Content warning: This essay about aspects of Science News’ coverage cites specific examples of racism, sexism and prejudice against members of the LGBTQ community and others. We have chosen to link to the examples to be transparent about our failings.
In late 2019, with the 100th birthday of Science News a few years off, our team considered how we might celebrate. We realized that inviting the world to explore the more than 80,000 original reports of advances in science, medicine and technology in our archive was an obvious choice.
Newspaper magnate Edward W. Scripps and zoologist William E. Ritter founded Science Service, the original name of the news organization, to provide accurate, engaging news of science to the public. “The success of democratic government as well as the prosperity of the individual may be said to depend upon the ability of the people to distinguish between real science and fake,” wrote our founding editor Edwin Slosson in 1921.
But Science Service didn’t always live up to those ideals. As we planned for our centennial, we knew that alongside stories chronicling great feats of science there would be articles that we now find horrifying. Through much of its early history, this organization widely shared, and in some cases endorsed, ideas that were racist, sexist, xenophobic and otherwise prejudiced, as well as supposedly “scientific” justifications for immoral and unethical behavior.
We are deeply sorry.
Other publications, universities and nonprofit organizations have recently reckoned with their pasts. Our own efforts to grapple with previous coverage turned up specific examples of racism, sexism and prejudice against members of the LGBTQ community and others in reporting from the 1920s through the 1960s. Though the examples discussed below will be hurtful to some readers, we believe doing better in the future requires an honest and transparent examination of our past.
Our most egregious failing was our supportive coverage of eugenics, a field of study and associated practices born from the false belief that humankind could be improved if only the people judged to have the most desirable traits were allowed to reproduce. Francis Galton, a British polymath who coined the term in the late 1800s, wrote that eugenics would “give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”
Slosson and several of our founding board members were proponents of eugenics, which gained popularity in scientific communities in the United States in the early 1900s. But research of the day did not support the assertion that one group of people was genetically superior to another, and today’s science outright refutes that assertion.
Eugenics was used to justify racial, ethnic and other forms of discrimination. It led to the forced sterilization of over 60,000 people in the United States, including immigrants, Black people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, people in prisons and people facing poverty. It shaped immigration policies that kept Southern and Eastern Europeans out of the country for decades.
In the 1930s, Nazi Germany enlisted scientists and physicians to argue that society needed to be “cleansed” of people who posed a threat to its “genetic health.” Eugenic theories shaped Nazi policies of persecution and so contributed to the murders of millions of people in the Holocaust.
Science News, previously named Science News Letter, often covered eugenics approvingly, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. Watson Davis, who served at Slosson’s right hand, was director of Science Service from 1933 to 1966 and probably did more than anyone to shape editorial direction in our early decades; he was also on the board of the American Eugenics Society, a clear conflict of interest for a journalist.
In a 1922 article, Slosson equated population growth in districts in Great Britain that had overcrowding, poor education, high rates of death from tuberculosis and infant diseases with “evolution working backward.” An article from 1924 quotes eugenicists advocating for “numerical limitation and careful selection of immigrants.” Another from 1935 was headlined “Sterilization is urged to prevent blindness.”
In the late 1930s, Science News Letter reported on how proponents of eugenics sought to distance themselves from sterilization policies aimed at specific social, economic and racial groups. Yet this reporting included the disturbing passage: “On the average, it is found that those parents who provide the best home training for their children are also those with the best genetic stock.” And a headline from 1940 read, “Eugenics seen as vital to future of democracy.”
It’s not as if eugenics didn’t have critics at the time. Renowned anthropologist Franz Boas denounced it as early as 1916 and continued to do so throughout his career; he saw race as a social not biological construct. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu challenged what he called “the fallacy of race.” Other scientists pointed out that people’s living conditions played a major role in their health and behavior — it was not just nature, but also nurture. Science News in some cases covered these ideas, but for the most part failed to recognize them (or report on them) as counterpoints to eugenics.
Uncritical coverage of eugenics in Science News picked up again in the 1960s, during a resurgence in eugenic ideas. In 1964, the magazine published an article by Frederick Osborn, chairman of the board of editors of the American Eugenics Society, who was leading the rebranding of eugenics as an effort aimed at “saving genes for superior ability wherever they are found.”
Our early coverage was often racist, assumed white superiority and debased Indigenous cultures. An article from 1954 summarized the thoughts of one anthropologist, saying, “a Negro may have been black before he was a man.” Another from 1925 was headlined “American children claimed more intelligent than Chinese.” An article in 1921 on the coming popularity of the avocado described the raising of the fruit as a “white man’s job” because it required “a high order of intelligence.”
Coverage of women was focused primarily on their role as family caretaker. Issues of women’s rights, reproductive health, welfare and education received comparatively little attention. In a 1924 article titled, “How women control the future,” Slosson wrote that women’s right to vote was insignificant in relation to the role the woman has in the family.
Women were disparaged in other ways in our reporting. Headlines in particular were often patronizing or fed into existing stereotypes: “Women fatigue easily during first work days,” for example. A story headlined “Women’s personalities do not depend on age” led with, “A middle-aged woman may not have the figure of a young lady, but her emotional make-up is essentially the same.” An article from the 1960s quoted a source who blamed the issue of “No women in space” at least in part on the challenges of designing spacesuits for women, without any question or criticism.
Our coverage of the LGBTQ community through much of the 1950s and 1960s failed to question science that perpetuated bias, including characterizing gay men as having a “pathological personality.” We reported on psychotherapy that “cured” one gay man. One headline read: “Homosexuals need help.”
We were wrong in other ways. The same spirit of science boosterism that championed eugenics seems to have been behind enthusiasm for less sinister but still dangerous notions, including a 1945 article touting the use of the pesticide DDT in wall paint, and one from 1964 suggesting the use of nuclear explosives to dig a new Panama Canal. And, yes, in the late 1940s, we touted the marvels of asbestos-laden dish towels, and actually distributed them to readers.
Hindsight is of course easy, and some historians will warn us against applying today’s knowledge and perspectives to different times. With the exception of our 1960s eugenics coverage, our reporting was for the most part consistent with prevailing views among the people in power at the time. Yet we wish Science News had followed a different course. As journalists, we need to be skeptical and ask tough questions. It’s humbling to see that Science News journalists a century ago got so much wrong, and it pushes us to strive to do better.
So we ask ourselves, what are our current biases? Where are the gaps in our coverage? When are we narrow-minded? Whose voices are we amplifying and whose experiences are we omitting?
We are taking action to address our shortcomings. We have prioritized increasing the diversity of our staff through hiring. Because staff turnover can be slow, we are also seeking out freelance writers from countries and communities historically underrepresented in our coverage, as well as editors from those communities, who help us identify potential biases in story selection and language use. For several years, our writers have been growing an effort to track source diversity, which expanded after the Black Lives Matter movement gained national attention. They are holding themselves accountable for interviewing and quoting scientists with a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. And we are participating in staff training in diversity, equity and inclusion through the Poynter Institute and other organizations.
We are also looking to what science can tell us about bias, race and diversity. We increased coverage of the social sciences, including the challenges scientists face in defining race in the U.S. Census, the negative effects of racism on physical and mental health and how scientists are trying to study racial bias in policing. And we are reporting on how misinformation and disinformation about science warps people’s understanding of crucial issues such as climate change and COVID-19 vaccines.
Science will be key to building a safe and sustainable future for humankind and our planet. Though Slosson, our founding editor, didn’t always live up to his own ideals, we endorse his statement from a century ago that the ability of people to understand science, and distinguish between real science and fake, is essential to society’s success.
We know our efforts moving forward will be imperfect. We suspect if Science News survives another century, our future colleagues will look back on some of what we did with dismay. Yet we hope reckoning with our past, being transparent about what was terrible alongside what was great, will help us hold ourselves accountable today. And we ask our readers to hold us accountable as well.
This statement was developed by the Science News Reckoning Team, including Emily Conover, Martina Efeyini, Cassie Martin, Elizabeth Quill and Cori Vanchieri, with insight and guidance from many members of the Science News staff. It has been endorsed by editor in chief Nancy Shute and the Science News senior staff.