Truth, fact, reality — whichever way you cut it, accuracy is necessary to both journalism and science. Yet, as Radiolab listeners learned this week, even science journalists can gloss over an important part of a story.
Eng Yang lived in a Laos village in 1975. Yang and other Hmong refugees fled to the jungle when Viet Cong and Pathet Lao targeted them after the U.S. withdrew from the region. They encountered a substance they called yellow rain that sickened and killed many. The U.S. treated this as a possible chemical weapon. Some scientists called the yellow rain bee feces, after bees swarm out when waking up from hibernation. On Sept. 24, Radiolab picked up the story from here, with translation from Eng Yang’s niece (Note: The original podcast has been modified).
After Radiolab spoke with CIA and scientists who analyzed the yellow rain, the show turns back to Eng Yang — reintroduced as “the Hmong guy.” Robert Krulwich asked if Eng Yang knew whether there was ever yellow rain without a plane, or whether anyone ever saw planes drop the yellow rain. Eng Yang replied, through his niece, that they did not wait to find out, planes also usually meant bombs. The next part of Krulwich’s reply is no longer in the podcast.
“As far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane. All of this is hearsay.”
The translator, Eng Yang’s niece, entered the story at the end of the segment. Here is an excerpt of her on-tape response:
“Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game. We can. But I am not interested. My uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people, in the process.”
Her voice cracks as she speaks, and she says the interview is over. After her plea, her voice went silent. That silence stretched for 10 seconds before Jad Abumrad and Krulwich continue the show. It has been a month since we’ve heard from the translator.
Elika Roohi, the editor-in-chief of The Sun Star (my old campus paper), asked me to write about my thoughts on Yang’s response. This is an Alaska science blog, but, as Alaskans know, the intersection of science and culture is a foggy frontier.
During this time of upheaval in the Arctic, traditional knowledge has become essential to understanding the past. Agency decisions about subsistence and climate change adaptation shape many lives in Alaska. The people most affected by these decisions sometimes, but not always, have a say. Where does traditional knowledge and local livelihood belong in the data-driven scientific world? When does it leave the realm of science and transform into politics?
The best way to explore this unknown is to start talking.
Full disclosure: I applied for an internship at Radiolab earlier this year. I am happy I found myself in Juneau instead of New York City – but working for Radiolab would have been the one reason I’d move to New York on a whim. I love Radiolab. Robert Krulwich is my hero.
I am a 23-year-old who just graduated from an Alaska university with a science degree. I am not qualified to talk about the Hmong people, social justice or the kinds of editorial decisions WNYC makes.
Then again, I’m no scientist, but I love Alaska, I love science, so I write about it here. I strive to tell true stories. As with my previous posts, I care for this story. Let’s trek on and explore what happened after the podcast aired.
Radiolab immediately reeled from the backlash about this episode. The episode itself portrayed this segment as being clearly heartwrenching to Radiolab staff.
Abumrad wrote an addendum to the episode, and Krulwich followed soon after. They said they were troubled by the interview and apologized for their tone when dealing with a victim of genocide. They argued that ultimately they pursued truth, and tried to stick to the framework of the story. Here’s Abumrad:
The point of the story — if the story can be said to have a point — is that these kinds of forensic or scientific investigations into the truth of a situation invariably end up being myopic.
In her response, Kao Kalia Yang questions this pursuit of truth. Radiolab staff did not mention that her uncle gave examples of pertinent scientific evidence, nor did they explain the breadth of indigenous knowledge on local bee populations. Her response comes a few weeks after Radiolab went silent on the matter. The show has since returned to producing podcasts and blog posts about the world’s many quirks and curiosities.
Kao Kalia Yang now lives in Minnesota. She writes about the Hmong community. She writes, because as a child she refused to speak in public and other children laughed at her when she tried to speak. Despite that, this was not her first time on the radio.
Minnesota Public Radio jumped in after the story aired. Here’s MPR’s Bob Collins,
“Finally, there’s an important lesson in this controversy for journalists: if you’re not sure what the point of a story is, you’re not ready to tell it.”
Would Eng Yang have guided Krulwich through that difficult path? Is it the source who guides reporter, who then guides the audience back as best he can while picking up some new landmarks along the way?
Radiolab tried to find a direction to focus the story. Journalism is, after all, about facing every story like it’s the Hydra — if reporters aren’t careful about how they tackle a piece, dozens of story possibilities will overwhelm them. If reporters don’t know when to cauterize the story, when to end it, the hours upon hours of work will never make it past the editing room.
Elika, editor-in-chief that she is, reminded me why journalists, and not sources, must decide what goes into these programs. She was torn — “there are some things Radiolab completely messed up on,” she said. She then pointed out the journalist’s, Radiolab’s, perspective:
“There are always going to be sources that are upset with how they come across in the news. It’s not media’s job to cater to their feelings, although tact is a nice thing to practice.”
So Radiolab created a show on truth, the staff was steadfast in sticking to the story in pursuit of that truth, yet the episode started a ripple through the community that Radiolab turned on blinders to necessary facts. To listeners, the podcast somehow became what the episode was battling: resistance to truth.
It’s the journalist’s job to reach out to the community — like some scientists and policy makers now reach out to traditional knowledge as accurate historical data. Journalists are trained to tell accurate and precise stories. Sources know best when they are uncomfortable — when they are being shoved around. It’s the journalist’s job to know that the source feels this way.
I took a class on investigative reporting from Willy Stern in January. He told us that, even in matters as dire as Watergate, you need to know your source. There is a difference in interviewing style between the elderly aunt and the smooth politician, even if the story is the same. Where Kao Kalia Yang and Eng Yang were on this scale, I don’t know. Radiolab learned a lot about where reporters should have placed the Hmong author and refugee not during the interview, but after seeing how its audience reacted.
By then, their story had already aired. But the truth is not out.
This is where the trail becomes too difficult for me to hike, my friends.
Now, to reach out to those who are qualified.
I found out about this response from Deborah Blum, who often intertwines chemistry and society in her blog Elemental. Ms. Blum, could you please write about the science of yellow rain? Yang mentioned several studies. This yellow rain could, after all, be a type of poison – and poisons are your specialty.
On the Media, Radiolab pursued truth in this segment. Journalistic and scientific tools — Radiolab’s specialties — intersect in the pursuit of truth. If anyone had an interest in telling a story about facts, it would be Radiolab. Journalism is about finding truth, but sources also deserve some degree of respect and understanding. What went wrong here?
And finally, Radiolab. Mr. Abumrad, Mr. Krulwich, Mr. Walters. You have done such wonderful jobs of explaining why you took your approach. Now, please, explain what happened — not the why, but the what and the how. Did you know about the cultural significance of bees to Eng Yang? Was there more to the scientific narrative than what made it into your show?
Author Kao Kalia Yang has now entered the discussion about her and her uncle. Please, if you can, Ms. Yang, keep talking with us.
I also want to hear your input. Did you hear the episode? What did you think? How do you feel about the fact that it is under so much discussion a month after it aired?
Edit: Radiolab responds to Minnesota Public Radio and Kao Kalia Yang. Also, public radio newspaper Current covers more of Radiolab’s side of the story.