Accuracy in Media

Last November, the media gave a lot of attention to a report in the respected British scientific journal, Nature, that claimed that DNA testing had virtually proven that Thomas Jefferson had fathered a son by Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. This was front-page news in our major papers and it gave rise to editorials and columns which in many cases treated Jefferson as a fallen icon.

The article began with this statement by the editor of Nature: “The scandals involving American presidents are nothing new. In 1802 President Thomas Jefferson was accused of fathering a child by Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. A molecular genetics study in the November 5th issue of Nature finally puts the affair to rest, establishing beyond reasonable doubt Thomas Jefferson?s relationship to Sally Hemings?s sons.”

An article by Dr. Eugene Foster described a study of DNA from the male-line descendants of Jefferson?s paternal uncle, Field Jefferson, and male-line descendants of two of Sally Hemings? sons, her first-born, Thomas Woodson and her last son, Eston Hemings Jefferson. Five male descendants of Jefferson?s uncle were used in this study because Thomas Jefferson had no sons to carry on the line. The DNA of the five descendants of Field Jefferson was found to share a rare characteristic.

That characteristic was not found in any of the five descendants of Hemings? first son, Thomas Woodson, proving that Jefferson was not his father, an allegation published by a Richmond newspaper in 1802 and a claim that Woodson?s descendants believed to be true. There was only one descendant of Eston in the study. His DNA had the rare Jefferson characteristic. That was what Nature trumpeted as proving beyond reasonable doubt “Thomas Jefferson?s relationship to Sally Hemings? sons.”

The article itself was a little more cautious. It allowed that there were other remote possibilities that someone other than Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings Jefferson, but the authors said, “In the absence of historical evidence to support such possibilities, we consider them to be unlikely.” But the title of the article threw all such caution to the wind. It read, “Jefferson fathered slave?s last child.”

This resulted in numerous articles that believed Jefferson was guilty as charged. Historian Joseph Ellis wrote, “Our heroes?and especially presidents?are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all the frailties and imperfections that this entails.” Others were more critical, calling Jefferson a hypocrite and perhaps even a rapist. But the Nature article omitted facts that make it clear that the study did not even come close to proving that Jefferson fathered any of Hemings? children. Nature will admit on January 7 that Thomas was only one of nine living Jeffersons with that distinctive DNA who might have been the father. The most probable was Jefferson?s younger brother, Randolph. Foster knew about Randolph and the others, but his article didn?t even mention their existence. This is a big embarrassment for Nature. They blame Foster for approving their headline saying that Jefferson?s fatherhood had been proven. The question is, will the media that gave so much attention to the alleged proof, now report that the study was fatally flawed.

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