Of all of my science writing that have put forth hoping to engage the African-American community, I think my reaction to Chemical relaxers being linked to uterine fibroids in African-American women may be my most successful attempt.
After my run-down of how this story gained legs and a call to Black Media outlets to support authentic science journalism, I was pleasantly contacted by Ms. Thandi Chimurenga. She is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, who contributes to The Cyberground Railroad: Black Los Angeles' News and Views Source, and as I came to learn, she is THE reporter who sparked this firestorm.
I just came across your article in the Scientific American and I must say, it was very exciting to see you stating the need for authentic science journalism in the Black media!
I decided to contact you because I believe, in my most humble of opinions, that all of this began with my story which was originally published on January 31st, 2012, in the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper called “Skin Deep in More Ways Than One”.
I was contacted the very next morning by Environmental Health News who told me it was on the front page of their website and that persons interested in environmental health, etc., would see it and it would get major play.
The story was funded through a fellowship with New America Media (Environmental Health Journalism Fellowship) and New America Media placed it on their website after the SFBayView did, under the title of "How Toxic is Black Hair Care" on February 2nd, 2012.
… if you check either article on the SFBayView.com website or the New America Media website - with only slight editing changes between the two - you will see where I attempted to very carefully, yet very deliberately, use phrases such as " increases the risk of," and "more likely to," and "Researchers have also posited that a link exists ...
She explained to me that Ms. Karen Stevenson, a public relations consultant for the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance helped spread the coverage of the story. As she told me in a telephone conversation we had today, that she read the story at the Environmental Health News website (a subscription is needed to see the original piece). She then contacted Ms. Chimurenga for permission to share this story with her contacts that included individuals affiliated with the National Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control, the National Association of Black Journalists. The story made it the virtual desk of Ms. Stephanie Robinson Commentary, who provides commentary to the Tom Joyner Morning Show. On Thursday, February 16, 2012, she introduced millions of listeners to this study. Link to podcast of the segment, (requires downloading Silverlight in order to hear).
I suspected that the popular and influential radio program was key to this story getting out. However, until this communication with Ms. Chimurenga, it looks more likely that his broadcast preceded the Houston Fox News story Hair Today, Tumors Tomorrow?
In addition to the stories linked above, Ms. Chimurenga’s version of the story spread quite far.
‘Skin Deep’ in more ways than one at Cancer Schmancer Movement on Tuesday, January 31, 2012.
‘Skin Deep’ In More Ways Than One (Part one of two) and ‘Skin Deep’ In More Ways Than One (Part two of two) both at Cyber Ground Railroad On Thursday, February 2, 2012.
How Toxic is Black Hair Care? at La Beez: Hive for Hyperlocal Ethnic News on Monday February 6, 2012.
How toxic is Black hair care? At The Final Call on Wednesday, February 8, 2012.
How toxic is Black hair care? at Insight News on Wednesday, February 8, 2012.
‘Skin Deep’ in more ways than one at the Louisiana Weekly (newspaper), week of February 6 -12, 2012.
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics mentions Ms. Chimurenga’s story in the SFBay sometime by February 17, 2012, when comments on this post appeared.
All of these stories gave proper credit to Ms. Chimurenga for writing the story, with most providing her a byline in their papers with links back to the SFBay View and New American Media websites as source contributors. I’m really disappointed that the Tom Joyner Morning Show, Fox News Houston, and the websites I listed in my previous post did not acknowledge her contribution. They cut some corners in their coverage of this story, not only cutting her out, but also in the facts they presented. They really moshed it all up.
Ms. Chimurenga acknowledges that she tried very hard to make no declarative statements in her original article. I read her article and I think she covered this story very well. She didn’t mis-quote or present over-simplified results from the studies or conflate the results of the different research studies mentioned in her story. Which coincidentally were the same 3 papers I critiqued in my first post on this topic.
Ms. Chimurenga confessed,
I've been sitting over here sweating, hoping you weren't going to put my writing on blast the way you did them other folks ...
To which I responded,
What? I would never...wait, yes. Yes, I would! LOL
All in all, I found Ms. Chimurenga’s coverage of this story to be very well done; however, my critiques of the studies still stand. I don’t think the authors present enough compelling evidence to suggest that black hair care products or the chemicals within them are to blame for fibroids or early onset of puberty. I also have to say that the San Francisco Bay is Black Newspaper, and they did exactly what I’ve been asking Black Media to do – present relevant science stories to their readers. But this paper does not have a dedicated science or health news reporter. (I still hope to change that). My goal is to encourage more science news (health & environmental news included) all of the time, not just when something potentially scary happens.
This story was born out of Ms. Chimurenga’s personal interests in Environmental Justice and personal knowledge of the Black Women for Wellness project, which she mentions in her story. When she received a New America Media Fellowship on Health & Environmental Heath, she decided to pursue this line of inquiry. New America Media Fellowship Program on Health and Environmental Health for Ethnic Media Journalism supports ethnic media journalists to research and write at least one in-depth story, documenting the human impact of a health care issue, or policy issue, or the impact of environmental toxins on human health.
I am so glad she reached out to me. It certainly answers a question that was nagging me. "How did all of this start?"
And now it all makes perfect sense. I believe all good inquiries, whether scientific or journalistic, start from an authentic place, with people who care about the questions being answered, who live in the situations where they notice a problem in the first place. And that’s exactly how it was for her. This interested topic was on her radar already.
Environmental Justice (EJ) is definitely a relevant issue and presents a perfect framework for introducing more science-related news into minority-serving media outlets, but alas it doesn't seem to happen unless it's an alarming story. African-American communities seem to be the slowest to adopt environmentally responsible behaviors like recycling or becoming more critical consumers of household, hygiene or cosmetics products. Which is why the EJHA is trying to get more people discussing these types of issues via their Chemical Policy Statement.
I hope to continue to engage the Minority Media and Journalism communities on this and other science-related topics. If you have any thing to share or add, or able to facilitate bridge-building opportunities in this area, then I would very much like to hear from you.