NBC News Science Analysis: Looking at a single article

In the course of three previous posts, I’ve talked about my overall impression of NBC News and their general science coverage. I promised at the end of the last post that I’d get into a more specific analysis of their science content in the next post for the series. I’m no liar, so today that’s what I’m going to do. You’re welcome to join!

Here’s an article from the top of nbcnews.com/science written by Maggie Fox. I’ve selected it because it’s written by an NBC correspondent and it seems to be about an interesting topic.

nbcsiart

The first thing I noticed about this article is the unfortunate choice of byline font. Until you zoom into 150% (at least on my laptop) it appears to read “Maggle Fox, NBC News.”

The next thing I noticed is that the second sentence doesn’t make any sense.

“And while most of you is aging in a coordinated way, odd anomalies that have the researchers curious: Your heart may be “younger” than the rest of your tissues, and a woman’s breasts are older.” Wat??

I think they meant to remove the “that” before the colon? That‘s my best guess anyway. (Man, why are all these analyses so snarky? I don’t know how to offer non-sarcastic criticism)

We’re not off to a great start here Maggle, I’m hoping you’re about to explain to me how tissues in my body can be younger or older. Let’s keep reading.

“[T]umor [cells] are the oldest of all,” neat.

“[E]mbryonic stem cells, the body’s master cells, look just like newborns with a biological age of zero” very cool.

I still don’t know how we’re measuring age (please get there soon!) but I’m not surprised by either of these facts. Anyone who knows a little bit about cell biology knows tumor cells are often immortal, and obviously stem cells are the youngest. I think it is safe to assume, however, that these facts would be quite interesting to readers with backgrounds outside of cell biology. In other words, I don’t think I’m the target audience.

So far, we’ve seen a lede paragraph, and two short paragraphs of background. Next we’re given a quote about what the long term goals/hopes are for this anti-aging research. It’s a good quote, but I still have no idea what we’re measuring to determine the age of tissues.

Finally, in the 6th paragraph, we get into some science. “Horvath looked at a genetic process called methylation. It’s a kind of chemical reaction that turns on or off stretches of DNA” From a stylistic perspective, I don’t like the second sentence, because, by itself, it doesn’t mean anything because of its nonspecific pronoun. I’d prefer an em dash personally: Horvath looked at a genetic process called methylation–a kind of chemical reaction that turns on or off stretches of DNA.

But before I get too nit-picky I want to praise this definition. This is a nice simple definition that readers can easily understand and is accurate. If science writing is about distilling complex ideas down to their most basic expression and communicating them to the public, this is good science writing. The next sentence is equally good, contextualizing the concept of methylation within the body, “All cells have the entire genetic map inside; methylation helps determine which bits of the map the cells use to perform specific functions.

Now I know what we’re talking about. Now I’m excited. The article then goes on to talk about the relative ages of a variety of tissues based on Dr. Horvath’s new aging technique. While it’s great to know that heart tissue looks younger than breast tissue or tumor tissue, haven’t we already been told this in previous paragraphs? I arrive at the end of the article with a lot of questions. Why is DNA methylation diagnostic of tissue age? Why are some methylation events more closely associated with aging than others? Is methylation the cause of the aging, or just a symptom? What are the plans for future experiments? Can anything from this experiment be used clinically already?

I don’t know what sort of technical constrains this article was written under, but I was disappointed with the lack of depth. At 555 words, it felt to me, as though the piece should have focused more on the science, instead of spending around a third of the piece (142ish words) comparing different types of tissue. This is especially true when we consider nobody even knows why some tissues aggregate more methylation events than others. Horvath himself is even quoted (complete with more typos) in the article saying, “[The heart] looked one average nine years younger. It’s really striking. I don’t know why, but it looks younger.”

This is really interesting science! and it has to do with a topic relevant to everybody subject to the cold ravages of time, but I feel like I’ve been deprived of the best parts of it and instead been given a ranking for the ages of tissue. It’s sort of like reading the standings on NHL.com at the end of the year; I can see the order of stuff, but I missed all the action.

It’s not good science to base a critique of an entire organization (NBC) off a single sample, so I won’t try to extrapolate this to anything larger than what it is. You could probably make a career (if anybody paid you HA!) out of critiquing NBC’s articles, but it felt silly to analyze their science coverage without analyzing the specifics of individual articles. Maybe, if I’m really unhappy with the small sample size, I’ll continue to look at single articles in future weeks.

It’s a good week not to be analyzing Scientific American. What a mess that is. Good luck Mark Zastrow. Much respect to everyone who came forward  to share their stories. And SciAm, I still have a 3 year subscription…

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