E. W. Scripps and the Science Service

By Foust, James C. | Journalism History, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

E. W. Scripps and the Science Service


Foust, James C., Journalism History


Without minimizing the continuing operational activities of the Science Service," Watson Davis, president of the organization, wrote in 1948, "its major contribution might be considered to be that it has made science acceptable to the American Press, and that it has made science reporting acceptable in both newspaper and science circles.(1) The Science Service, formed by newspaper publisher E.W. Scripps in 1921, was only one of many factors that led to an increased spirit of cooperation between scientists and journalists after World War I, but the organization's work was the most tangible contributor to the rise of more accurate and thoughtful science news in the popular press. At its peak in the 1940s, the Science Service supplied news and feature material to more than a hundred newspapers with a combined circulation of about 30 million.(2)

Despite the Science Service's contribution to the popularization of science through the press, relatively little scholarly work has been done on the organization.(3) This study chronicles the Science Service's formation, with an emphasis on Scripps's contributions, using the newspaper publisher's personal papers(4) While most existing accounts of the Science Service's development credit Scripps with little more than financial input, this study shows that he was a powerful force editorially and organizationally as well. In fact, Scripps's influence made the Science Service's success possible: he demanded that its output be accessible to the average reader and acceptable to newspaper editors without being insulting to scientists.

Reaching such a compromise was no minor feat. As science matured and became increasingly specialized during the nineteenth century, journalism in many ways was not able to keep up with its advances. By the early 1900s a widening gap separated the work of the scientist from the understanding of the average person and the journalist. Scientists, for their part, viewed their work as largely a private matter and saw little need to spend time "training" journalists about what they did. The fascination with simplistic "gee whiz" science coverage that developed during the yellow press era further put off scientists. "We do not mind being popularized," noted one scientist, "but we do mind being made ridiculous!"(5)

Thus, in the early part of the twentieth century journalists and scientists had reached something of an impasse. The result was that the science news that did make it to print was often inaccurate and usually sensationalized. The bogus discoveries of "quack" scientists received as much publicity in the popular press as legitimate scientific work, and reporting cures for diseases became one of the most popular aspects of science news, regardless of whether the cure was legitimate.(6) Apart from the occasional practical reports on new farming or household discoveries, the science journalism of the early twentieth century seemed to be doing neither the scientific community nor the reading public any real good.(7)

World War I led to at least a modest improvement in the relationship between journalists and scientists. Scientific developments during the war, especially in areas such as chemistry and submarine warfare, caused the public to view science from a more practical standpoint.(8) Additionally, following the war more scientists looked to the government for research funding, thus making public and political popularity of scientific notions an important consideration for the scientist.(9)

Beginning about the time of World War I, some scientific organizations began to seek ways to actively participate in publicizing their work. Science associations hired public relations directors and set up informal "news services" in the late 1910s.(10) A subcommittee formed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) noted the importance of scientific information in the war effort: "The vital importance of scientific knowledge to national preparedness . …

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