I was invited to participate in a weekend workshop on science communication by NESCent: The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in North Carolina. I will join a cadre of other science communicators, scientists, and journalists to hash out what to do about this ongoing battle to get quality accurate science news and reports about evolution to the public.
Reporting Across the Culture Wars: Engaging Media on Evolution
Science is embroiled in a culture war. A lack of understanding of the nature of science by the general public has been exploited by groups with a political or religious agenda to generate confusion about scientific information key to understanding issues such as the implications of climate change. Many of these culture wars are fought in the media and it is important to note that while attacks on science are not new, they coincide with an unprecedented upheaval in the state of journalism. The shift toward 24-hour coverage of news events, which is expected to be both immediately and freely accessible has driven media outlets to extremes to maintain viability. Among the casualties, newspaper science sections are disappearing and journalists are expected to juggle a wide array of topics in their daily news coverage – often without adequate training. As a result, newspaper coverage of public controversies about scientific issues, takes a cautious, uninformed “he said, she said” approach and fails to inform readers. The misinformation is especially acute in small-town newspaper coverage. Unfortunately, the this “fair-and-balanced” reporting leads readers to believe that there is a genuine controversy in the scientific community and one side is as credible as the other. We propose a catalysis meeting consisting of both scientists and journalists to develop ways to address these issues so that researchers are better prepared to support accurate media coverage and reporters and editors have a general understanding of scientific issues before such public controversies erupt.
My science outreach emphasis has always been about broadening participation of STEM. I use my own experiences – as an African-American, a woman, a kid from a working class family, an urbanite, a first-generation college graduate, a nature nerd – to introduce science to traditionally under-presented individuals. I have faced many challenges as a minority in STEM, but my latest challenge has been confronting how being a STEM professional makes me a minority within my own demographic. Life as a Black Scientist or Engineer can often feel like a visit to the Island of Misfit Toys.
Although our social and civic institutions applaud pioneers and tastemakers in science, they also decry the great disparity in academic performance and achievement our group experiences. Feast or famine, there seems to be no happy medium.
As I prepare to attend the meeting in North Carolina, I have to admit some very hard truths about media directed at African-Americans. The dynamics are not very much different that those small-town newspapers or regional press programs. The news is directed at a targeted audiences, staffs have been drastically cut back and many are striving to stay afloat. However, unlike mainstream outlets, Black newspapers, magazines and their digital counterparts haven’t had to face shutting down science desks. The science desk never existed.
As we all sit around the table trying to suture the wound of nixing science journalism from many newspapers, magazines and websites, I am desperately thinking of how science journalism can be implanted in ethnic journalism in the first place. My fear is if major media companies cut science news, then smaller diverse market media companies will take that as a sign that science is less worthy of the coverage that it already gets. And science coverage in noted periodicals like Ebony Magazine, Jet Magazine, Black Voices, The Grio, Clutch Magazine, The Loop 21, and Essence Magazine are already light – in number of articles and depth of stories.
What can we do about this?
I’ve participated in too many tears-in-my-beer sessions with other African-American STEM professionals who are similarly sad about the state of our community. We want more for our young people and our elders; plus several of us are interested in reading more science news in the periodicals we grew up reading. We are eager to hear science experts on the shows we love to talk about. We are ready and willing to serve, but we are not quite sure what role we play. Some of us wonder if the larger community values us or our expertise.
We’re not random outsiders – not technically speaking. We are the demographic of Ebony, Jet, etc.. But I – and other Blerds – can’t seem to get our stories, our voices heard with any real consistency at these high impact periodicals and websites.
I’m frustrated because I feel lost. I can’t seem to solve this problem. My wits and smarts give me no advantage in this situation.
It’s like we’re yelling into a vacuum
Thanks to social media and networks, African-American science, tech, engineering, and mathematics innovators are investing considering time, talents and treasure to inspire/mentor the next generation of STEM scholars. And we are connecting to each other. We encourage each other and support each others' programs. We represent a brain-trust that is being largely overlooked or simply isn’t recognized by noted Influencers in the African-American community. Yet, questions about the President’s Math and Science Initiative or Environmental Justice or Heath Disparities keep coming up and expertise from ‘our community’ is rarely called upon to participate in the conversation.
To the journalists, editors and producers of news programs, we want you to know that we are available. We want to participate. Like our Political Science brethren, we are willing and able to share our expertise with your audiences.
Most of us are not journalists, so we are naïve about pitching stories or knowing how to make ourselves available to you. I think part of the issue is that journalism has compartmentalized science as some sideline topic. But science is embedded in every story. Can’t we sit and chat and find ways to work together and connect the dots?
It will also help us if we knew what your thoughts of science were. What are you looking for in a news story about STEM? What makes an interesting, engaging, and informative story?
What role could African-American scientists, engineers and science and math educators play in the editorial process of your brand?
We really want to know.