The Interesting Thing Is Human Interest
I made the phone call at 7:00pm on the dot.
The piece I was going to interview reporter Virginia Hughes about was a long one. Medium.com listed it as a 40-minute read. It was a segment about commercial DNA testing and the concerns it raised for consumer privacy, something that had the potential to be full of political jargon and scientific prose – in a word, boring.
Yet when I stumbled across the article one early August afternoon, on the hunt for a story worthy of interviewing its reporter, I couldn’t stop reading.
Virginia Hughes is a Brooklyn-based science journalist who writes about neuroscience and genetics, among other subjects, and it was her interest in the latter that sent her on a quest to write the perfect human-interest story about 23andMe, one of the larger online genetic databases that have helped people track down their relatives in recent years.
She got the tip from an old colleague of hers, who knew she was interested in ancestry and contacted her with the suggestion to write the story. “He wrote me a message on Twitter and said ‘hey, what do you know about this relative finder on 23andMe?’” she remembers. “23andMe always gets a ton of attention for medical reasons, but nobody really talks about the genealogy.”
The first thing Virginia had to do was pitch the idea to an editor. Being a freelance journalist, that meant finding an editor whose publication was right for her story. She found that at Matter, an online science magazine that was only publishing stories of 6,000 words or more. At the time, she had only composed one long piece, and was interested in doing more extensive writing. She called up the editor, and in a process that was much less formal than the norm, explained what she had found. Not long after, she began working on the story.
Virginia Hughes had already been a user of 23andMe’s services, so when she began her search for sources to interview, she didn’t have any trouble logging into the online forums offered by the company. There were several sub-forums as well, including one aimed solely at adoptees.
From the beginning, she’d known she wanted her story to have a human-interest angle, and focusing on adoptees seemed like a way to make that happen. “I didn’t want to write a short, newsy feature,” she says. “I wanted to try to make it a personal story.”
She logged onto Facebook and began looking up amateur genealogists to find out whether they had helped an adoptee who had, as she put it, a dramatic story. After interviewing six or seven potential sources, she met Cheryl Whittle, the leading character and voice in her online piece 23 and You.
In order to set up Cheryl’s story, Virginia had to determine what background information the reader needed to know about genetics. “I always try to aim for a tenth-grader in high school,” she says. “Just so the reader would have a fuller grasp of all the problems.” Whatever a reader needed to know to understand how Cheryl found her family, that was what Virginia tried to include. Even so, her favorite part of working on the story was explaining the privacy issues that world expert Yaniv Erlich says are raised by having public DNA databases. (Erlich is a geneticist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.)
Virginia Hughes entered Cheryl’s story at a crucial point in the journey: Cheryl had just met a woman she hoped would turn out to be her sister. Over the weeks that followed, Virginia had a front row seat to the disappointment that came when it was discovered that the woman was not Cheryl’s sibling, the confusion and family issues that arose regarding who Cheryl’s real biological father was, and the tragedy that shook the family when her half-sister passed away from colorectal cancer. There were several leads along the way, most of which were promising, and Virginia considers herself lucky to have been able to follow the story in real-time.
Once she had put the story together – a process that involved four days spent in a café near her home in Brooklyn – it was time to bring in the cavalry. From the start, she had worked closely with her main editor, Ian Pearson, but now it was time for the process of verification – something she says is “hard.” There was now an entire team of people on board: fact checkers, copy editors, and illustrators. The top editor, Mark Horowitz from Wired magazine, ended up cutting 2,000 words from her story, but she believes it was worth it.
“I think he did everything right,” she says. “He made everything a little bit sharper and made the pace a little bit faster.”
Consumer privacy and genetic sequencing is a sensitive issue among the public these days. Objectivity is key in journalism, so I asked Virginia whether she had brought any personal bias to the story, and if so, how she had managed to avoid including it in the work.
“I definitely have a bias,” she says. “I’m a very happy 23andMe customer, and I believe in the power of technology and information to help people.”
But she couldn’t push that view in her article. To avoid that, she did her best to include every objection to that idea that she could find. She might not agree with the journalistic belief that a reporter should have a stance from nowhere, but she chooses to practice that in her work nonetheless. At least, she says, when you feel strongly about a story, it’s easier to identify your bias and avoid it.
The story as a whole took a little over four months to write, from conception to publication. During that time, Virginia got to know Cheryl very well, and to this day they remain friends on Facebook.
“She really treats me like a granddaughter,” Virginia says. “This is the first time that I’ve had an extended relationship with a source.”
She’s sought out advice from seasoned journalists regarding how to navigate this new terrain, but for now, Cheryl’s updates pop up on her newsfeed on a regular basis.
“There’s an immediate familiarity,” says Virginia. And after all, that familiarity is the key that has brought estranged family members together over the years through the use of commercial DNA services like 23andMe.