A World War II Scale Effort: Science

What level of public attention is required for the “WWII-scale effort” urged by Thomas Friedman and others? To provide a provisional answer to this question, GW students in Professor Svoboda’s UW-20 classes examined ten magazines published during WWII and still in print today. They compared each magazine’s coverage of WWII during 1942 with its coverage of climate change from July 2008 to June 2009 . Up to 12 issues were examined for each period. (See a more detailed overview of the project here.) Today we present an analysis of Science, an International weekly science journal, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).


The Great Mobilization:  Comparing the Coverage of WWII and Climate Change in Science

By Christopher Ching, Jean-Marie Evans, Kristi Saporito, and Maura Welch

Introduction

As part of our course’s investigation of World War II’s “Great Mobilization,” our group compared the coverage of the war in the first half of 1942 and the coverage of climate change in the second half of 2008 by Science, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. For 1942, we randomly chose one issue for each of the first five months of the year, and for 2008 we randomly chose one issue for each of the last five months of the year. For issues from each time period, we identified the different parts of the magazine, tallied the number of pieces in each category, and then calculated the percentage that were related to WWII and climate change. The different parts of the magazine we identified were major articles, editorials, advertisements, news, and reports. However, the 1942 issues of Science lacked distinctive news and reports sections, a fact that is duly noted in our table.

1942 Data

The data show that coverage of World War II in Science was relatively low in comparison to news magazines from the same period. Only four out of 16 major articles mentioned the war; the numbers for letters to the editor and advertisements were even lower. This is not particularly surprising as Science did not directly address foreign policy, military conflict, the home front, or morale issues. Instead, most of the articles continued to cover academic research from civilian research institutions, since most government-related work was classified or considered off-limits. Most articles referred to WWII only obliquely, usually focusing on research that could have effects on soldiers or on research institutions that were then working with the government; none covered the conduct of the war itself. See Figure 1.1 for exact data.

2008-2009 Data

Data from the 2008 issues of Science show that 10.8% of articles, 14.6% of editorials, 7.1% of news, 1.3% of advertisements, and 5.9% of reports were about climate change. This is quite surprising considering that climate change is a major public policy topic, especially in the scientific sense. We speculate that editorials, which include letters to the editor, have a higher percentage of climate change – related pieces because they reflect readers’ interests in the topic. Overall, 7.9% of the pieces in the 2008 issues of Science that we studied were about climate change. This is notably lower than the 13.2% of pieces in the 1942 issues of Science that we studied that were about WWII. See Figure 1 for exact data.

Conclusion

This process was a part of our larger investigation about national mobilizations toward a common cause. We specifically compared the “great mobilization” of the citizenry of the United States during WWII to what some claim is a necessary mobilization of Americans today to combat global warming. Since Science is a scientific rather than political magazine, one would expect the coverage of climate change to be much higher than the coverage of WWII if public attention to the two subjects were equivalent. The fact that coverage of WWII still surpassed coverage of climate change indicates that climate change is not receiving equivalent attention.

Figure 1

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