Science rare topic of editorial pages.On most days, on most major papers, editorial writers have little to say about science-related topics.
That's what That's What is one of the more idiosyncratic releases by solo steel-string guitar artist Leo Kottke. It is distinctive in it's jazzy nature and "talking" songs ("Buzzby" and "Husbandry"). we discovered when we carried out a content analysis of 1,333 editorials published in 1991 by The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The Boston Globe, The
Daily newspaper published in Boston, one of the more influential newspapers in the U.S. Founded in 1872, it was purchased in 1877 by Charles H. Taylor. Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Times
Morning daily newspaper. Established in 1881, it was purchased and incorporated in 1884 by Harrison Gray Otis (1837–1917) under The Times-Mirror Co. (the hyphen was later dropped from the name). , and The New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of Times. Only 3.7% of the editorials dealt directly with science or technology - subjects such as global warming, toxic waste toxic waste is waste material, often in chemical form, that can cause death or injury to living creatures. It usually is the product of industry or commerce, but comes also from residential use, agriculture, the military, medical facilities, radioactive sources, and dumps, and space exploration. Just 1.1% were about fetal tissue research Scientific experimentation performed upon or using tissue taken from human fetuses.
Although fetal tissue research has led to medical advances, including the development of the polio and rubella vaccines in the 1950s, it has also generated controversy because of its use of and the many other issues involving medicine and health care.
Seven percent of the editorials dealt indirectly with science, technology, or health care, with opinions on the politics of the AIDS epidemic, abortion, environmental battles, industrial competitiveness, and other matters where science and technology are factors but not the primary focus.
We reviewed all the editorials published in the five papers during the first week of January, the second week of February, the third week of March, and so forth. Each editorial was classified as dealing directly with science or technology, directly with medicine or health care, indirectly with these subjects, or as unrelated. Some editorials were hard to categorize, and all were published before the health-care debate reached high gear, so the findings are more suggestive than definitive. But they were fairly consistent across the five papers and very likely reflect the condition at other papers in the U.S.
The Boston Globe had the highest percentage of editorials (15.8%) touching on science, technology, and health care. Next came The New York Times (13.1%), The Los Angeles Times (12%), The Chicago Tribune (9.9%), and The Baltimore Sun (8.2%).
The two leaders differ from many newspapers in having editorial board members - such as Loretta McLaughlin, a former medical reporter at the Globe, and Philip Boffey of The New York Times - who have experience covering science, technology, or medicine. The editorial boards at most papers are much smaller than at the Globe and the Times. At many small and mid-sized dailies, the editorial pages are produced by one or two people.
Editorial writers are most likely to discuss science, technology, and health care in the context of some broader issue, such as the economy or a political dispute. More direct discussions about these topics, such as whether to build the supercollider su·per·col·lid·er
A high-energy particle accelerator. , are less common. Rarer still are editorials that deal with science per se rather than with policy questions. For example, newspapers seldom comment on the latest findings about the Big Bang big bang
Model of the origin of the universe, which holds that it emerged from a state of extremely high temperature and density in an explosive expansion 10 billion–15 billion years ago. or genetics. As McLaughlin said, an editorial involving science still "has to make an editorial point."
Boffey, the former New York Times science editor who now is the paper's deputy editorial page editor, concurred. "An editorial has to be more than an analysis of something," he said. "It has to have some hortatory hor·ta·to·ry
Marked by exhortation or strong urging: a hortatory speech.
[Late Latin hort point.... Editorial pages aren't particularly the venue in the paper for dealing with a purely scientific advance."
Many editorial writers come to full-time punditry after years of covering politics. Not surprisingly, politics often is their bread-and-butter subject. As columnist Howard Means observed, "For the most part, we thumbsuckers are mad - stark raving nuts - to write about politics, and particularly national politics."
When papers do publish an editorial on science, there is a good chance the piece originated with a woman. A 1987 study found that 32% of the women editorial writers, but only 11% of the men, listed science, health, and the environment as specialties.
Does space matter?
Does it matter how much space editorial pages devote to science, technology, and health care? In a word, yes. Newspapers editorials may lack the thunder of years gone by but they remain widely read. The Newspaper Advertising Bureau reported that 87% of daily readers open to or pass through the editorial page. A study by researchers at Syracuse University found that more than a third of those who read newspapers are regular readers of editorial and opinion pages. Belden Associates reported recently that the averaged reader of a Sunday paper is almost as likely to read the editorial pages as the sports section.
So editorial pages have influence. Whether they do an adequate job of covering issues involving science, technology, and health care depends on one's news judgment. Many science writers, who typically work apart from editorial boards, may find it disconcerting dis·con·cert
tr.v. dis·con·cert·ed, dis·con·cert·ing, dis·con·certs
1. To upset the self-possession of; ruffle. See Synonyms at embarrass.
2. that only one in every eight or nine editorials deals with scientific issues even indirectly. But editorial writers also must ruminate ru·mi·nate
v. ru·mi·nat·ed, ru·mi·nat·ing, ru·mi·nates
1. To turn a matter over and over in the mind.
2. To chew cud.
v.tr. on Somalia, civil rights, education, the arts, and countless other topics. It's a tough balancing act.
Still, somewhere amid the flood of punditry on Zoe Baird's child-care problems there may be room for a few more editorials involving science and technology. How does new genetic testing Genetic Testing Definition
A genetic test examines the genetic information contained inside a person's cells, called DNA, to determine if that person has or will develop a certain disease or could pass a disease to his or her offspring. affect privacy rights? Should we go to Mars? Which environmental dangers pose the greatest threat? How can we apply new technology to ease traffic jams? The issues are there. It's the editorials that are lacking.
Former NCEW NCEW National Conference of Editorial Writers member David Jarmul is senior information officer at Howard Hughes Medical Institute Howard Hughes Medical Institute, (HHMI), nonprofit medical research organization founded in 1953 by Howard Hughes and largly funded from proceeds of the 1984–85 sale of Hughes Aircraft. Headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md. . Leah D. Fine is research associate at the Institute for Genomic Research in Gaithersburg, Md.