A number of ENCODE-backers are aghast and requesting us to take down a previous commentary (see tweets at the bottom). What do you suggest? We will explain our rationale for reporting and would like to hear what you think.
We believe we are following the standard journalistic procedures. Here is “Chapter 62: Privacy and public interest” discussing journalistic standards about reporting of ‘private life’ by news sources.
In our opinion,
i) ENCODE is a gigantic publicly funded project and therefore its leaders are subject to public scrutiny.
ii) Moreover, ENCODE jumped across the ‘scientific argument’ barrier by manipulating media in its press releases. Not only that, their press releases were deliberate lies (defined based on journalistic rules), if the latest PNAS paper is any guide. Therefore, they should be treated based on journalistic standards and not based on ‘let us keep the discussion to science’ standards. There should be a cost for using misleading press releases in order to gain public funds, which is what ENCODE did.
Back to the chapter on journalism -
In this chapter, we look at the relationship between a person’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know about that person’s life. We discuss what it means to be a public figure and what rights journalist have to examine their lives and the lives of their families. We conclude by examining the rights of people to grieve in private.
The readers are encouraged to go through the detailed discussions in the chapter about what a journalist should and should not report about private lives of public figures. Let us mention the summary and a few relevant paragraphs.
You have a right to report on the public life of public figures
You can report on the private life of public figures if
it tells something about their character which might affect their public duty
they are responsible for public assets
their private misdeeds could affect the public good
You have no right to intrude on a person’s private life where there is no public benefit**
From another section -
How far can you probe into a person’s private life to get news? This is most easily answered where the individuals are public figures, especially where they are people who have put themselves forward for public positions of trust. We are talking here particularly about people like politicians, group leaders, clergymen and all those people whose personalities and private morality are essential parts of their work.
You must make a distinction between those people who have voluntarily entered the public arena and those who are forced into it by circumstances they could not reasonably have expected. For example, a businessman who holds a press conference to announce some new money-making project is seeking public attention; the airline hostess who suddenly discovers she has contracted a rare tropical disease has simply been thrust into the news against her will.
You could justify probing into both the public and private finances of the businessman. You cannot justify digging up scandalous details of the flight attendant’s private life where it does not have any relevance to the story of the disease.
There is also the question of who is a public figure. Most journalists would accept that it is their duty to examine the whole life of someone like the President of the United States in detail because he put himself forward to be President. His press secretary acts as the President’s mouthpiece on many public issues and is expected to reflect the President’s thinking. Is the press secretary a public figure? Would journalists be justified in publishing stories about his affair with an office cleaner?
The answer to the first question is that maybe he is a public figure. The answer to the second question is probably “No”, we should not write about his affair with the office cleaner - unless he was giving the cleaner government secrets in bed, and she was passing them on to an enemy. Or if there was a chance that he could be blackmailed into betraying his public trust because of the affair.
From elsewhere in the same document -
Private morality can tell us something about the person’s character, and how it could affect their professional performance. If, in his private life, a public figure is found to have lied in a serious way, the public should be made aware that he could be lying in his work, too. Where public figures are responsible for setting a moral tone in society, any private immorality should be exposed as hypocrisy. For example, society should be aware that a leading campaigner against child abuse regularly beats his own children.
and the most important part -
The media should constantly examine the lives of public figures with responsibility for public funds and other assets. Politicians who have the power to influence the awarding of contracts should accept that their private friendships with business people should be open to public view. After all, it is taxpayers’ money they could be giving away illegally. Politicians can promise voters that their friendships will never influence them in public office. As a journalist, you should monitor whether they keep that promise.
Does the public have a right to know about private lives of a scientist, who is on several NHGRI advisory panels, who is being accused of fraud by a reputed Berkeley professor AND who used media to send out misleading information about his research?
Should the scientists expect the journalists to apply only those rules, which work in their favor irrespective of the actions of scientists?
If these scientists are so morally upright, why are they not applying their scientific standards to ask ENCODE to retract its Nature paper or to ask Kellis to retract his Nature Biotech paper being discussed on by Bray/Pachter?
Based on everyone’s request, we removed the commentary from our blog. It is distracting us from other scientific topics we like to cover. Everything we posted were from public domain and we do not have to reproduce them here to make a point. We hope these people go against the 80% functionality claim in the media with the same zeal.