Breaking Bias: Study Reveals Media Focus on Scientists with Anglo Names

Unveiling Bias: The Impact of Ethnic Names on Scientific Recognition in Media Coverage

When scientific breakthroughs grace the headlines, not all researchers find their names in the spotlight. A recent study uncovered a startling revelation: scientists with Asian or African names were found to be 15% less likely to be acknowledged in media narratives.

In a poignant anecdote, a Chinese national's pursuit of permanent residency in the United States encountered an unexpected hurdle. Despite his significant contributions to biology, highlighted in prominent publications like The New York Times, his name remained conspicuously absent from the articles. Immigration officials, in their assessment, noted the absence of direct attribution of his major role in the research—a setback that underscored the complexities of individual recognition within collaborative scientific endeavors.

As a friend intimately familiar with his dedication to the project, I empathized with his plight. Yet, as a fellow scientist delving into the intricacies of scientific innovation, I couldn't ignore the inherent challenges faced by immigration authorities in discerning individual contributions from team-based research endeavors. This personal anecdote, shared with colleagues Misha Teplitskiy and David Jurgens, ignited a curiosity to explore the underlying factors influencing journalists' decisions in featuring scientists in their narratives.

The stakes are high for scientists whose names do—or don't—grace the pages of media coverage. News outlets serve as conduits for disseminating groundbreaking research to the public, endowing prestige upon research teams and their affiliations. The manner and depth of coverage wield significant influence over public perceptions of scientific prowess and can even impact individual careers, as evidenced by the plight of my acquaintance.

The question loomed large: do scientists' social identities, particularly ethnicity or race, influence their visibility in media coverage? The answer is far from straightforward. While racial biases persist within the predominantly homogenous landscape of mainstream media, science journalism prides itself on impartial reporting standards. Determined to shed light on this complex issue, we embarked on a systematic investigation, leveraging large-scale observational data to unravel the intricate interplay between ethnic identities and scientific recognition in media narratives.

Unveiling Bias in Science Media Coverage: Insights from a Comprehensive Analysis

My colleagues and I embarked on a meticulous analysis, dissecting 223,587 news stories sourced from, a repository monitoring online discussions surrounding research papers. Spanning the years 2011 to 2019, these stories canvassed a staggering 100,486 scientific papers. Our scrutiny zeroed in on the authors most likely to receive mention: the first author, last author, and other designated corresponding authors. Delving into the frequency of their mentions, we aimed to unravel the underlying patterns shaping media recognition.

Employing an algorithmic approach, we sought to infer the perceived ethnicity of authors based solely on their names. Recognizing that journalists might rely on such cues in lieu of self-reported information from scientists, we categorized authors with Anglo names—akin to John Brown or Emily Taylor—as the dominant group. This allowed us to juxtapose the average mention rates across nine broad ethnic categories.

Our methodology, while unable to distinguish Black from white names due to the prevalence of Anglo names among African Americans, remained pertinent in assessing perceived identity across diverse ethnic groups. The findings were striking: while the overall likelihood of authors being credited in news stories hovered around 40%, individuals with minority ethnicity names faced significant hurdles in garnering recognition. Notably, authors with East Asian and African names encountered a notable 15% deficit in mentions compared to their Anglo-named counterparts.

Crucially, this disparity persisted across various parameters, including geographical location, authorship position, affiliation rank, and research topics, even after meticulous adjustments for factors like author prestige and story length. Importantly, the bias extended across different types of media outlets, spanning publishers of press releases, general interest news, and those specializing in science and technology coverage.

However, it's imperative to note that our findings do not necessarily point to explicit media bias. Rather, pragmatic challenges faced by journalists may underpin the underrepresentation of scientists with East Asian and African names. Time zone disparities for overseas researchers and linguistic barriers—real or perceived—could impede journalists, striving against deadlines, in securing interviews and crafting comprehensive stories.

In unraveling these intricacies, our study underscores the nuanced interplay between ethnicity, media representation, and the dissemination of scientific achievements, shedding light on avenues for promoting greater inclusivity and equitable recognition within science communication.

Unveiling Persistent Disparities: Exploring Ethnic Bias in U.S. Science Media Coverage

In our quest to unravel the underlying factors shaping media recognition, we honed in on researchers affiliated with American institutions, aiming to mitigate pragmatic challenges that might obscure the true extent of disparities. Operating within the same geographic region as journalists and presumably proficient in English, these U.S.-based scientists should, in theory, encounter fewer obstacles in responding to interview requests—a presumption bolstered by the increasing value placed on media attention by American institutions.

Yet, even within this narrowed focus, significant disparities in mentions and quotations persisted for non-Anglo-named authors, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. Notably, East Asian- and African-named authors faced a 4 to 5 percentage-point decline in mention rates compared to their Anglo-named counterparts, underscoring the persistence of underlying biases.

Our analysis unearthed a troubling trend: journalists were more inclined to substitute institutional affiliations for scientists with African and East Asian names—referencing "researchers from the University of Michigan," for instance. This substitution effect not only diminishes individual recognition but also hints at a broader bias in media representation, where scholars with minority ethnicity names may be unjustly marginalized or deemed less authoritative.

The depth of science news coverage hinges upon the thorough and accurate portrayal of researchers, including explicit acknowledgment of their contributions through name mentions and highlighted quotations. As the scientific landscape becomes increasingly globalized, with English as its lingua franca, our findings underscore the critical importance of equitable representation in shaping public discourse and fostering diversity within the scientific community.

However, our suspicions linger regarding the potentially exacerbated disparities in earlier stages of science dissemination. The process of selecting which research papers to report may harbor even greater biases, perpetuated by decades—if not centuries—of systemic inequities ingrained within the scientific production pipeline. From funding allocation to publication opportunities and representation within the scientific workforce, the pervasive nature of bias demands a concerted effort to dismantle entrenched barriers and promote inclusivity at every stage of scientific inquiry.

Bridging Inequities: Advancing Equity in Science Communication

Journalists play a pivotal role in selecting which scientific breakthroughs reach the public eye—a stage of the process marred by inherent inequities. Thus, while rectifying disparities in scientists' media representation represents just one facet of fostering inclusivity and equality in science, it stands as a crucial stride towards democratizing access to scientific knowledge.

Authored by Hao Peng, a postdoctoral fellow at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, this narrative epitomizes the mission of The Conversation—a nonprofit, independent news organization committed to amplifying the expertise of scholars for the betterment of society.

In recognizing the multifaceted nature of inequities entrenched within the scientific enterprise, addressing disparities in media representation emerges as a tangible pathway towards reshaping the narrative surrounding science. By striving for more equitable coverage, we not only bridge the gap between scientific advancements and public understanding but also pave the way for a more inclusive and accessible scientific community.

As we navigate the complex terrain of science communication, let us heed this call to action, leveraging every opportunity to dismantle barriers and champion diversity in the pursuit of knowledge dissemination for the betterment of all.

In conclusion, the exploration of disparities in scientists' media representation serves as a critical juncture in the broader quest for inclusivity and equality within the scientific realm. While journalists' selection processes are just one facet of a complex system rife with inequities, addressing these disparities marks a significant stride towards democratizing access to scientific knowledge.

As Hao Peng's insights from The Conversation underscore, fostering a more equitable and inclusive science communication landscape is not merely a moral imperative but a pragmatic necessity for bridging the gap between scientific advancements and public understanding. By amplifying diverse voices and perspectives, we not only enrich the discourse surrounding science but also cultivate a more informed and engaged society.

As we navigate the intricate interplay between science, media, and societal dynamics, let us remain steadfast in our commitment to dismantling systemic barriers and promoting diversity at every stage of the scientific enterprise. Together, we can chart a course towards a future where scientific knowledge is truly accessible to all, fostering a more equitable and just society for generations to come.