Genetics and Journalism

A View from the United States
  • Joan Stephenson


Charles Petit, a science writer for US News & World Report, recently lobbed a mock news story at his colleagues to illustrate journalistic clichés perpetrated by science writers, Although Petit’s spoof was intended to lampoon a formulaic approach to science reporting, he makes some telling points about how journalists serve up science news to the public:

Science writers are nearing a breakthrough, perhaps a major breakthrough, in their age-old quest to unlock the secrets, even the ultimate secrets, of cliché-free prose, researchers reported yesterday. Using cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, high-tech and other [hyphen]-laden methodologies, the science journalists sifted obscure clues to reach their tentative conclusions. ‘This is statistically significant,’ one senior researcher said. ‘It is an important step forward,’ said another. ‘This is science in action,’ they agreed.

The research was reported in Science Magazine, a prestigious journal, and in Nature too, a leading British journal. Other researchers welcomed the report, but were cautious. They called for more research.

Science writers covered all the (usual) bases, quoting John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, bioethicist Arthur Caplan, live astronomer Steve Maran, dead astronomer Carl Sagan, outspoken physicist Robert Park, and neo-Luddite anti-technology gadfly Jeremy Rifkin. Stephen Jay Gould would have added class, but was unavailable for comment.

Cliché are a window into the past, even if they are redshifted like the whistle on a passing train that changes pitch when it goes by, an analogy that itself is a window into the past. They offer a glimpse of the future, too. They add to growing evidence of the cataclysm that may have killed the inosaurs. Debate is sure to continue.

And while the latest results do not offer a cure, they point the way to better understanding of the underlying basic cellular causes to the ancient affliction.

‘We may never know all the answers but this is an important piece of the puzzle,’ said everybody (Petit, 1997).


News Story Science Writer Prestigious Journal Ethical Context Science Magazine 
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joan Stephenson
    • 1
  1. 1.Medical News and PerspectivesJournal of the American Medical AssociationChicago

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