November 25, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Communicating gene drive: The dangers of misleading headlines

As some of you know, I am interested in how people communicate about ‘gene drive’, a new biotechnology that can potentially be used to eradicate disease transmitting animals.

Wiping out the daughters

Some days ago, I saw a tweet that mentioned an article published in The Guardian entitled “Wiping out the daughters: Burkina Faso’s controversial mosquito experiment”. I couldn’t quite parse it at first. What was going on in Burkina Faso? Why wipe out daughters? What awful war was that? Then, it dawned on me and a realised that, of course, the article was talking about mosquito daughters not human daughters – personification had led me astray. Phew, I thought.

It turns out that the article was originally published in Dutch in De Volkskrant under the much more innocuous title “Dit Afrikaanse dorp krijgt, als eerste plek ter wereld, gentechmuggen tegen malaria” (This African village is the first place in the world to get GM mosquitoes against malaria).

Communicating gene drive

The article is about ‘gene drive’ (un-surprisingly, also ‘gene drive’ in Dutch), and the difficulties of communicating about this highly complex way of dealing with malaria. In Dutch we read for example: “Namountougou en zijn team hebben een spiksplinternieuwe oplossing tot hun beschikking om dit te voorkomen: een gene drive. Die zorgt er met een soort genetische kopieermachine voor dat alle nakomelingen, in plaats van de helft, de nieuwe eigenschap meekrijgen. Het is genetische modificatie op speed.”

In The Guardian this reads as “Namountougou [Moussa Namountougou, head of the insect farm of the Institut de Recherche et Sciences de la Santé (IRSS)] and his team have at their disposal a gene drive, which they want to use to stop the genetic instruction diluting as modified mosquitoes mate with those that don’t have the new genetic information. This uses a sort of genetic copier so [sic] breed offspring with the new trait – with the intention of wiping out female malaria-carrying mosquitoes.” (i.e. the ‘daughters’). This is one of many ways to describe how a gene drive works – not that people just reading this article would understand what that means, I bet!

People in the village in question, Bana, might be better at understanding gene drives than I am, as, amongst other things, “For seven years, Target Malaria, the organisation behind the project – has been sending teams of theatre performers to Bana to explain what scientists are doing in their village.” This is important, as not everybody in the village can read/write.

This does not mean everybody is persuaded that using gene drive technology (and I should stress that gene drives have not yet been released in the wild) is a good thing. As one person said: “’It makes us puppets of the west,’ says Ali Tapsoba, director of Terre à Vie, a community organisation in the capital Ouagadougou.”

I recommend you read the article in full to understand the complexities of the situation and some of the issues around gene drives, GM mosquitoes and public engagement!

War on terror

Back to the tweet that set me off on the trail of this article. When I read the headline and finally understood it, I was reminded of an incident more than a decade ago, in 2006, when I opened The Guardian and saw the headline “War on Terror” – Interview with Richard James.

Communicating antimicrobial resistance

At the time, I was doing research on discourses around antimicrobial/antibiotic resistance in disease causing bacteria, which involved chatting quite frequently with Richard James, then Director of the Centre for Healthcare Associated Infections at the University of Nottingham. So, I knew who he was but I couldn’t for the sake of me think what he had to do with the war on terror.

The penny dropped, yet again a bit slowly, after getting past the headline. At that time Richard was talking a lot about the ‘post-antibiotic apocalypse’ and the war on superbugs in order to get governments to implement new policies on infection control, drug development and so on, a ‘war’ that is still going on today! We debated the pros and cons of ‘war’ metaphors at that time, just as I am now looking at the pros and cons of war metaphors in the ‘fight’ ‘against’ mosquitoes that transmit malaria, or the battle against malaria for short. By the way, Richard was as shocked by the headline as I was! He didn’t see that coming when giving the interview. I suppose the interviewer didn’t either!

War in the headlines – framing infectious diseases

It seems I have lived with war metaphors about infectious diseases in the headlines for at least two decades: foot and mouth disease, invasive species, SARS, avian flu, swine flu, MRSA, AMR, nanomedicine, the Zika virus… And there we go again with ‘gene drives’. However, as the use of ‘daughters’ in the headline of the article that set me off indicates, there is a sex/gender dimension to this discourse which is quite new to me and which Aleksandra Stelmach and I will be examining more closely.

Science communication, headlines and trust

But what about headlines? When I began to write this post, provoked by ‘wiping out the daughters’, Grant Jacobs was tweeting about a tweet by Sheana Montanari which said: “A question I get a lot from people: how do I know what science news to trust?” She then goes on to give really good advice about how to interpret headlines, articles etc. and distinguish between hype and reality – read her thread.

Grant Jacobs himself tweeted, referring to newspaper pieces in particular: “One suggestion I make is mentally discard the headline and lede, recognising they’ve mainly trying to get you to stop skimming headlines read the article, and that can be woefully at odds with the article. Start your ‘proper’ reading at paragraph 2 (or 3 in some cases).”

In newspaper articles the headline and ‘lede’ (the introductory section of a news story) are often written by sub-editors. This may be different in other genres, but it certainly was the case in the two articles I discussed in this post.

So: beware; read with care!

In both of the cases discussed above, ‘wiping out the daughters’ and ‘war on terror’, the headlines used war metaphors to draw the readers’ attention to long-standing problems with antibiotic resistance and malaria and ways to manage them. In both cases they were totally out of proportion with what the people/scientists involved in the research and/or trying to stimulate public engagement were trying to achieve.

This was not just hype; this was dishonest hype on the part of the sub-editors; dangerous hype that then reflects badly on the people with whom the actual article writers work. This in turn undermines readers’ trust, both in science and in the media. Which is a real shame, as the scientists and journalists collaborated on important newspaper pieces dealing with important issues.

Image: Image by Andrew Martin, Pixabay










Posted in antibioticsgene drivegenomicsHypeScience Communication