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Improving Science News in the Black Media: Lessons learned from my Ebony Magazine Twitter encounter

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

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On February 6, 2013, I got into a big Twitter chat with the esteemed Ebony Magazine (link here). For those of you unfamiliar, Ebony Magazine, founded by John H. Johnson, first hit the newsstands in 1945. It was THE source of news of relevant African-American issues, showcasing celebrities and highlighting the interests of this community in a positive and self-affirming manner.  My paternal family has subscribed to the magazine (and the sister publication Jet) since the beginning. I know Ebony. I grew up with Ebony. I love what it represents to my community. And even as I stopped reading it in college (I became bored with the articles and frequently frustrated with the over-representation of entertainment coverage) I still respect it as a beacon periodical in the African-American community.

It was in that spirit that I responded to the magazine. I am happy that things ended well, but I continued to reflect on the interaction, especially in light of my crusade to improve science news to African-American audiences.  And I learned some very important lessons.

1. Rejecting Circular reasons for lower science coverage is the first step to getting more science news to Black media consumer.
2.  Communicating quality science information to broader audiences may need to come directly from scientists and engineers in the immediate future.
3. Cultivating interests in science news will require scientists/engineers and journalists working together to create content and attract readers.

I want to read more science news and I want the science they do present to be accurate and informative. I was trying to communicate that to them.

For a long time I have wondered why science news hasn’t gotten any traction in the Black Press? (Yes, I know that science news is being cut everywhere, but it has never existed in the organizations I am addressing.) What happens in these newsrooms? What types of conversations are being had? And perhaps more importantly, who are the people talking? Are they editors, publishers, or writers? Does Ebony even have a staff of writers or is everyone freelance? How does a magazine decide what it will feature in print and/or online?

And specific to the issue I raised with Ebony on February 6, 2012: Who do or would these journalists reach out to for science-related stories or for fact checking?

Or as Sandra Chung put it:

They responded as if I were a media producer, not a consumer.  But when I wear my media producer hat, this declaration that Ebony Magazine editors have never been pitched a Science story says something alarming: Serious Science Writers don’t consider Ebony magazine as the right place for that kind of news.

Other questions filled my head.

Are the Editors of Ebony not interested in science-related news? Do they think this kind of news is unsuitable or uninteresting or unimportant to their readers? Has it never crossed any of their minds to search out a science story or to proactively seek out pitches from science writers or scientists? Has a staff writer never proposed a feature of science of his or her own accord?  Have they been waiting – all of this time – for someone to come to them and offer a story to them?  If so, how would anyone know that they would be willing to publish such stories?

Of the few science writers I know – Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Maryn McKenna, or Sheril Kirshenbaum – I wonder if magazines like Ebony or Essence are even on their radars? Presently there isn’t an African-American equivalent of these heavy hitters; and I am not sure who the rising stars are either. Better question, would Ebony or Essence know? Other than the AAAS Minority Science Writing program, there is no large-scale cultivation of Minority Science Writers.

Lesson #1: Rejecting Circular reasons for lower science coverage is the first step to getting more science news to Black media consumer.

The fact is there hasn’t been any science in Ebony Magazine because no one has pitched it and no one has pitched science because Ebony Magazine doesn’t cover it.

After all, it’s not like Ebony has a Science Section or publishes hard-hitting science journalism on a regular basis. How would anyone know? I’ll be honest: this kind of blows my mind. Is that how it works in magazine journalism? If so, then wow!  The first thing we all need to do is halt this conversation. It has gotten us no where!

But the internet has been a bullhorn for a variety of interests.  I have successfully used blogging to bring awareness, announce important events, and advocate for issues. Blogs truly have democratized journalism across the board and science blogs have done an amazing job at reaching broader audiences.  There are so many science blogs that I can’t name them all. However, ScienceSeeker – a Science News Aggregator is a perfect place to start.  You can read and learn to your hearts content on all subjects science.

Lesson #2:  Communicating quality science information to broader audiences may need to come directly from scientists and engineers in the immediate future.

Specific to Black Media and Black audiences, we will need scientists and engineers from these communities to provide information to these sources.  Many of us blog or tweet, but our science and technology outreach does not always have access to the target audiences.  That is why I am so glad that Ebony Magazine said it would accept science pitches.  On Monday, February 11, 2013, Ebony Magazine published a freelance environmental science piece by Dr. Marshall Shepard: Are African-Americans More Vulnerable to Climate Change? AND the digital editors seem very interested in more science-related pitches.

Until we get more professional science writers to pitch to media outlets like Ebony, scientists who communicate will have to fill the gap. So, please, please, please submit your pitches, everyone and anyone.  (email

And yes, there is a gap: See here.

To this effect, there is an initial group of African-American Scientists who are interested in creating an African-American Science Media Center, if you will. Scientists and Engineers who have some experience in science communication (most online) and who have a passion for science outreach.  Our team includes me – @DNLee5, Dr. Raychelle Burks @DrRubidium, Dr. Caleph Wilson @HeyDrWilson, and Mr. Shareef Jackson @ShareefJackson, plus our Journalist sage Ms. Jamila Bey @JBey. We jokingly refer to our team as @TheDarkSci – we’re Black Geeks, what do you expect? So Jamila is our Charles Xavier of sorts.) We are available to assist the journalists in understanding the science of a story – whether it is about science explicitly or not. We promote good quality science news coverage to diverse audiences. Our plans include proposing science & media diversity workshops for upcoming Journalism conferences such as the National Association of Black Journalists.

Lesson #3: Cultivating interests in science news will require scientists/engineers and journalists working together to create content and attract readers.

Creating a widespread interest in science-related news will be no minor task.  But I believe there is interest in harder, more informative news already.  We first need to demonstrate that as media consumers, we (African-Americans) are hungry for this information. And I see evidence of it among my personal networks. Whenever people come across some crazy-sounding idea, friends will ask me to weigh in on it. That says to me that people want and need better information for their lives.

Ultimately, we hope that this  expanded interest in science news will open up new opportunities for African-American journalism students. The circular reasoning has resulted in too few minority science writers because no one is discussing science writing as a career to minority science journalism students.

If you (or your organization) are ready for more science news or want to participate in this ‘experiment’, then please feel free to leave a comment or email me.

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. karenalcott 12:12 am 02/15/2013

    I see a screaming need for “popular, may be populist” science and technology writers in all sorts of mixed or general media. Right now those of us who are not science buffs, are getting all sorts of weirdness and pseudo science in the popular media and they aren’t necessarily equipped to recognize it as such. How many news stories about Republican leaders insisting that we really don’t know how old the planet is or where people come from does it take to mislead someone who isn’t really hip to the scientific method. Have you seen the ridiculous crap on the science channel, being passed off as science. And the history channel is even worse when they to do archeology. To get some decent science writers into the popular media, would be an important public service for any demographic, at this point.

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  2. 2. curiouswavefunction 10:47 am 02/15/2013

    Excellent post. What would be a good way to try to get a science article published in Ebony? I would be up for it.

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  3. 3. mkilburn 10:59 am 02/15/2013

    Neil deGrasse Tyson?

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  4. 4. DNLee 4:11 pm 02/15/2013

    Thank you for our comments, everyone.

    George Smith: maybe but the assumptions are based on my interactions and personal history with this issue and this/these brands of media. I am member of that community and target audience of those press organizations. The magazine doesn’t feature science regularly and Ebony has admitted to never being pitched to. How many of science writers/journalists have considered them? It is probably fair to say very very few or even none and I said it.
    And you are right, I am sure many scientists would love to to be published in or featured or have their research shared with Ebony Magazine.
    But one of the fundamental questions is how many scientists/research labs know how to get their stuff in Ebony or another similar periodical?

    And why can’t they read non-race based pubs for science? They could and certainly some do. But most don’t. Popular science periodicals like SciAm’s predominant readership are white middle-aged males with a college education and middle-management or higher jobs. Demographically, SciAm does not pull a diverse audience and it would be a mis guided strategy to think that providing science outreach via this medium alone would pull diverse audience, especially if your explicit goal is to reach a particular demographic – African-American families.

    I think that different audiences do deserve quality news in media & delivered in ways that ate personally and culturally relevant. That is why I would love to see those press outlets include science in their news coverage. I want to alert those media decision makers that science is apart of the African-American experience as well.

    karenalcott: yes and yes. Good general science outreach is needed across a variety of mediums/programs, and Ebony Magazine is popular media. The general public isn’t one audience it includes many audiences. I focus on *this* audience (African-American, urban) for personal reasons. I am a member of it. I am tired of the disparities and I offer these suggestions (inclusive science news coverage to target audiences) as one solution. There are many, many more, I admit.

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  5. 5. DNLee 6:09 am 02/16/2013

    I’m not a big fan of wave functions and can hardly understand them either….but a lack of understanding isn’t because of intelligence or education and I am indeed one of those lower class blacks you speak of. And frankly, I am unaware of any socialization among White or Asian kids to be interested in wave-function. The only correct thing you said was that most ordinary people aren’t interested in it,,,,,but a lot of that has to do with how science has been framed in this nation – ‘it’s something that white/Asian kids do or something that people from middle-class families are interested in’. It’s this very frame/myth that I and many,many others are working to dispel.

    You may not ‘mean’ to be insulting, but You certainly are. And offering a ‘I don’t mean to be offensive’ disclaimer does not give you a pass to then say something offensive.

    Your words are offensive and hurtful. Check your privilege and your assumption to speak for what any group would be able to understand or appreciate, especially your assumptions of intelligence of said group. There is a disparity in education and opportunity access in this nation – it comes down to socioeconomic lines mostly. Historical discrimination also plays a big part. To ignore the role of these two factors and simply remark that ‘lower class blacks’ lack the intelligence is wrong-headed and offensive.

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  6. 6. mkilburn 9:46 am 02/16/2013

    Sorry for my brief reply earlier, I had so much more I wanted to say, but was short on time.

    First, I thought your article was great. It was informative and answered some questions I had, and was also intriguing and raised many more. It was brave of you to challenge multiple status quos, and I think it’s a shame that some people would respond by using narrow, uneducated, and harmful stereotypes in an attempt to prove you wrong.

    I work in physics educational outreach, and I’m always trying to find more ways to connect with populations that are not from white middle-upper class backgrounds. Although I often use examples from pop culture (such as Felix’s red bull jump) my knowledge of pop culture is fairly limited because I’m a white female scientist from the rural Midwest, and as such, I don’t get out much. I once thought about submitting an article to Ebony, but quickly dismissed it because a) I’m not a fantastic writer and b) I don’t feel that I’m familiar enough with the culture to make effective pop culture references. But I would love to collaborate with a journalist to work on a piece for Ebony.

    Also, I saw this: recently, and wondered if anyone had thought about doing a comic strip similar to the Doc McStuffins animation series for either Ebony or another publication.

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  7. 7. mkilburn 9:46 am 02/16/2013

    George: When I talk about physics with anyone, I am always trying to explain it from what they already know, in the language that they know. With physics buddies, we talk about wave functions, because they’re interesting to us. With science enthusiasts, I talk about schrodinger’s cat, because they’re interested in wave functions, but don’t know they by that name. With novices, I talk about probabilities because I can usually find a way to make that an interesting subject. From my experiences, members of the general public are not put off by science, they’re put off by the way scientists explain the science. This is why I chose to use my scientific training to try to explain science in a way that is engaging and not boring, a way that is inspiring and not unattainable, a way that is human and not inhumane.

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  8. 8. mkilburn 9:31 am 02/17/2013

    @georgesmith There is not a large enough intersection between your view of reality and my view of reality to continue this conversation

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  9. 9. karenalcott 2:04 pm 02/17/2013

    As a working-class blue collar girl who became interested in science back when Americans of all classes and races were following the “space race” , I have to say that we no longer have an ongoing technological effort that the whole country is interested in. Also there are so many specialised media outlets that many citizens are likely to miss any individual article. If we are tempted to shrug off, people who “probably can’t understand anyway” we are not only missing the chance to reach a whole lot of voters, this is a Democracy after all; but we are writing off all of the kids who might have stumbled across something so cool, that they asked for a telescope, microscope or chemistry set for Christmas, kids like me.

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  10. 10. DNLee 6:39 pm 02/20/2013

    George Smith your comments are offensive. By reminding you to check your privilege I give you the chance to take note of how your words are offensive.
    I’ll let your comments stand to serve as an example of what I will not tolerate at my page. Yes, you stay on topic but you slyly suggest that Black people and Mexican are inferior in a variety of ways -namely discipline and family-rearing – to our White and Asian Counterparts and the difference in media coverage isn’t worth addressing.

    I take offensive to my family seriously. You may feel free to curb yourself.

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  11. 11. bucketofsquid 3:15 pm 02/21/2013

    Out of respect for DNLee I won’t ask George Smith for his racist, unAmerican address and not show up at his door step to teach him how to be a real American.

    I grew up in a KKK family and I hated it. Being racist just means you admit you are inferior and can’t compete on a level playing field so you have to cheat. No thanks, I’ll take my used to be blond hair (now grey) and blue eyes to the real man’s side of the table. I stand or fall on my own merits and I think everyone else should too.

    The great thing about DNLee is that she directly challenges the silly stereo types. The guy that invented transfusions was allowed to bleed to death because he was of sub-Saharan ancestry. He has saved probably millions of lives by now but racism murdered him. There is only one kind of human. If you say that some “race” is less worthy than another then you are a fool because there is only one human race and minor regional adaptations mean very little.

    If we are going to maintain basic human civilization we need to do a lot more to encourage STEM careers and that means disposing of the 1950s mindset that still infests much of America. The only way to do that is give examples of ordinary people making that career choice. It has to happen in popular media or it just won’t take in any major way.

    Civilization has always been fragile. History has so many examples of relatively advanced cultures collapsing. The more advanced a culture the more dependent it gets on limited pools of skill sets. The feds estimate that the loss of only 10% of our population will trigger a collapse of our technology base. Sure that is 30 million people but remember, Europe, North America, South America and Asia have all suffered pandemics that killed more than 60% of the population.

    I’m a big fan of automation and “defence in depth” so having a huge pool of scientifically capable people is an idea I heartily endorse.

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