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The Urban Scientist

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

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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 digitalpitches@ebony.com)

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.

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

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