope. Yet their sober reports are unlikely to grab mass attention… including the attention of critics.

  2. Bob

    Why no navel gazing regarding health media giving Wakefield and others an evidence free pass and examining how the obsession with drug comapny ‘conflict of interest’ contributed to allowing vaccine panic to spread. Not one post about it except self congratulation regarding the health media ‘ catching ‘ Wakefield..

  3. Pia Christensen

    Actually, in a Feb. 9 post, we called the media “willing enablers.” We also linked to a post in which Gary Schwitzer pointed out that the Wakefield episode showed that journalists have much to learn. And Bill Heisel did a seven-part series about coverage of Wakefield that did indeed point the finger at the media for being accomplices: “Many in the media helped him spread his intellectual poison.” We tweeted links to each part of that series.

  4. Pingback: The best of Nature Boston 2011 « Boston Health News

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