Award-winning genetics reporter shares her process

Tina Saey

Tina Hesman Saey

Sometimes exploring a topic requires more than one story … or three … and sometimes it involves a bit of personal investment. Such was the case for a multi-part series Tina Hesman Saey wrote on consumer DNA testing for Science News.

The investigation took months and paid off in a richly reported, in-depth story that helps readers understand what DNA tests can — and can’t — tell them with an intimacy rarely found in science reporting.

Saey submitted her DNA to eight different testing companies and then compared the results and their widespread discrepancies. Her five articles explore what consumer DNA testing companies promise and what they actually deliver. She especially delves into the topics of disease risk and ethnicity, but what might have been dry recitation of numbers becomes instead a series of personal stories that illustrate the limitations of such testing.

“Since publication of the series, both 23andMe and AncestryDNA have updated their ethnicity estimates, and AncestryDNA has added a traits report,” Saey told the awards committee in her entry form. She also cautioned that focusing too much on one’s own results could miss the larger story.

“I think it is important to set expectations for what the average person can expect from these tests and to lay out the science and ethical/social issues surrounding genetic information,” she told the awards committee. She also noted how long it took — nearly a year — to get results from whole genome sequencing.

Saey’s series won second place in the Consumer/Feature (small) category of the 2018 AHCJ Awards for Excellence in Journalism. The five-article series ran in three issues of Science News, starting in May 2018 with “Genetic testing goes mainstream.” Other articles included “Consumer DNA testing promises more than it delivers,” “What consumer DNA data can and can’t tell you about your risk for certain diseases” and “DNA testing can bring families together, but gives mixed answers on ethnicity.”

Read a new in-depth Q&A on how Saey completed her reporting and the resources she used.

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