When we first talked about our idea for MATTER — a publisher dedicated to tackling some of the deep problems around science and technology journalism — a lot of people asked us whether we were really identifying a problem that existed. Do we really need better outlets for reporting on the future? Are things really that bad?
There are some great outlets, true, but our Kickstarter video featured plenty of examples of poor practice: non-stories parading as news; advertising hijacking everything; information planted by public relations firms everywhere.
Today came a fantastic, disturbing example from one of Britain’s biggest news organisations: The Times, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Here’s the front page of today’s Times (the story’s also online for subscribers). The lead story claims in breathless tones that DNA analysis has proven that Prince William, the heir to Britain’s throne, has Indian ancestry.
In reality it’s a fairly pointless revelation, but we’re interested in genetics and science reporting. So how did they discover it? By examining the mitochondrial DNA of distant relatives with the same maternal lineage. Scientists did spit swabs of some distant cousins of Prince William and, thanks to a rare form of mtDNA found only in Asian populations and passed down from mothers to their children, were able to discern that great-great-great-great-great grandmother Eliza Kewark had an Indian mother.
Tests on saliva samples taken from Prince William’s relatives have established a direct lineage between the second in line to the throne and a woman now known to have been at least half-Indian […] The revelation of the Duke’s Asian ancestry is sure to boost his popularity among India’s 1.1 billion population.
Some have picked up the potential privacy issues around this (an issue we’re very interested in). What rights do we have around DNA we share with others?
Thankfully, this story is relatively trivial. But it feels like spying nonetheless. There’s an obvious reason why the Times didn’t run the story with Robin Dewhurst and Sarah Drury, the two distant cousins of the princes who provided the actual DNA, on the front page. But our DNA is the most basic data we have. No-one should have to find out what it contains by looking at the front-page of a newspaper.
That is a serious issue worth thinking about, because the more DNA gets tested, the more inferences like this can be made (and some of them may carry more weight than this).
But more than that, I was concerned to see why this story was being run now.
(It’s always worth thinking about the provenance of stories you read in the news: Why now? Why like this? Who benefits?).
In this case, the story refers to one particular company, BritainsDNA, which carried out the testing. Its work is the basis of these front page claims, and its in-house expert Jim Wilson is quoted and referenced several times for scientific legitimacy.
Now, take a close look at the paper.
Down there, in the middle.
I’ve handily circled it in red for you.
What we have there is something that looks suspiciously like a bit of advertising. It’s a box offering to take you “Behind the Story”.
Readers of The Times can discover more about the unknown stories hidden in their genes with BritainsDNA. Using cutting-edge technology, BritainsDNA can trace your ancestry back into the deep past, far beyond written record, and help answer a fundamental question — where do you come from? […]
Discover more and order online at BritainsDNA.com […] For a more detailed analysis, Times+ members can enjoy a free upgrade package worth £65 when they order a DNA test from BritainsDNA. Visit mytimesplus.co.uk for more information.
For the unitiated, Times+ is the newspaper’s subscription package. And that means this is basically a piece of marketing, a publicity stunt, a Trojan horse, designed to encourage people to purchase a subscription. At the least, it’s an awkward and undeclared ethical conflict.
Now, it’s no surprise that the Times is trying to boost revenues. These are tricky times in media.And I don’t know exactly what the deal was here.
But it’s certainly enough to raise questions. From where I’m standing, it looks like one of Britain’s most famous news outlets has traded the sacred space on its front page for a spurious science story that is really intended to puff itself and a marketing partner.
So when people ask why does MATTER exist, I’m going to show them this. It turns out the three traits we identified are all there in this one story. It’s the perfect storm of low value information parading as news, generated from PR material and poisoned by advertising money.
This is how the news gets infected. And this is why we do what we do.