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The Loop 21 & UNITY discuss Race and the Media – any room for Science?

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


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Last month, UNITY: Journalists for Diversity and Loop 21 conducted a survey in which journalists were asked how race relations affected modern-day media, and now we want to here from you.

Join the race and media conversation as we discuss how stories like the Trayvon Martin case and President Obama’s election were portrayed in print, online and broadcast media. Follow Loop 21 on Twitter to join the TweetUp on March 5th at 1 PM ET, and be sure to use the hashtag #L21MediaChat during the conversation.

My question, what role would science journalism occupy in addressing these issues?

How individuals from minority groups (African/African-American/Caribbean and West Indian, Asian/Asian-American/Southeast Asian, Latino/a-American, Native American, and Pacific Islanders) are portrayed in the media is a very worthy topic. So often these diverse perspectives are rarely presented in the mainstream news and when they are, they often lack historical context and complexity. As a result, what we hear or read or see is a quick and dirty summary of a single event and we’re left to figure out the nuance. That is if we care enough to find out.

But how could science journalism assist in these efforts? Let’s back up, how does science journalism enhance the news and information delivered to and about ethnic audiences in general?

Science journalism, whether as its own section or embedded throughout an organization would mean an increase in news coverage on topics such as energy, the environment, technology, product safety, and personal health. These topics are rarely featured regularly in ethnic media.  Presently, Science is not on the radar for most minority owned or targeted news organizations. Not only is there a paucity of coverage of science at most African-American marketed press organizations, but the few stories that are shared were rarely initiated by the organization. Plus, many of the more popular stories lack depth.  None of the leading Black News Websites have a Science News section: The Grio, Ebony Magazine, The Root, The Loop 21, Black Voices. A keyword search of the word “science” pulls up articles that are tagged as Inspiration, Entertainment, Politics, or Life/style.  These ‘science’ related articles are sporadically published and at some website, the most recent article is a month old (or older).

Where’s the Science?

What does this have to do with Race and Media? I think the existing Science narratives in Minority media (and about Minorities) needs to be confronted and challenged. The predominate science narratives about and to minorities are typically about excusing minority audiences from serious science news or exceptional-izing minority subjects.

  1. Dis-empowerment Narratives – focus on how minority groups have been traumatized by scientific exploits (by other groups).
  2. Disparities Narratives – focus on how individuals from minority groups suffer disportionately from diseases, health care policies, etc.
  3. The Prodigy Narratives – focus on the amazing success of a youngster – the Wiz Kid – who accomplishes an awesome feat at a very young age.
  4. Overcoming It All Narratives – focus on how someone overcame some unimaginable hardship in life, showing tenacity and perseverance to achieve something.

The first two narratives emphasize (somewhat) universal experiences (or at least knowledge of experiences) of people of color who have been mistreated by science or society in the past. These narratives package current science news in the context of past discriminatory practices. Very often these stories fail to provide balanced coverage of science – including ethical revisions and corrections of today – and leave people feeling afraid and wary.

The second two narratives focus on the inspirational. Inspiration is good and important. Celebrating the successes of others and helping people identify roles models is a much-needed thing, especially in STEM.  However, it often sends the message that successful individuals are special and lucky and rare.

Altogether, they fail to sufficiently equip readers/listeners with the tools to confidently make decisions in their lives.  Yes, Blacks may suffer disproportionately from heart disease, but what now? How can a patient improve her outcomes? A 16-year-old graduating from college with a science degree is inspiring, but how does that illuminate the path for a (regular) child interested in following his footsteps?

We need good-old-fashioned science journalism; and a regular dose of it, too.

Minority media (unintentionally, I believe) promotes the notion that positive experiences with science is an exception, not the rule.  As a result, I see two deficits in the present Minority Journalism system: 1) lack of quality science news delivered to minority audiences, and 2) lack of diversity of science journalism professionals.

First, minority audiences are behind the game.  Our viewpoints and our concerns on topics such as climate change, health care, and biotechnology are not being discussed by us or in the larger arena. We are missing out on variety and level of discourse that these topics deserve.  It also means that the most vulnerable citizens in our nation are without critical information to inform their lives.

Second, lack of diversity among science journalists is apparent. I posit that cultivating an environment where minority journalists feel comfortable presenting science-related news stories to under-represented groups like African-Americans and other minorities should be also be the goal of Race & Media scholars.  How do we cultivate relationships between scientists/science communicators and minority journalists and their professional associations so as to improve race-related coverage?

I plan to ask questions about science communication to diverse audiences at the @TheLoop21 & UNITY #L21MediaChat. I am asking others to join in and help e raise awareness about the importance of STEM, quality science & tech journalism, the need for more diverse voices in science/tech/health journalism and call for more coverage to diverse media outlets.

If you live in the Washington, DC area, then I hope you consider attending the live event on same topic, on Friday, March 8, 2013. More info here.

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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