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When Is a Breakthrough Really News?

July 19, 1998|Karen Wright | Karen Wright, a science journalist, has written for Scientific American, Discover, Nature, Science and the New York Times Magazine. She is completing a novel about desert ecology and human procreation

NASHUA, N.H — Early in May, researchers in Europe and the United States announced a scientific advance that has all the trappings of a landmark discovery. The research concerns a topic that has great import in modern life, and one that has already generated a good deal of controversy. Although you may not have heard of it, the purported discovery of a gene for intelligence could be considered a highly newsworthy event.

Instead, a different story monopolized science coverage in May. At a dinner party in Los Angeles, another scientist reportedly opined that cancer was going to be cured in two years by a research team at Harvard Medical School and a publicly traded company in Rockville, Md. Newspapers across the country picked up the story, as did newsweeklies, as did the broadcast media, as did Wall Street. Terminal patients and their loved ones kept phone lines tied up for days at cancer clinics across the nation. Some people with money made a lot more.

By now, the turbulent saga of angiogenesis blockers has calmed, much like the news of the asteroid that was going to obliterate life on Earth and the talk about the guy in Chicago who was going to clone human beings. But the question of when science is really news, and what kind of news it is, continues to vex reporters and perhaps the public as well. Of the four big science stories so far this year --asteroid impacts, human clones, cancer cures and impotence pills--three have turned out to be busts. Some Viagra wives might argue for all four.

These big stories illustrate four different approaches to science news. The most common one describes a scientific development that has just happened or that has just been reported to the media. The IQ-gene story belongs in this category, and so does the asteroid-impact story, which was pegged to a fresh batch of calculations issued by alarmed scientists at a prominent astrophysics lab. Both stories combined the immediacy of breaking news with the rare appeal of research whose consequences can be instantly grasped by the layman. The astrophysicists' predictions were soon retracted, of course, but for a day or so those fellas had our undivided attention.

In the case of the angiogenesis blockers, it was enthusiastic comments by two individuals, rather than any actual breakthrough in research, that launched the media frenzy. When a Nobel laureate and a director of national cancer research seem to agree that a cancer cure is imminent, their apparent surge of optimism can be said to constitute "news," even if the research itself has not advanced beyond the mouse stage. Even if the research has not advanced, period. This second approach to science news invokes the "big shots say so" criterion. In such a story, you can expect a lot of quotes, plus the nagging feeling that nothing much has happened.

It's also considered news when a scientist, or reasonable facsimile thereof, declares his or her intentions to do something unusual, unethical or merely impolite. It was news, for example, when maverick geneticist Craig Ventner announced in May that he was joining forces with a biotech company to sequence the entire human genome, rather than hang with the drones at the $3-billion government-sponsored Human Genome Project. Similarly, the overwrought cloning story blossomed from one individual's radical declaration at a law-school symposium. It was the statement of intent that was the "news," not whether Richard Seed is capable of carrying out his scheme, but that distinction got lost in a lot of the subsequent media coverage.

Viagra? Admirably, reporters held off heralding a cure for impotence when the drug first worked in middle-aged rodents, waiting until the product had cleared clinical trials before turning up the hype. This fourth sort of news--the arrival on the market of a medical treatment after years of product development--can seem anticlimactic to science journalists. They generally prefer the prolonged foreplay of basic research or the tease of a scoop.

But whatever the angle, the juiciest science stories rely for their impact on the credulity of science reporters: their willingness to suspend disbelief, as it were, and imagine just for a moment that the tale their sources are telling might actually be true. Though appropriate qualifiers are always included, the spirit of these stories speaks louder than the print. This spirit almost always sounds like: "Wow! Isn't this neat? What if . . . ? How 'bout that? Who'd a thunk it?"

Science reporters rarely display the skepticism and schadenfreude that characterizes press coverage of other subjects: politics, business, sports or even entertainment. Their relationship with their sources is almost never adversarial. Amid the cynical, spin-battered press corps, science journalists are a remarkably mild, congenial bunch.

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