Monday, September 17, 2007

Science Coverage in Newspapers - the Understatement of The Globe and Mail

Usually I don't read printed newspapers anymore. From time to time, I enjoy perusing weekly papers, such as Die Zeit, or the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine: I discard parts labelled "Money and Financial Markets", "Travel", "Cars", and work through the rest of the journal. Things are different if I travel. Then, I try to read local newspapers to get a better impression of what's going on in the country I am visiting. So, when visiting Waterloo last week, I tried not to be in the way of Sabine unpacking boxes, and studied The Globe and Mail instead.

Of course, I was curious about the science coverage in that paper, which, as I learned, is one of the leading and most widespread ones in Canada. To my disappointment, there was no such thing as a section labelled "Science", not even once a week in, say, the Thursday edition. I was quite sure that I had not just missed it.

But then, I realised something quite remarkable: The Globe and Mail may have no special "Science" section, but it runs a science-related story in every issue, in the main part, often on the title page, and even above the fold: There was detailed reporting about Craig Venter's genome, the SABLE-3 balloon experiment, the asteroid scattering event that may have triggered the KT impact. The Saturday edition on the photo featured a story about new measures to fight multiple-resistant pathogens in Canada's largest research hospital on the title page!

Now, I do not know if The Globe and Mail once had run a specific science section that has been economised - the online edition has such a category. But, anyway, this way of presenting science stories "undercover", without specially labelling them as such, appears very appealing to me: It could make people read the stories, and learn something interesting about science, who otherwise would have ignored them right from the beginning, as I do with stories about cars and money in the Sunday paper.

By removing the potential barrier created by labelling a story explicitly as "science", this may foster interest in scientific topics and appreciation and understanding for science among people otherwise discouraged to read such news. It also conveys very nicely that science is not something detached from everyday life, but, in fact, an integral part of it.

It may be a great idea in general for newspapers to dismantle explicit science sections, and relocate the science stories among the other parts of the journal!


  1. Actually, I read the thing with the superbugs. I shouldn't have done that with coffee though. It was a collection of scary stories of the type: Michael S. [name changed] went into the hospital just for ... a standard procedure... 3 weeks later ... 2 months later... his left leg had to be amputated ... today he's bed-ridden and broke etc.

    But yeah, I guess having science stories mixed under the other stuff lowers the temptation to just throw away that part. On the other hand, I myself kind of appreciate if a newspaper is organized in some way - so I can throw away the economy part ;-)



  2. Yes, this is the way to go; mainly because if you have a designated SCIENCE section, it will *always* degenerate into the most boring part of the newspaper with tedious stories about medical "science", quantum computing, nano-anything, etc etc. Worst is if they get some local expert to write about his infinitely boring local research.

    But I'm disappointed that you aren't interested in cars! Cars are one of the best parts of life!

  3. "Science is the only News . . . human nature doesn't change much; but science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly." -Stewart Brand

  4. "So, when visiting Waterloo last week, I tried not to be in the way of Sabine unpacking boxes, and studied The Globe and Mail instead."

    lol Stefan,
    always a good time to read a paper

    Alas papers want to pander to such a wide audience, I often wonder who reads all their stuff, I usually flick thru and maybe pick up on one or two, usually the topic of the day (so to speak).

    Your idea sounds cool, inmerse the general public in science by stealth with little snippets. But people interested in science are usually looking for something more in depth - maybe they should have the kind of intro you spak of leading to a read more @ section.

  5. Well, I mean if it's a section that's supposed to be a mix of the most interesting topics, yes please include Science. But as I've said above, I think it is good if a newspaper is organized in some way. I mean, I really don't want to go through all the royal families latest scandals and things just to read the maybe two articles I am really interested in.

    Hi Dr. Who... the most boring part of the newspaper is the stock market stuff. I would even prefer nanoscience over that.



  6. Dear all,

    thanks for your comments!

    I agree that in general it's a good idea that a newspaper is organized in thematic sections. It's probably completely normal that no one reads everything in a newspaper, and finds some topics much more interesting than others. Fortunately, we are all a bit different as to our interests and preferences, and a good newspaper manages to offer something interesting to read for everyone. (Dr. Who: sorry to disappoint you... you known, in my eyes, cars are very convient and practical things, and I like my Twingo - perfect small car for city dwellers - but that's all to it. I really don't see the point why to devote sections in newspapers on cars ;-)

    As for the Globe and Mail, or any big newspaper, I appreciate if they run a special science section maybe once or twice a week, with longer reports besides just news snippet.

    But the point I wanted to make is that if the newspaper wants to inform their readers about scientfic topics and issues, it's better to run good science stories in the main part of the newspaper than to ban all this stuff in a special section that is easily ignored.

    I don't go quite as far as to say that Science is the only News ..., but it definitly deserves to be covered on the first pages of a newspaper - it's just to important to take a backseat.

    Best, stefan

  7. Hi quasar,

    just for the record ;-), I have carried and stacked and re-piled nearly all of these boxes ... but as for unpacking, I didn't want to contribute to an unnecessary increase of entropy ... ;-)

    Best, stefan


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