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National Association of Black Journalists host national convention, but where are the Black Science Journalists?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I can’t for the life of me name a single African-American Science Journalist; can you? Okay, that was a loaded question. I can’t name a single science journalist. I’m horrible at remembering names and because science journalism is a bit of a declining genre, most people rarely read science news from a “science journalist” per se. However, that still doesn’t dismiss my question or my implication about the state of diversity of science journalism.

Let me be upfront about a few things. One, I am not a science journalist. Though many in the online science community would argue that thanks to the new media landscape and my position in the science blog-o-sphere as a niche blogger to African-American audiences, I am science journalist. Perhaps a lay science journalist, okay, I’ll take that. However, I am not comfortable with either label. That is because journalism isn’t my craft. Journalism has its own pedagogies, practices, and standards. It is an ethos with which I am completely unfamiliar. Crazy deadlines, objectivity, headlines, fact checking, editorial approval…sheesh. I don’t know nan.

Plus, I am not interested in becoming a science journalist. However, I am very interested in cultivating the environment that creates more minority science journalists that write or present from different viewpoints and angles. I envision a diversity of journalists that write about research, discoveries, and profiles of people in all fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for both major and regional press outlets – magazine, radio, newspaper, television, internet.   Moreover, being a member of academic, scientific, and African-American communities affords me a great vantage point.  I see opportunities for connections that could transform how science is shared with the entire public.  I’ve implicated a problem, stated the question, so here are what I see as routes to a solution.

1.)  Create a Health & Science journalism community within the National Association of Black Journalists.
The National Association of Black Journalists conference is a dynamic networking opportunity or both up-and-coming and veteran journalists. The organization (and the conference) is organized to provide professional development in several areas of journalism such as Arts & Entertainment, Sports, World Affairs, LGBTQ, Photojournalism, as well as communities for Print, Broadcast, and Digital platforms.  Providing infrastructure to support black journalists who cover health (and other science related topics such as energy and the environment) could easily be accomplished by the creation of a new NABJ Task force.  Despite the number of presentations on health disparities and women’s health listed in the conference program, I was surprised to see there was no professional community for Health Journalism. Presentations like “Deciphering Health by the Numbers” by researchers at Washington University of St. Louis introduces journalists to important tools for gathering data to use in science news stories. The panelists will show participants how to use a new health database system, Ozioma, that hosts health information from National Cancer Institute, Centers for Disease Control, and others. Though I am fan of full on science news coverage, I will conceed to just a Health Taskforce.  I recognize the importance and relevance of health issues to people, plus it is topic that seems to have traction within the organization.  Other STEM news coverage can come later. This is low-hanging fruit.

2.) Facilitate an introduction between the two journalism communities. National Association of Black Journalists meet National Association of Science Writers. National Association of Science Writers meet National Association of Black Journalists.
The National Association of Science Writers offers tools to assist science writers.   The website boasts ways to access professional opportunities, professional development, and science journalism events and awards. In fact, each spring they host Science in Society Journalism Awards (deadline mid-November of the previous year).  Cash prizes and award honors are given to print, broadcast and online journalists and publishers/broadcasters in four categories: books, commentary or opinion, science reporting, and science reporting with a local or regional focus. Previous winners have demonstrated innovative reporting that goes well beyond the science itself and into the ethical problems and social implications. I feel quite confident that stories that focus on health and/or education disparities, environmental justice – which are hot topics of concern for African-American audiences – would do well in this competition.

3.) Expand relationships between existing media programs and minority students and journalists.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Minority Science Writers Internship is a 10 week summer program for undergraduate journalism majors who want to learn about science writing as a career.
The Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT is programs for experienced journalists. There is a nine-month programs and a week-long boot camp program where journalists learn from top scientists and policy makers, giving journalists the opportunity to increase their understanding of science, technology, medicine and the environment.
In my opinion, both of these organizations could sign on and participate at the yearly NABJ convention, and attract a host of diverse new applicants in their programs.

4). Cross-pollination of science and diverse communities via media outlets
The AAAS Media Fellowship is a 10-week summer program places graduate and post-graduate level science, engineering and mathematics students at media organizations nationwide. Fellows have worked as reporters, editors, researchers and production assistants at such media outlets as the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, Sacramento Bee, and Scientific American. Types of organizations I don’t see listed include minority serving press corporations such as the Tri-State Defender, The St. Louis American, TV One, Radio One, Essence Magazine, or Ebony/Jet Magazines. It is a win-win-win. Win for News organizations that typically have little science news coverage and they will have an opportunity to expand its news offering. Win for AAAS because it potentially expands the number of diversity of press partners. This program depends on press organizations to sign on and mentor young scientists and engineers in journalism. Win for fellows (regardless of their ethnicity) who will have an opportunity to learn how to effectively communicate science to traditionally under-served audiences. And the biggest win of all will be for society, because it builds bridges between science and communities that have been disconnected for far too long.

Although I am an optimist, I am not naive.  There may be some bumps in the road and some I can forsee.  For example, I know one issue that repeatedly comes up in science writing circles is the balance of accuracy and the amount of information provided. The science research community often criticizes science journalists of getting the take-home message wrong because of a sensational headline or over-simplifying the message. Among many black press companies the need to sell papers/air space can result in fewer hard-hitting news stories (of any genre). Also, framing and relevance are not universal. There might some initial conflicts as to what stories are shared or how they are presented to these difference audiences. However, despite these slightly different agendas, I believe a common ground could be reached and new relationships can be forged. And maybe five years from now we could revisit this question and see what has changed.

Let’s make it happen.


The 2011 National Association of Black Journalists is August 3-7, 2011, in Phildelpha, Pennsylvania.  You can follow conference tweets at #NABJ11 or @NABJ.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. SusannaSpeier 4:32 pm 08/3/2011

    Though officially titled, “physicist” I have been deeply influenced by Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s books, PBS NOVA series, Star Talk radio and even You Tube videos have profoundly shaped how I orient the sociology and politics of science.

    Although Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s official title may not be “Science Journalist,” however his site and his PBS series, “Faces of America” made the relevance of genome sequencing really accessible to non-scientists.

    As Association Administrator for Education at NASA Headquarters, Leland Melvin is now sharing his experiences as a NASA Astronaut with educators and future engineers. The LEGO partnership he’s involved with is now galvanizing science education for the generation that will, presumably, bring us to Mars. Juno’s August 5th launch will include three Jupiter bound Lego figurines. Again, not traditional science journalism but certainly capturing a collective imagination.

    Guess you could still argue that there still need to be more African Americans in the traditional science journalism field. That said, Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau and Richard Feynman weren’t traditional science journalists, either.

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  2. 2. Uncle.Al 6:43 pm 08/3/2011

    Diversity is admission for reason of disqualification. There are no “minority journalists.” There are competent, incompetent, and corrupt journalists. Let us review the nine steps to social equity:

    1) All voices have equal merit. 2) Objective quality is not value, it is discrimination. 3) Historically repressed voices have subsidized priority. 4) Historically repressive voices are denied. 5) Culture will never bow to society. (Heteronormatism problematizes homosocial othering.) 6) Nothing can pass inquisition and also be “innocent.” 7) Denial of diversity demands re-education. 8) Productivity is impounded for reward to the deserving. 9) Equity is not average or majority, equity is 100%. 10) The patsy does not know who the patsy is.

    Carry-addition is discrimination. Culture will never bow to society! Evolution says, “March or die.” Either way, bloody stop whining.

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  3. 3. Bashir 11:29 pm 08/3/2011

    Nice post.

    How about science writer, as opposed to journalist?

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  4. 4. kclancy 10:49 am 08/4/2011

    What a great post, and you share some very important ideas. What would it take to make this happen? Could SciAm bloggers facilitate this or serve as allies in any way?

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  5. 5. DNLee 1:30 pm 08/4/2011

    Uncle Al, sorry. I have no idea what you are talking about. I don’t even know how to respond, so…yeah.

    Bashir – thank you. I cool with being described as a science communicator, maybe science writer. I was just hoping to inspire some career options in young people majoring in journalism. Science is still under-reported, so science journalism might be an interesting niche for some people to carve.

    Kate – thank you very much. I already got some conversations going with NABJ and BetterBio (a science communication program that focuses on diverse voices coming to the table). I’m also happy to accept help from other Science bloggers & SciAm sibs. An early recommendation would be to encourage people to share science-related press releases to those specialty media outlets such as those for Latino communities, immigrant communities, LGBT communities to name a few. And if someone can translate science press releases that would be a great assest, too. Let’s continue to brain storm.

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  6. 6. congdonx 3:08 pm 08/4/2011

    As an academic advisor at a major university, adding this to the mind-set of career counselors speaking to young people could be an interesting avenue. We should talk about this more…

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  7. 7. greenmatter 12:56 pm 08/8/2011

    Great article! I too have wondered the same being an African American noticing little representation within the science field. Having taken a hiatus from pursuing a career in the sciences to feed my children (have working in the computer graphics and marketing field for the past 15 years), I have recently returned to my first love, science. My aim is to educate others about science, conservation, living green… and insects through online communities and local education outreach programs. I especially hope to reach minority and “disadvantaged” youth inspiring them to get out in nature, learn about our world and consider careers in the sciences. Thanks!

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