An interesting piece of the Korean stem cell fiasco that escaped my notice the first time around is that the Korean investigative television program, “PD Notebook,” that exposed the faking of photographs for the now-discredited Science article did so using techniques that violated journalistic ethics.
Take a moment to let that sink in.
Here’s a lab that is reporting what looks to be great success with cutting edge scientific research. Then Choi Seung Ho, producer of “PD Notebook,” gets an anonymous email from someone who claims to be a member of Hwang Woo-suk’s laboratory, claiming that Hwang faked data in the Science paper. A good investigative journalist wants to get to the bottom of this to find out whether the stunningly successful research group really is stunningly successful or whether its fame rests on a pile of falsified data.
So, you have to talk to some of Hwang’s co-workers, right? The question of journalistic ethics turns on how you talk to them. Here’s what James Brooke writes (in the International Herald Tribune):
Choi is in the journalistic doghouse partly for tearing down a national icon, a charismatic, handsome scientist who was the modern, successful face that Koreans yearned to show to the world.
But he is also in the doghouse partly for allowing South Korea’s ultra-competitive journalism world to spur him to use techniques that tarnished his work.
In one critical interview, a former co-worker of Hwang, now working at the University of Pittsburgh, is led to believe that his former boss is about to be arrested back home for fraud. When the worker, Kim Seon Jong, starts to talk about faking photographs for the Science article, he can be seen nervously asking if the interview was being filmed. No answer comes from the producer, who is holding a bag with a hidden camera. Instead, the producer hints that if he cooperates with MBC, they will protect him from arrest. To this date, no one has been arrested in the case.
For those keeping score at home, we have:
- Conveying the (false) information the interviewee’s boss is being arrested for fraud in the research of which the interviewee was a part.
- Suggesting (falsely) that cooperation in the interview (which would presumably include ratting Hwang out) will protect the interviewee from (impending) arrest.
- Filming an interviewee who did not want to be filmed without alerting him to the fact that he was being filmed or securing his permission to be filmed.
Unauthorized filming with a wee bit of coersion thrown in. Classy! As reported in the International Herald Tribune:
The Korean Broadcasting Commission reviewed the tapes, and a spokesman said the panel had “judged that it is highly likely that the program violated regulations on fairness, objectivity, human rights and statistics and public surveys under the Broadcast Law.”
So, “PD Notebook” exposed Hwang’s fabrications (which subsequent investigation by Seoul National University has determined really were fabrications), but used unethical means to secure the interview central to this exposure. You might wonder why this matters. Why should folks engaged in deceiving the scientific community, the business community, and the Korean public (who reportedly viewed Hwang as something of a national hero) have any right to expect other people to be honest with them? Isn’t there poetic justice in lying to the liars to get the information with which to expose their lies?
Maybe there is. However, what kind of impact does this have on the next scientist with concerns about the boss’s misdeeds? Is this scientist going to be brave enough to email a tip to a journalist, knowing that this might expose him or her to coercisive treatment and secret videotaping?
After all, it’s not like the interactions between the many scientists on the research team (including “senior author” Gerry Schatten) were, by themselves, enough to head off or correct the fabrication and falsification. There is a legitimate question as to whether the depths of the deception would ever have been revealed if the press had not gotten involved. But rough handling of the journalists’ sources of information this round will make it that much harder to find willing sources of information next round.
And, it’s worth examining whether this departure from journalistic ethics is an aberation or part of a pattern. Here’s what JoongAng Daily had to say:
The roles of producers and journalists are clearly separated in other countries, while producers play both those roles in “PD journalism” in Korea – they go out in the field, investigate, edit the content and write the scripts for the final program.
PD journalism was a byproduct of the authoritarian Korean regimes, media experts said. Academics in Korea do not reject the notion that PD journalism contributed greatly in promoting democracy here, where media have long been censored.
The distinctive form of PD journalism has both some good and bad points, media experts said. “PD journalism was referred to as a window to the truth and an excessive expression of subjective opinions at the same time,” said Yoon Ho-jin, a senior researcher with the Korea Broadcasting Institute.
“Current affairs programs made by producers have played the role of critics of the government, and that role was valuable in some ways,” said Kim Dong-yule, a senior researcher with the Korea Development Institute. “But the times have changed now, and producers must refrain from investigating with a conclusion already in mind.”
“PD journalism has contributed to the maturing of our society with in-depth reporting,” a senior executive at MBC said. “But, there have been many cases in which such programs were shaky in gate-keeping and verification.”
In blog entries of yore I have noted that it is a serious problem when science writers make up their minds about how the story’s going to go, then contact the scientists looking for quotes to support the story, sometimes even ignoring (or spinning) the quotes from scientists that don’t support the stories they’ve already decided to write. In this respect good investigative journalism ought to be a lot like good science: you can start out with a hypothesis to guide your investigation, but in the end you must take pains to let your conclusions be guided by the evidence. “Taking pains” here means seriously considering the likelihood that your hunch is wrong, given the facts you’ve amassed. In this particular instance, it might mean considering whether coersion might make a frightened scientist offer testimony that isn’t reliable (because he thought that this was the testimony that might save him from some threatened bad outcome). It would certainly mean, as well, seeking information that might explain behaviors that look suspicious. (This might mean asking Hwang or other co-workers to explain the Science photographs, for example.) Starting an investigation with your conclusion set in stone is just as intellectually dishonest as making up the data you report.
I suppose it’s understandable why a reporter — even one who hadn’t made up his or her mind in advance — might pressure an interviewee to in order to obtain information that it might be really hard to get otherwise. Indeed, given how good scientists can be at keeping secrets (some information is proprietary, after all, and other information you keep close to the vest until you’re ready to publish it so as not to get scooped), it’s possible that “PD Notebook” provided the crucial break that brought the house of cards tumbling down. But this just doesn’t strike me as a sustainable model for keeping scientific researchers honest. Honest communication with the public (and a recognition that science is ultimately accountable to the public) is an important piece of fostering ethical conduct and rooting out misconduct. However, even more effective would be honest communications between scientists and a recognition that each scientist is accountable to the whole community of scientists. Tipping off a reporter is one way to try to head off misconduct in your lab, but there need to be mechanisms for tipping off folks in the community of science who have a vested interest in eliminating misconduct from science and its products from the scientific literature.
Knowing scientists as I do, it seems to me that pissed-off scientists could deliver a much better smackdown to a fabricator than any media outlet ever could.