If you are interested in science journalism, then you’ve recently heard about the controversy surrounding Scientific American’s removal of a network blog post that exposed sexism at another science website. If not, read the full story here, as told by the New Yorker.
In this post I’m not going to focus on the troubling but justified resignation of Scientific American’s Blog Editor Bora Zivkovic, and I’m not going to focus on the rampant sexism in science and science journalism. Instead, I’m going to focus on the backlash Scientific American has received for temporarily taking down the initial post by Dr. Danielle Lee. In this blog post I shall argue how that action, the temporary removal of a post, has resulted in a well-respected publication being labeled as something it is not.*
That being said, let’s get started.
Since Dr. Danielle Lee’s blog post has been removed and reposted, a variety of bloggers have assumed that the post was removed due to inherent sexism in Scientific American’s offices. Caroline Selle wrote a piece for PolicyMic supporting Lee’s blog post and subtly criticizing Scientific American’s “flimsy excuses.” Jezebel published a piece by Callie Beusman accusing SciAm of discrimination. Roxanne Palmer at International Business Times focused on the racial aspect of the controversy.
Indeed, from reading these posts, it would seem that SciAm was actively silencing a female blogger who spoke up. This tweet from SciAm’s Editor-in-Chief Mariette DiChristina, designed to explain the removal, didn’t really help:
I believe these outlets are rightful in their anger towards censorship. The only way to end wrongdoing is to cast a light upon it, which from what I can tell, is Lee’s intention with the post. But I’m going to argue the following:
Preventing a female blogger from exposing sexism in her industry was not Scientific American’s motivation for removing the post, contrary to popular belief. I believe the post was initially removed in an executive decision to shield the publication from potential legal backlash, and interpretations that accuse Scientific American of inherent sexual bias are unfounded and inflammatory.
And like any good scientist, I have support for my theory. The following points are evidence.
1. Scientific American republished the blog post. Consider this for a moment: you are the editor of a publication that is read and respected worldwide for your influence in your specific topic. Suddenly, without warning, one of your editors alerts you that someone writing under the label of your publication has published something controversial. You didn’t see it coming, and it makes a lot of assumptions you can’t immediately prove. This controversial story hasn’t been discussed with you nor any of your staff, and the piece makes a lot of potentially damaging accusations of another organization. Libel and slander aren’t things to be taken lightly: they can destroy your publication – but the story’s already hit the web, and people are starting to talk about it. What do you do? What if the writer is wrong, or is making up information? What if the writer is right?
In journalism academia, they teach you to prevent printing libel or slander. Journalism is unique in that extreme legal penalties can fall on publications that print wrongful or defamatory stories. Historically, the most common reaction towards stories that could be controversial is to hold them until the facts had more proof. If that story comes at the last moment, you just “pull it” – as in, remove it from the newspaper, magazine, website, whatever. I haven’t spoken to anyone on SciAm’s staff about what happened that day, but I imagine it followed this standard formula:
There’s a really controversial story that nobody knew was coming. Can we prove the facts immediately, considering the post is already up? No? Pull it until we can, lest we suffer a multi-million dollar lawsuit. Better safe than sorry.
Posts in the Blog Network are not filed through the same type of copyediting process that standard news stories face. This post would not have been seen until it was already online, in my understanding.
And as you’ll notice, Scientific American did republish the post after what I imagine was a serious editorial meeting in the Orange Room of their offices. They even published a full statement citing legal concerns as their motivation. If their intention was to squash an exposé of sexism, why would they republish it, even if people called them out on it?
2. The editor-in-chief, Mariette DiChristina, is the first female EIC in Scientific American’s 165-year history. The office environment is inspirational. Lack of cubicles promotes discussion and interaction. Men and women from a variety of backgrounds and ages make up the editorial staff. Editorial meetings bring together SciAm’s diverse newsroom into engaging and blisteringly intelligent discussion about potential and current stories. Male, female, veteran or novice – all editors were respected, their ideas challenged and their logic noted. Even I, a young and thoroughly intimidated intern, was invited to contribute my intellect to the discussion. I was given a wide berth of access at the magazine, and not once did I catch a hint of inter-office power drama – an anomaly for a newsroom, in my experience. DiChristina is not running a sexist publication. Rather, I would argue that she is running one of the most forward-thinking and inclusive science magazines in the industry. Sit in one meeting and witness the excellence that DiChristina demands from her team and you’d find it hard to identify her as sexist – I can’t, and I was there for two and a half months.
3. They still accepted the resignation of their Blogs Editor, one of the most experienced and respected names in Science blogging. The case of Bora Zivkovic is a separate one entirely, but one that needs to be mentioned. Zivkovic turned SciAm’s Blog Network into a thriving community thanks to his experience and networks. He was a mentor and liked by many, often being referred to as “The Blogfather” for his influence in online spheres. Beloved or not, his actions were unacceptable, and his and SciAm’s responses were accepted by the affected parties. People in the SciAm offices spoke highly of Zivkovic while I was there, and even during the proceedings people across the internet responded strangely, almost as if they couldn’t – or didn’t want to – believe it (see previous link.) Zivkovic was a valuable member of SciAm’s team and someone they definitely will miss. A publication that is allegedly sexist would have more strongly defended a critical part of their team. Rather, SciAm made the sacrifice they knew had to be done. Sexism and harassment is common in science, and it is the responsibility of science’s flagship publication to work towards a better, fairer future. This means having zero tolerance.
My conclusion stands. I cannot stay idle while people on the internet draw incorrect conclusions about one of the most respected names in the business. I speak logically in favor of truth, and I present my theory after many hours of thought. I hope the intelligent minds that read Scientific American will identify these facts, so instead of blindly cursing SciAm, we can identify their actions as positive responses to the biases and faults that plague us all.
*In the interest of full disclosure: I am a journalism student with several years of writing and editorial experience. I have worked in several practicing newsrooms. Last summer, I worked as an editoral intern for Scientific American, and I became intimately familiar with their web publishing process. I was located in their New York offices and sat in many a meeting with Mariette DiChristina, the editor at the helm of the publication. I experienced and was impressed by the intense professionalism and demand for excellence I witnessed in the SciAm offices, and when I started reading about this controversy, I realized people are drawing the wrong kinds of conclusions about our nation’s most respected scientific magazine. I learned a great deal and had a very positive experience at Scientific American, but for this piece, it is necessary that I speak logically and without bias.
In the interest of more full disclosure: I am a powerful proponent of gender equality in all aspects of human life. I despise sexism and I have no problem recognizing that lots of people don’t think critically about gender equality on both sides of the aisle. When not tackling those issues, I blog about magazine design.