The bird-flu blues

Short notice that research will resume leads to thin coverage

Reporters didn’t have much time to react to the news that scientists in some countries will soon resume research on a deadly avian flu virus that was suspended last year amid concerns about safety and terrorism.

The journals Science and Nature, which published the announcement in tandem on January 23, gave journalists only 24 hours advance notice that they would do so—an unusually short lead time—provoking charges that they didn’t give allow enough time to gather reactions to the decision.

The research involves altering the H5N1 bird flu virus—which is often fatal but doesn’t pass easily from person to person—to make it more transmissible. The goal is to guard against similar, random mutations that might happen naturally, but it sparked concerns that the virus could leak from one the labs or that terrorists could get their hands on it and use it to build biological weapons.

Responding to those worries, 40 scientists announced in January 2012 that they would voluntarily halt their research until countries could develop guidelines to ensure its safety. Those guidelines are now ready in Europe, Canada, and China, and will be soon in the US and Japan, and the 40 scientists say they’re ready to get back to work.

That doesn’t mean concerns about the research have disappeared, but you wouldn’t know it from recent coverage. Brandom Keim, a freelance science writer, posted an “unscientific survey of mainstream H5N1 moratorium-lift stories near the top of Google News” on his Tumblr account the day after the story broke, which found that critical voices were vastly outnumbered by proponents of the work. There are still many people who think the research is too risky or that it could be done differently, however, and Keim quoted four them in an article for Wired.

Such breadth of opinion was lacking in pieces from The New York Times, USA Today, The Associated Press, and other major outlets. On Wednesday, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn wrote:

I’ve been unable to find a substantial piece that helps me decide whether this decision to resume research was hasty or whether it makes good scientific sense. I have my doubts about it, but I don’t have what I need from the stories I saw or heard to resolve those doubts.

In his Tumblr post, Keim blamed the journals:

Typically embargoed stories go out to reporters at least four or five days ahead of time. Even last-minute stories go out a couple days ahead. There was absolutely no reason not to inform reporters late last week. Arguably reporters (including myself) should be following the issue so closely that more time isn’t needed, and certainly some articles reflect that expertise, but most daily reporters in this situation are going to be generalists without a deep understanding of the material, who by default will give their imprimatur to whatever’s said at the press conference.

Alice Henchley, the head of Nature’s press office, and Kathleen Wren, a press officer at Science, acknowledged that 24 hours doesn’t leave reporters much time, and offered the same two-part explanation for the short notice: They, too, were working under an unusually tight timeframe, having received notice of the H5N1 announcement less than a week before. More important, they thought that there was a high chance someone would break the embargo if they sent the press release earlier.

“You never want to abbreviate the embargo window if we can help it, but in this case it seemed like the best decision,” Wren said, adding that the journals organized a teleconference with the authors of the announcement during the embargo period, and that Science made the letter freely available online, as did Nature.

Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health and founder of the blog Embargo Watch, rejected Henchley and Wren’s explanation.

“Look, this is one of those things where journals can come up with lots of reasons why they chose to do something,” he said. “It’s not at all clear to me why, within 24 hours of learning of this announcement, they couldn’t have given their press lists a draft. This gets to the concern about an embargo break, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Either you trust the system you created or you don’t, and if you have that little faith in your system, then you have created a pretty bad system.”

He’s right. The only reason to that reporters should agree to the embargo system is the understanding that they’ll have enough time to do their work. If the journals can’t provide that, they’re not living up to their end of the bargain.

Perhaps there was a high risk that someone was going to jump the gun with the H5N1 story, but journals can’t have it both ways with embargoes. Science and Nature should have shared a draft of the announcement letter, noting that the final text was subject to change, as soon as they’d received it (after all, Nature had plenty of time to write a related editorial and news article).

The journals failure to do so doesn’t let journalists off the hook entirely, however. On Twitter, science journalist Carl Zimmer argued that, even on short notice, “any competent, motivated reporter could track down an opponent of lifting the flu research moratorium in 15 minutes.”

That’s a fair point. The H5N1 research is a massive, ongoing story and the press should’ve been more prepared for this announcement. After scientists suspended their work last January, there was a massive international debate about whether to publish two papers describing earlier experiments in which teams from Wisconsin and the Netherlands tweaked the virus so that it spreads easily among ferrets, which are considered good models for the way the flu behaves in humans.

The debate drew considerable media attention, but after the papers were eventually published in Nature and Science, the press lost interest in the moratorium, which at the outset was only supposed to last 60 days, and all but forgot about federal efforts to draft guidelines that would allow the bird-flu research to continue. When the National Institutes of Health released a draft framework in December, for instance, it hardly got any coverage.

So there’s a limit to how much journalists can complain about the short notice. Science and Nature should have given them more time, but if they’d been following the story more closely, they would’ve seen the signs that the moratorium’s days were numbered.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,