The Balance between Accessibility and Truth:
A rhetorical analysis of professional research and popular articles
Popular science articles, by necessity, simplify research to be more accessible to the general public. However, during this process, writers may mislead audiences as facts are exaggerated, oversimplified, or misused. Take for example Julie Beck’s popular article, “Don’t Worry So Much About Whether Your Food Is ‘Processed.’” This journalist supports her argument, which is built into the title (that processed food is not bad), partly by citing the academic research article, “Review Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Part 1. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds” by scientists Joy C. Rickman, Diane M. Barrett, and Christine M. Bruhn. Julie Beck uses the research article to elevate her own claim that processed food should be eaten the same as fresh foods. However, the writers of the research article would not necessarily agree with that statement. Beck leads the reader to believe that this research article supports her ideas when the researchers’ conclusions are far too nuanced and detailed to be used so irresponsibly.
Popular science articles, such as Beck’s, use rhetorical features that can differ greatly from the research article that it cites from. Ken Hyland, a Linguist professor at the University of Hong Kong, writes about the “writer’s control of rhetorical features” which is known as proximity (116). A professional research article and a popular science article can be compared based on three facets of their proximity- exigence, credibility, and stance. Though the research paper does contain information that can be used to support Beck’s claims, it is oversimplified, misleading due to omission of detail, and used in a way that overblows its findings for the sake of accessibility to its targeted audience.
When discussing the professional paper’s exigence, the researchers cite standards set by official, trustworthy organizations such as the World Health Organization (The WHO). They provided a large amount of background in exigence. They clearly let the reader know why their study is important. After analyzing several different health organizations’ diet recommendations, the researchers concluded that over all, “…the recommendation to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables is a global standard (932).” The USDA states that Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables and that the majority of produce consumed is processed. Considering the public opposition to processed foods and the quantity in which these are consumed, Rickman et al. stress that it is important to find out the nutritional aspects of processed produce in comparison to fresh produce. Beck’s popular article goes through no such detail. Beck summarizes her problem with processed food with the opening line by the dean of a prestigious nutrition school, Dariush Mozaffarian: “To say all processed food is bad is a mistake (1).” They both have basically the same exigence- we need to eat more fruits and vegetables and there is debate on whether or not processed food makes a difference. The research paper does not conclude with a definite answer, but the popular article shows no doubt.
Julie Beck’s stance on processed food is clear from her title and tagline- “As long as people are eating fruits and vegetables, it’s not that important whether they’re fresh, frozen, or canned.” Audiences know to expect an article supporting the assertion that they should not worry about eating food that has been processed. In contrast, the research article did not come to such a specific conclusion- just that one should not encourage eating solely fresh produce. The researchers expressed the difference in nutritional value of processed food versus fresh food as ‘complex.’ The difficulty in assessing nutritional values and finding an adequate sample was discussed, showing that they were not committing to a definite answer. The research paper was not as assertive through the use of ‘hedges,’ choices used by the author to impart caution when coming to a conclusion (Hyland 123). Here is an example: “Depending on the commodity, freezing and canning processes may preserve nutrient value (930).” Rickman et al. use the words “depending” and “may,” which display a degree of uncertainty in their statement. In contrast, Beck’s article, whose tagline claims “it’s not that important whether they’re fresh, frozen, or canned,” pushes toward the conclusion that we should not differentiate between eating processed or fresh fruits and vegetables. Though she chooses to use the phrase ‘it’s not that important,’ the “that” indicating a sense of uncertainty in professing that it is completely important, the rest of her popular article only provides evidence that supports her claim; there are no counterarguments and therefore no leeway in her stance, unlike the scientific article. In contrast, researchers are careful in their choice of language to maintain their neutral stance, awarding them credibility in the eyes of their colleagues.
When establishing their credibility, research paper authors tend to use previous research as evidence “to align [themselves] with a particular camp (Hyland, 122),” meaning they cite articles written by other scientists to prove themselves to be just as trustworthy. Rickman et al. critique the reliability of previous studies and give advice on how studies of nutritional comparisons should be conducted; for example, they ask that fruits or vegetables studied be all of the same cultivar (931). These features make the research article seem sophisticated, thorough, and credible. Unable to use these methods, for they would be too difficult for their target audience to understand, popular article writers rely on the reputation of their sources. Starting with the claim that processed food and fresh food should be eaten all the same, Beck cites the FDA and research studies, and uses quotes from the dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, a chef, the head of the public-health nutrition department at Nestlé Research Center, and other journalists who covered research papers to support her argument. She quotes from a variety of different sources, some of which are more credible (quotes by professionals in the nutrition field), while some have less authority on the subject matter (quotes by non-experts). In addition to including sources by non-professionals, it is noteworthy that she included a source by the man who works for Nestlé, who may be a professional but most certainly has a conflict of interest as Nestlé is a major manufacturer of processed foods. Typical of popular articles, the quotes are highly biased and are not necessarily based off of well-researched evidence, or if they supposedly are, they do not directly point to any scientific facts. The reader is meant to ‘take their word for it’ because of a source’s apparent authority. Presenting a conversational tone, the majority of her article is written in quotes, rare in professional science articles, but common in popularizations. Rickman et al. quote from other scientific articles which one may consider more reliable because they are based off of facts rather than trust in a person. It is notable that both genres chose to cite government and world health organizations. The majority of sources used to display credibility are different for the professional research and popular science fields. Though sources used by popular articles are less credible, this is due to a balance of simplicity and adherence to scientific facts.
Though the results of the research article could be used to support Julie Beck’s argument, the research article’s quotes should have been inserted in a more appropriate manner. The research report did not take into account fresh food that had been shipped from countries thousands of miles away in their definition of ‘fresh’ produce. Therefore, the quote that seemingly summarizes the report’s findings is misleading. Though Rickman et al.’s research article could have supported Beck’s argument, she did not accurately represent the findings; the citation was misleading. Professional research articles are more accurate, but will only attract other professionals; popular articles are much more accessible, but often sacrifice truthfulness for simplicity. Thus, popularizations are necessary but should be read with a grain of salt. The analysis of rhetorical features in research articles versus popular articles is important to consider when we search for truth and simplicity.
Beck, Julie. “Don’t Worry So Much About Whether Your Food Is ‘Processed’”The Atlantic. 28 June. 2015. Web. 22 July. 2015.
Hyland, Ken. “Constructing proximity: Relating to readers in popular and professional science.” Journal of English for Academic Purposes. 2010. Pg. 116-127. Print.
Rickman, Joy C., Barrett, Diane M, and Bruhn, Christine M. “Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Part 1. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. J Sci Food Agric 87:930–944 (2007). Print.