Sascha Karberg DIY journalism

Hanno Charisius Richard Friebe Alexander Schlichter

So, first of all, I have to say that this is a project that I was not able to do by myself. Three more colleagues and friends are involved, those are their names. So, um. I have a history in biology, I started as a geneticist and that's the fly on the left and on top. I did transgenic experiments there, and then I didn't want to spend the next 40 years in my labs. So I switched to science journalism. So I brought a couple of articles for basically bigger news paper and magazines in Germany, and this for some reason brought me to MIT. And there was a fellowship for one year, which is where I learned about DIYbio and synthetic biology.

So I went to the iGEM in January and not very quickly learned about DIYbio. My first reaction as a former scientist was "what was that about, doing it at home?". So I started to talk with some people in Boston, with Mac and Jason a little bit and gathering some information and quotes. I had to go back to Germany unfortunately and started to reboot my freelancing career and wrote an article about DIYbio. But you can't just, you have to get more quotes than just from amateur biologists. So I asked professional scientists about what they think about DIYbio and their reactions were "what's that?" and "they can't achieve anything?" "that's bullshit and possibly dangerous". And all these quotes that you get. And askign government agencies was pointless, they had never heard of it.

I had these highly enthusiastic quotes from DIYbiologists ("we can build another world") and these quotes from scientists that were naysaying. I tried to dismiss some of these quotes and tried to write a decent article, it was an article in the German version of Technology Review. But after that, I thought this was not really my article, so the argument might be that I might try it by myself, because writing about nuclear weapons wouldn't be my background, and I couldn't do that by myself, so as a molecular biologist I should be able to repeat these experiments that the DIY people are talking about.

That was a new idea, I applied for a fellowship so I got the money to build a lab. I built this in my office here, togetehr with these friends who joined the idea. Not only that I got possibility to write this up, but we also got an award for doing a 60 minutes documentary which was a completely new thing, because I am a print journalist not a TV journalist. One of our teammates is a TV journalist. So we tried it, we started to do experiments with .. checking which species in your meal, the sushi stuff. That was the first round of experiments. We did some more stuff. We also talked with a lot of people from the DIYbio scene. You might recognize them on the left and right corners. We did German biohack in his home, so I wasn't exactly at that point, trying to report about it, but I was enthusiastic about learning how to do it at home on my own.

I was not, there was a very unusual approach for science journalist to write about a theme where you are involved like that.

Unter biohackern Wir genbastler

It was kind of the Times of Germany. So we got coverage over about 4 pages in the science section. The whole science section was for us more or less. It was a 7,000 world story which is highly unusual for newspapers. We submitted the article and they found it great. The circumstances were difficult because at that time, a few weeks before that, the flu stuff came out. So they took our story and combined it with reporting about the H5N1 experiments. So what the illustrators made out of that is that, so they had a picture story kind of on top of our article.

I had no influence on that illusration. I am a freelancer, so I send the article in, and then the editing begins. And this is a fight you always have with the editor, not only the minor details about the science, but sometimes they completely change the tone of your article. And you always ahve to make compromises because you want to continue writing for them. So you can't do anything about that, so it's in the responsibility of the journalist doing the article. We are in a situation that, we interview you, we learn about all this stuff, and then we need to get in contact with the rest of society who has no idea. The first part of society is the editor, he did no research, he didn't go and ask you. He is the guy on the street kind of, that is his role. So he comes in with all these ideas like, oh, they are buildig risky stuff in their labs and so on. Now then, I'm in a situation to talk with society sort to say, and change his view within an hour or so sometimes, or via email because some of these guys have so much to do for work, all the editing just goes by email.

So this is the situation where we decided, we can't really do this with the illustrations but it was 2 days before publication. We can't do another illustration, can't be postponed, and the whole science section was separated for us.. so we had big arguments about that, but that was the way it goes. It's always a compromise. I don't want to apologize for how this is working, but this is how journalism works this is how the world of journalism are. We are not in a position to change these rules, but sometimes.. it's different if there is someone really doing research or taking time, or compared to someone who has no idea even if you explain it, has o idea when he goes home about what you are doing. There is also a hint for you to choose your journalist. Check them out. How much time you want to spend with someone from the Daily Mail who has no idea at all.. when we did the documentary, when we tried to defend our documentary, we had two editors who didn't even know that where DNA is exactly in the cell.

DNA and chromosomes, are those the same? Other problems like that were the level of argumentation that we had with the editors. Two million viewers or more in Germany do not know about all this stuff too. So if these two editors don't understand the movie, then the rest of the German public won't understand it too. So you do have to make compromises about this. We did the 60min documentary and showed it to you yesterday. The research that we put into this is much more ours, it's not a very economic thing, I'm putting my enthusiasm into putting into molecular biology in general into this project. Sometime you need to be aware that the public caution is in a very early stage. Even the journalists are making these mistakes today. Even with nanotechnology. Journalists learn.

The longer you discuss with the right journalists, they learn about this. So, finally, I have to say that this approach that I did by myself, is I think an unusual thing, but it has helped me a lot to find out what you are really doing in the lab, and what is possible, and I think and I hope the reporting comes to a better result in the end and helps with keeping the discussion fresh.