Genetic April Foolery on NPR and in <i>The Economist</i>

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie April 5, 2012
Biopolitical Times
With the beginning of Spring comes the first day of April, which offers the annual opportunity to make up a ridiculous lie and try to convince a loved one of its truth for the distinct purpose of shamelessly mocking them for believing someone they trusted.

Typically, this cherished event is reserved for family and friends. But the mainstream media is increasingly getting into the game. This year featured at least two established news organizations – known for being rather strait-laced and antiseptic – suddenly finding a sense of humor and using genetic technologies to, at least for one day, betray their loyal readers’ trust.

National Public Radio (NPR) ran an April 1 story on “Porsafillo Preschool Academy,” a fictional Manhattan preschool that recently implemented DNA testing as part of its admissions policy. The story notes that the school is “looking for genetic markers that indicate future excellence – things like intelligence, confidence and other leadership traits.” The story continues by noting
From Tauschen's blood test, scientists will isolate her unborn baby's genetic makeup then pass their findings to the admissions office at Porsafillo. The school has an exclusive agreement with the hospital. Tauschen and Tromper are taken into a room beside the lab, the blood is drawn, and the vial is then escorted immediately into the lab. About a month later, results will be delivered to the school.
On a similar note, The Economist offered a profile on “GeneDupe,” a company in “San Melito, CA” that offers a service that will enable individuals to use 3D printing technology to create their own pets.

Any good April Fools joke – whether you’re pulling a fast one on your friend or if you’re The New York Times – requires a narrative that isn’t all that far from the truth. And, that’s the formula followed by both NPR and The Economist to make their genetics-themed April Fools ploys seem somewhat plausible on their face to even the most discerning reader.

For example, several stories have detailed both the rising costs and competition associated with primary and secondary school admissions in New York City as well as hyper-competitive parents’ use of genetic testing to uncover their children's hidden talents. In tandem, this makes the genetic testing at Porsafillo not seem all that far-fetched. Similarly, the widespread genetic engineering and cloning of animals, along with technological advances related to 3D printing human organs, makes GeneDupe pass the laugh test, if only briefly.

Which is why these two jokes are really no laughing matter. I’ll resist offering any extended thoughts on the ethics of respected journalistic outlets deliberately misleading their readership. Perhaps the intention is just good-natured fun or to get readers to think about things differently. But there’s a strong argument that such tactics obscure the real issues behind what is later revealed as a farce.

For example, there are serious issues behind the genetic testing of students as well as the questionable practices regarding biotechnology and animal welfare. While they may seem far-fetched and unreal when presented in the context of an April Fools joke, the concerns are in fact much closer than many appreciate. Journalism is supposed to educate and raise people’s consciousness, not use a sophomoric unofficial holiday to desensitize the public to the very real challenges entwined with reproductive and genetic technologies. In the end, this may only serve to make us all fools.