Down to a Science
Science concentrators who work in The Crimson's newsroom are few and far between. You're much more likely to hear a debate on deconstructionism than one on DNA replication. Pre-meds are slightly more common at The Crimson, but you can still count them on the fingers of one hand.
Why has this condition persisted year after year? There are a whole host of reasons why a given science concentrator at Harvard might not want to join The Crimson's news staff. Endless afternoon labs, for example. Grueling problem sets. Backbreaking exam curves. There hardly seems enough time to breathe, let alone join an extraordinarily time-consuming extracurricular like a daily newspaper.
There's also the idea that The Crimson just doesn't cover anything that science concentrators can get excited about. On the surface, this argument seems to hold some water: It's about 10 times more likely that Law School students (former Social Studies concentrators) would stage a protest than Medical School students (former biochemistry concentrators).
Do non-science concentrators learn the art of protest in class? Does organic chemistry conveniently leave out that chapter? No, but different disciplines reward different skills. Studying the (occasionally in flux) rules of physics, for example, doesn't lend itself to debate as much as a sociology section.
Either time or interest factors, then, might preclude or dissuade prospective Crimson Staffers who concentrate in science from comping Crimson news.
But it doesn't have to be that way, if recent history is any indicator. Within the past year, more than half a dozen current and prospective intrepid science concentrators--some in biology, biochemistry, chemistry and physics, to name a few--have taken the plunge and decided to comp Crimson news. Science concentrators, it seems, have suddenly realized (as this biology concentrator has) that it's possible to become really involved at The Crimson and still get into medical or graduate school.
Why the change? The time commitment is still the same. But this year, we've tried to solve the problem of generating interest. Most of those science concentrators who have joined us have done so through The Crimson's new science comp.
As you can tell by its name, the science comp does something that the general news comp, in which it is still firmly grounded, fails to do: It specializes a little bit. It reaches out to science concentrators who might not be interested in covering Faculty tenure battles or the cops beat, and gives them an opportunity to write about subjects that genuinely interest them.
And by doing so, it opens up The Crimson to a whole universe--to use an astronomers' term--of writers and of readers. Science whizzes who might never have thought of joining the paper are writing a few times a week. With the increased staff, The Crimson's science team has been able to put out a Science & Health page every Tuesday. The amount and quality of daily science coverage has also dramatically increased.
The Crimson's newly-rejuvenated science staff raises the question of the function of science and health journalism in general. What, if any, purpose does it serve? Has The Crimson's coverage of such issues accomplished any useful goals?
Reporters who cover science tend to fall into one of two schools. One contends that science writers are simply journalists who happen to cover science. The other maintains that science journalists operate in a slightly different frame of mind from, say, reporters who cover City Hall. Science, they argue, is quantitatively and quantitatively different enough from "everyday" subject matter to merit different reporting strategies.
To learn the goals of those in the former school, talk to Woodward and Bernstein of "All The President's Men" fame. Inform. Provoke. Throw all the knowledge out there so that readers can eradicate evildoers and lead better lives. A bit dramatic, maybe, but many reporters and editors went enthusiastically into journalism for just those reasons.
Members of the latter group, however, see their role differently. Readers, they reason, may not be ready or informed enough, given the state of this country's educational system, to know what to do will all the scientific information the media provides their eyes and ears. Their goals include filtering and explaining the day's news. Some might even argue that these science writers are advocates for science, although this would probably be a minority view.
The distinctions are slight, and probably subtle to those outside the trade, but they represent an important difference in the philosophy of the two groups. Which brings us back to The Crimson's age-old problem of attracting science concentrators.
In the not so distant past, The Crimson's newsroom was populated mainly by the first model of journalists--the Woodward and Bernstein wannabes. Our job was to ferret out the good, the bad and the just plain ugly at Harvard and offer it to the people.
With the addition of the science comp, some reporters may not share that sentiment. Their job, they might feel, is to interest readers in the possibilities of genetics, not to find waste and scandal in the Bio Labs. They'd rather leave that to the investigative team.
In the end, both models are important. Readers must be informed and provoked, but it's not such a bad thing if they're also educated. The Crimson always needs new perspectives on anything it covers, and the science comp seems at least to be a short term solution to gaining those perspectives.
It used to be a big world out there, and someone had to cover it. Now, it's a great big universe, from atom to galaxy. We'll be there. Will You?
Executive Editor Ivan Oransky '94 edits the weekly Science & Health Page.