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Scribing at the frontiers of science and ethics

In a moment during the virtual workshop, Robin Marantz Henig (top left), Matthew Shaer (top right), and New York Times Magazine editor Mike Benoist (bottom left) listen as Yale neurobiologist Nenad Sestan tells the story of his encounters with Shaer.

I sat in front of my laptop, headphones on and pen poised. A long week of virtual conference events lay ahead, but that day I was fresh, rested, and ready. On October 15, 2020, I was a scribe for Journalists and Scientists at the Frontiers of Science: A Dialogue about Values and Responsibility, a workshop organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) with Kavli Foundation support as part of ScienceWriters2020.

We began by talking about the complexities of covering cutting-edge science. The jumping-off point was a 2019 New York Times Magazine article by Matt Shaer on the work of the Yale neurobiologist Nenad Sestan, which involved reanimating whole pig brains for tissue studies following death. Needless to say, this was an ethically challenging topic. Both Shaer and Sestan were on a panel along with bioethicists and Shaer’s editor for a discourse on the publication of the story, Sestan’s hesitations (as he realized that the reanimation of brains is a moral gray zone), and Shaer’s ethical concerns about how the public would respond. The headline for the online version of the story—“Scientists Are Giving Dead Brains New Life. What Could Go Wrong?”—hints at the ground his reporting covered.

How do you make sure what you write isn’t spun the wrong way after publication? That was just one of the questions asked by workshop organizer and past NASW president Robin Marantz Henig.

“We didn’t want this to be sensationalistic,” Shaer said, “but we didn’t want to get someone’s hopes up.” Although brain reanimation was the core topic of this article, another purpose of Shaer’s long-form story was to help people understand the scientific process by telling a story about how the science progressed and introducing the researchers as characters.

It was when Shaer talked about the “emotional burden” of getting a story right that the ethical decisions journalists have to make really became real to me. But before I could dwell on this, we broke into small groups to begin the hands-on part of the workshop, where four teams would tackle the challenges journalists face in covering four ethically challenging topics at the frontiers of science.

My group’s topic was gene editing techniques, such as the popular and recent method known as CRISPR. Our goal was to draft guidelines for writers and editors who are covering this subject. We live in a CRISPR world now—the discovery of CRISPR even recently won a Nobel prize—but how do journalists serve the public responsibly when covering this topic?

Separating real from hypothetical: An ethical mandate

Some of the challenges we discussed involved balancing the real and the hypothetical. In other words, in terms of CRISPR, journalists need to separate what is happening in actual laboratories from the theoretical applications of gene editing (such as designer babies or bioweapons). It is critical to provide context for our readers about where the science actually is.

When we began working on our deliverable, the first question raised was: are journalists obligated to discuss a story on human gene editing with a bioethicist before publishing? After a brief discussion, we decided that yes, science journalists should seek out ethicists when writing. This may not always be possible, but if you can, you should.

We also recommended that journalists reach out to affected communities when writing about gene editing with human applications. For instance, if scientists identified a gene that causes deafness, a journalist should investigate whether or not the deaf community would actually want that gene edited. We can’t assume that just because there is a scientific breakthrough, the communities it would most affect would actually want that change. As journalists, we should integrate this ethical facet into our stories.

Navigating the edges of possibility

Some other guiding principles we outlined included asking the researchers about the ethical considerations of their work, describing the scientists’ thought processes, and clearly distinguishing data from speculation. Further, when something is at the edge of possibility, a journalist should get multiple scientific viewpoints.

This last idea leads me to the guiding principle that really struck me: assemble your own peer-review community as a journalist. That is to say, journalists should get as many viewpoints as possible about a topic before reporting on it.

After the breakouts, I presented a synthesis of this conversation to the workshop. The topics covered by the other groups included solar geoengineering, artificial intelligence and predictive technologies, and brain-machine interfaces. Altogether, it seemed as though everyone at the workshop agreed that these ethically challenging topics require that the journalist think about how the public will be affected by an article, appreciate the viewpoints of the communities that are the target of a new technology, and decide if an ethicist should be consulted before publication. But just because topics can be ethically challenging doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be covered. If anything, the ethical quandaries associated with a topic might make them more important to cover.

As a fledgling journalist, this workshop had a major impact on me. During my scientific training, I often thought about the ethics of animal research. Now, as a writer, I know that I need to keep ethical considerations about any given topic at the front of my mind. Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither does journalism. What we write can have major impacts on the people we are trying to inform.

Brooke Dulka is a freelance science writer and postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience in Milwaukee, WI. When she isn’t writing or in the lab, Dulka enjoys drinking tea and reading fiction. Follow her on Twitter @IsRewriting.