Posted in Behind the News

‘Aggressive but delicate’ reporting produces gene-editing exclusive

, by Lauren Easton

In a memo to staff, Managing Editor Brian Carovillano recounted how AP gained a global exclusive on one of the most important and controversial claims in medical and science history:

When a source told AP’s chief medical reporter Marilynn Marchione that a Chinese researcher had edited the DNA of several human embryos and implanted two into a woman, their conversation launched an aggressive but delicate reporting effort by AP journalists in the U.S. and China.
Over the next three weeks, Washington-based science writer Christina Larson and Beijing staffers – videographer Emily Wang, researcher Fu Ting and photographer Mark Schiefelbein – set out to interview the researcher, He Jiankui, and his colleagues in Shenzhen and Beijing, while Marchione and New York video journalist Kathy Young worked the story from the U.S., including convincing He to share his data so it could be vetted with independent experts.
Without that data, AP was unwilling to publish the story.
Chinese scientist He Jiankui is reflected in a glass panel as he works at a laboratory in Shenzhen in southern China’s Guangdong province, Oct. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
He’s claim raised a laundry list of concerns: Could it be a hoax? Did he accomplish what he said he did? Why would he choose to try to edit a resistance to the HIV virus, when there are far less risky ways to prevent transmission? Did the participants know what they were getting into? Had he sought approval from ethics boards?   After talking with current and former colleagues and outside scientists, it became clear that He’s claim, while unverifiable, was plausible given his training, prior work, stated ambitions and that the science of editing embryos had been already proven. AP knew it would be worthwhile reporting the claim, because the claim itself would be major scientific news.   Just days before the start of an international gene editing conference in Hong Kong, news of the project was starting to leak. The MIT Technology Review reported that a trial on humans might be underway in China, based on an entry in a registry of trials. That prompted calls from other media to He. Knowing that the story was unlikely to hold, the AP moved to publish the package on Sunday night of the week of the conference opening. He’s claim of the world’s first gene-edited babies made headlines worldwide.     Many scientists, including the inventors of the gene-editing technology He used, were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it. Both Rice and the Chinese university that He was affiliated with launched investigations. A group of more than 100 Chinese scientists called for a ban on further work of this kind in China.     The story elicited a similarly strong response from customers and readers. AP’s reporting was credited or linked to by at least 44 media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC News, Bloomberg, Reuters and Buzzfeed. Axios led its “Axios AM” newsletter with the story, and it spawned more than a dozen Reddit conversations. It was by far the most read story on APNews.com over the week, at more than half a million page views, and AP’s video was downloaded hundreds of times.   For responsibly breaking a story in all formats of a major scientific claim while exploring the ethical quandaries that He’s research has raised, Marchione, Larson, Wang, Young, Ting and Schiefelbein earn AP’s Best of the Week.

Watch the AP video news report: