Media Scramble to Interpret Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test

Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test has been making headlines after the Boston Globe posted the results of her test and attempted to interpret them. After publishing, and then correcting the story due to a math error, the Boston Globe claimed that Elizabeth Warren is between 1/64th and 1/1024th Native American.

This prompted a tweet from President Trump about the results of the test, claiming she was far less Native American than the average European-American.

Michael Ahrens, an official at the Republican National Committee, cited a New York Times article from 2014 that supported his claim that Elizabeth Warren was less Native American than the average European-American.

Even the Washington Post tweeted along these lines but the tweet has since been deleted.

Reports of her DNA test were covered by many major publications, but most focused on the fact that the test claimed that she had a Native American relative six to ten generations ago.

What many articles failed to mention, as pointed out by the Washington Post, was that, “the report said that Warren had 10 times more Native American ancestry than the reference set from Utah, and 12 times more than the set from Britain.”

So, in truth, Warren has more Native American ancestry than the average American. Many news publications only focused on the initial claim by the Boston Globe that she could be as little as 1/1024th Native American; however, this is a misinterpretation of Warren’s DNA. The Boston Globe looked at Warren’s DNA as fractions, which isn’t how DNA works.

What the Boston Globe didn’t understand when calculating these numbers was that genetics don’t move equally through generations. According to the New York Times, “over generations, this randomness can lead to something remarkable. Look back far enough in your family tree, and you’ll encounter ancestors from whom you inherit no DNA at all.”

The New York Times article concludes that Warren’s Native American makeup is not much more than the average European-American. Still, it would be false to say that she is less Native American than the average European-American.

In addition to the misinterpretation of the DNA test results, the confusion surrounding the test points to another issue in the media. In an attempt to break the story, many publications were quick to fully trust Warren’s word and publish headlines such as “Elizabeth Warren releases DNA test with ‘strong evidence’ of Native American ancestry.”

There was little scrutiny or investigation by these publications of the video and statements that were issued by Warren. This is why there was a flip in the narrative of many publications as the week progressed.

As the coverage of Warren’s DNA continued, more publications started to realize what the actual test results meant and published more critical articles examining the way the results are being understood by politicians of all political ideologies.

Politico had one of the most dramatic shifts. The first article they published echoed many other publications and used the test as an attack on Trump. It was titledElizabeth Warren hits back at Trump, releases DNA test ‘strongly’ supporting Native American ancestry.” A day later they published another article entitled “Warren stumbles with ‘Native American’ rollout: the likely 2020 candidate is getting flak from the left and right after trying to defuse a Trump-driven controversy.”

The coverage of Warren’s DNA test suggests that many news publications echo other publications that are considered respected and credible sources, perhaps without fully understanding the topic that they’re reporting on. It wasn’t until later in the week that publications started posting more critical and analytical articles, after better understanding Warren’s test results.

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