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A reporter at work during the March for Science in Washington, D.C.

Emily Petersen

‘Boffins and their VERY academic chants’: How the media covered the March for Science

“What do we want? Evidence-based policy. When do we want it? After peer review.” That slogan, heard in many cities on Saturday, was a source of amusement for the U.K. tabloid The Daily Mail. “Boffins’ VERY academic chant as Doctor Who joins thousands protesting against Brexit during global March for Science,” the paper headlined its story about the march.

But U.K. march organizers had little reason to complain: The Daily Mail, not known for its interest in science, reported extensively on the marchers’ motivations and interspersed its 1500-word story with 27 big photos. It helpfully explained the sign “No Taxation Without Taxonomy” to its readers: “Taxonomy is the science of classifying animals, plants and other organisms.”

Largely unknown until a few weeks ago, the March for Science suddenly became a global news story the past weekend. Coverage was most extensive in the United States, which also had the most marchers. Major news outlets including ABC, CNN, The New York Times (NYT), and The Washington Post covered marches in Washington, D.C., and other cities with an abundance of op-eds and news pieces throughout the weekend.

Many stories highlighted the nerdy signs (such as a sine wave declaring itself a “protest sine”), celebrity marcher and TV personality Bill Nye, and the marchers’ call for scientists to step out from behind the microscope to advocate for science and the public good. Most stories mentioned President Donald Trump; a NYT piece noted that he “passed dozens of demonstrators from the march holding signs” while in transit through the Washington, D.C., area. Overall, organizers were “thrilled with the excitement and attention this cause has generated,” March for Science’s national social media co-lead Courtnie Weber wrote in an email to ScienceInsider.

There were critical voices as well. On the eve of the march, Fox News published an opinion piece by former ABC Science Editor Michael Guillen, who called the march a “brazen attempt by political activists to hijack science.” In a video broadcast on march day, Fox News interviewed Princeton University physicist and climate change skeptic William Happer, who said about the marchers’ focus on climate change: “Well most of them don’t know any science. It’s sort of a religious belief for them.” An online backlash erupted when CNN pitted Happer against Nye in a televised interview that day. “You’re doing a disservice by having one climate change skeptic and not 97 or 98 scientists or engineers concerned about climate change,” Nye said.

The Mexican press focused on a local controversy. The March for Science in Mexico City was led by graduate students protesting recent cuts to the National Council of Science and Technology, the country’s principal granting agency; the academies of sciences, medicine, and engineering didn’t formally participate but held a press conference in support of the global March for Science movement instead. Newspaper El Universal highlighted the tension between the two, quoting engineering academy President Jaime Parada Ávila as saying, “These issues won’t be resolved in the streets, but within the sphere of political and economic decisions and power in our country.” The paper Crónica quoted a marching graduate student who said that, “We don’t need to be called to action by the Academy of Sciences. … We can organize ourselves outside of the bureaucracy that dominates the country’s research institutions.”

There was lots of coverage in the United Kingdom, where the BBC described the march in London as a “a celebration of science amid fears research is under threat from a ‘post-truth’ age and Brexit,” while the Independent described it as more political: “Protesters oppose Donald Trump’s rejection of science and the rise of misinformation.” Most coverage brought up Brexit, and several stories referenced politician Michael Gove’s infamous attack on economists during the leave-EU campaign last year: “People in this country have had enough of experts.” Marches outside of London had smaller crowds and less media attention.

In other countries, more pressing news kept the march out of the spotlight. In France, the march took place on the eve of a nailbiter presidential election and 2 days after a terrorist attack; the widely watched 8 p.m. TV journal on public broadcaster France2 completely ignored the march in Paris and smaller events in two dozen cities. Left-of-center newspaper Le Monde kept its coverage of the march itself brief but produced a video explaining its origins and ran an op-ed by six researchers about the march. The latter piece characterized the way U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt’s talks about science using a phrase from George Orwell’s 1984: “Ignorance is strength.”

Presidential elections also sucked the oxygen out of coverage in South Korea, says Seunghwan Kim, the head of the organizing committee of the march in Seoul. “We hoped for more,” Kim says. The Japanese press didn’t pay much attention either. A brief story in Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest circulation daily, was filed by a Washington, D.C., correspondent; it mentioned that marches took place in 600 cities, including Tokyo and London, and described Trump’s denial of climate change as a trigger. But the paper apparently did not send a reporter to the march in its hometown. Asahi Shimbun had one paragraph about the Tokyo march, noting there were about 150 people in the streets, most of them Americans. (The march’s chief organizer lives in California.)

March organizers in Australia had more reason to be happy. Most major media outlets reported on the march; national broadcaster ABC and metropolitan newspaper company Fairfax (which owns The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age) gave it the most coverage, says march media coordinator Jocelyn Prasad, while commercial TV and radio paid the least attention. Like in the United States, some stories quoted scientists who were wary of the march and worried it would politicize science.

Did the march work? Yes, Clifton Leaf concluded in Fortune—thanks precisely to all those clever signsScience is still unsettling, even frightening to millions of people, Leaf wrote. “Which is why, in my view, Saturday’s global March for Science was so effective. The organizers and participants didn’t try to counter fear with stridency. Their antidotes were humor, cleverness, and the celebration of human ingenuity. They understood that one of the most ancient and potent forces of the brain—fear—could be overcome only by its most developed and fertile force: creativity.”

With contributions from Dennis Normile, Erik Stokstad, Lindzi Wessel, Lizzie Wade, and Martin Enserink.