Date of this Version
How Often Are Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Said to “Evolve” in the News? PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150396. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0150396
Media plays an important role in informing the general public about scientific ideas.We examine whether the word “evolve,” sometimes considered controversial by the general public, is frequently used in the popular press. Specifically, we ask how often articles discussing antibiotic resistance use the word “evolve” (or its lexemes) as opposed to alternative terms such as “emerge” or “develop.” We chose the topic of antibiotic resistance because it is a medically important issue; bacterial evolution is a central player in human morbidity and mortality. We focused on the most widely-distributed newspapers written in English in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Australia. We examined all articles that focused primarily on the evolution of antibiotic resistance, were published in 2014 or earlier, and were accessible in online archives, for a total of 1639 articles. The total years examined per newspaper ranged from 5 to 37 years with a median of 27 years, and the overall range was 1978–2014. We quantified how many articles included the term “evolve” and analyzed how this varied with newspaper, country, and time. We found that an overall rate of 18% of articles used the term “evolve” but with significant variation among countries. Newspapers in the United Kingdom had the highest rate (24%), more than double of those in India (9%), the country with the lowest rate. These frequencies were lower than those found in scientific papers from both evolutionary journals and biomedical journals. There were no statistically significant changes in frequency and no trends when “evolve” usage was compared against variables such as newspaper circulation, liberal/conservative bias, time, and state evolution acceptance in U.S. newspapers. This study highlights the globally low usage of the word “evolve” in the popular press. We suggest this low usage may affect public understanding and acceptance of evolutionary concepts.