Friday, April 25, 2014

Petty annoyance or serious problem? You decide.

On April 20, The Sunday Times published an article with the headline:

Grandmother, 71, tackles slave traffickers for the Pope

Really?  A Grandmother?  Amazing!

What's amazing is that this headline somehow manages to sweep away Lady Margaret Archer's professional achievements as irrelevant to her identity in comparison to her grandmotherliness, and simultaneously imply that we should be shocked that a grandmother could possibly be asked to "tackle slave traffickers".

To be brutally fair, the article does in fact briefly survey her career, but this one headline - and the second paragraph, which reads:

"Margaret Archer, a 71-year-old grandmother who has spent most of her academic career at Warwick University, has just been appointed head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences by Pope Francis."

neatly excises facts like:

  • Her PhD in sociology from the University of London
  • Her reputation as one of the most influential theorists in the critical realism school.
  • She was elected president of the International Sociological Association at their 12th World Congress of Sociology
  • She was one of the founding members of both the Academy she now heads and the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences
  • At the time of appointment she wasn't working at Warwick University (a respectable school) any more, but is actually a professor at l'Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland (one of the world's most prestigious technology universities in the world (ranking 1st in Europe) and home to the Blue Brain Project.)

So, what's the big deal, you might ask - she is a grandmother, right?  Other articles, like this news release from the Vatican give pretty straight-forward coverage of her qualifications, and this is after all the Sunday Times, so we might expect more of an interest story approach than hard-hitting investigative journalism.

I think it's fair to say that in such a piece it would be perfectly ordinary to mention the fact that a researcher is a father (for example) or is from some locale the readership might find interesting. But this information is normally considered secondary - it's just a little garnish to make the subject of the article seem more personable. The meat - the reason you're reading the article at all is the achievement being reported, and if these details aren't at all relevant you certainly don't expect them to be in the headline or to feature prominently in the initial paragraphs.

Unless you're a woman, I guess.

Some won't really understand what I'm getting at, so as an illustration, here are some other articles with their headlines rewritten in the same style:

Welshman finds new beetle in Brazil

Small-town man appointed to national association

Husband of Ojibway woman appointed to Great Lakes Science Advisory Board

Fact: nationality, where you grew up, who you are married to - all irrelevant to the actual news.

Interesting details about the individuals?  Sure - and actually I think it would be great to get more personalization of prominent researchers in the media to help get people more interested in science.

But it doesn't belong in the headline, and it doesn't deserve pride of place in any article purporting to report an individual's professional achievement.

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