Including Diverse Voices in Science Stories

Nusnin Akter
At Brookhaven Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials, (left to right) Nusnin Akter, Anibal Boscoboinik, Dario Stacchiola, and Jianqiang Zhong study a two-dimensional zeolite catalyst model system within an ultra-high vacuum chamber. Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory


A teacher stands in front of a classroom and instructs five- to seven-year-olds to take up their crayons and draw a surgeon, a fighter pilot, and a firefighter. When a surgeon, a fighter pilot, and a firefighter—all women—later walk into the classroom, the children look stunned. They had drawn 61 pictures of men, and only five of women. This video of the classroom exercise, produced by a British charity, calls attention to the early age at which gender stereotypes take root in children’s minds.

Science writers use words to draw pictures every day: pictures of biologists, physicists, technology developers, physician-researchers. Our readers’ mental images—and our own—may not differ much from those of schoolchildren. According to the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), a nonprofit effort to track women’s representation in media stories, women are the central focus in only 14 percent of science and health stories, and only 19 percent of experts quoted are women. Stories that challenge gender stereotypes—by overturning common assumptions or representing women in counterstereotypical roles or situations—made up just 5 percent of science stories in 2015.

People of color are likewise poorly represented in the news media, including in science stories. “Whenever communities [of color] interact with science in the news, it’s rarely positive,” says Danielle Lee, a biologist and Scientific American blogger who writes and consults about diversity in the sciences. “You have to be super young or do something amazing for there to be a positive story.” That’s true across the spectrum of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and it creates a narrative, Lee says, that “our participation is rare or special”—when in fact, “there’s plenty of us out there.”

Media stereotypes shape societal attitudes, behavior, and expectations. “Media tells us our roles in society—it tells us who we are and what we can be,” writes Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, in the organization’s 2015 report on gender inequality in the media. And the early establishment of stereotypes affects whether girls choose a science profession and whether young women stick with their education to become working scientists, says Nilanjana Dasgupta, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who studies implicit bias in STEM professions. Women make up only 29 percent of the scientific workforce, according to National Science Foundation data. In the fields of engineering and physics, that number drops into the single digits. NSF data also show a race gap in STEM fields; blacks and Hispanics together make up only 11 percent of the STEM workforce.

When science writers draw pictures of science in action, whom do we draw? What is our responsibility to represent the current diversity of scientists and avoid perpetuating stereotypes that, among other things, may contribute to lack of diversity in STEM fields?

For science writers who want to be part of the solution to the lack of diversity in science journalism, here’s a four-step program:

  1. Recognize (often hidden) biases that may get in the way of including diverse voices in your stories.
  2. Track the diversity of your sources.
  3. Break out of old reporting patterns to cultivate new sources—and be an ally to underrepresented communities.
  4. Broaden your definition of “expert.”


Recognize Your Biases

Journalists’ beliefs and attitudes play a significant role in determining whose stories are told and whose are left untold. We all hold stereotypes about people based on their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and other group memberships.

Some of these biases are so deeply ingrained we don’t recognize them; and yet these implicit biases can lead even the most egalitarian-minded among us to make assumptions about who an ideal scientist or expert is. “The image that pops into most people’s minds are historic figures—typically men—mostly white or sometimes Asian,” says Dasgupta. “These implicit biases,” she says, “end up not just being an image in our minds, but also influence our decisions and actions.” The action may not be conscious, but if a person doesn’t fit our mental image of an ideal scientist, we may not call on that person as a source.


A necessary first step in countering one’s own social biases is recognizing and acknowledging that they exist.


Veteran journalist Howard French recounts the power of implicit biases in newsrooms in his recent Guardian article, “The Enduring Whiteness of the American Media.” Black journalists, he says, are “heavily concentrated in stereotypical roles”—such as reporting on entertainment, sports, and urban affairs—and often excluded from covering many other areas, including politics, national security, big business, and science and technology. A case in point: In the early 2000s a black journalist with over 10 years of experience at The New York Times successfully pushed to cover the emerging tech boom. “There was immediate pushback from his white colleagues, who claimed he had no background in tech and was not the right person for the job,” French writes. “A black man occupying this space did not fit preconceptions.”

Not much has changed in newsrooms in the years since, he says. The fact that both the journalism industry and the scientific workforce continue to be dominantly white and male “is not a trivial matter, or a subject of concern solely to journalists,” he writes. “The overwhelming whiteness of the media strongly but silently conditions how Americans understand their own country and the rest of the world.”

A necessary first step in countering one’s own social biases is recognizing and acknowledging that they exist. You can assess your own biases through the tests at Harvard University’s Project Implicit. The testing starts with a disclaimer: “If you are unprepared to encounter interpretations [of your test] that you might find objectionable, please do not proceed further.”

The good news is that implicit biases are malleable. We can gradually retrain our brains and unlearn biases. That’s to say, we can change our image of who we believe fits in science, and therefore whom we call as sources for our stories. The Bias Cleanse, produced by Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, is a good place to start.


Track Your Sources

Countering the lack of diversity in science stories might mean examining and making changes in sourcing. Science writer John Platt was reporting for Motherboard on gender inequality in technology when he learned from Kate McCarthy of SheSource, an online database of female experts, that less than 20 percent of expert sources cited in political news in major U.S. print media outlets are women. Struck by this statistic, he wondered how his own articles—mostly covering the life sciences—measured up. He resolved to achieve a fifty-fifty split. Since January 2015, he’s made a point of using more female sources. Platt was well on his way to his goal when a feature assignment on tech skewed his numbers down again: He was dismayed to discover, too late, that he hadn’t interviewed a single woman.

Adrienne LaFrance, who writes about science and technology for The Atlantic, also recently shared the results of her second year-long attempt to include more women in her stories. The result, she writes, were “distressing”: Her year-two numbers were lower than in year one. She realized her efforts were only getting her so far. “Some people would argue that I’m simply reflecting reality in my work,” she says, referring to the low numbers of women who work in tech. “That’s an overly generous interpretation,” she writes. “By substantially underrepresenting an entire gender, I’m missing out on all kinds of viewpoints, ideas, and experiences that might otherwise sharpen and enhance my reporting.”

Learning to consistently include diverse voices is “a career-long process,” says Albuquerque-based freelance science writer Laura Paskus, who covers natural-resource and social-justice issues for High Country News, New Mexico In Depth, and other publications. Issues such as suicide among youth or climate change often disproportionately impact minority communities. Paskus knows that reporting accurately on these issues in a minority-majority state requires including the people most affected: Hispanic and Native American communities, which in New Mexico make up 46 percent and 8 percent of the population, respectively.


Learning to consistently include diverse voices is “a career-long process,” says Albuquerque-based freelance science writer Laura Paskus.


“Meeting with the people whose communities are being affected not only deepens the story I’m already working on, it inspires more and more story ideas,” says Paskus. Even though she has purposely changed her reporting practices and pays attention to who has a voice in her articles, Paskus—like Platt and LaFrance—is “often disappointed when I look back on a previous year’s work and realize that I could have done much better at including diverse voices in many stories.”

As Platt, LaFrance, and Paskus have found, individual reporters’ attempts to include more diverse sources can be stymied by structural inequity—the policies and practices of institutions in science and technology, and in the field of journalism, that favor one group over others. “Understand that the best way to get diverse sources is to have diversity in your newsrooms,” says Roberta Rael, director of Generation Justice, a social-justice nonprofit that trains teens in journalism.

For freelance writers, understanding the influence of inequity at different levels in our society is essential when setting goals to change your reporting practices, says Rael. Women and people of color represent a small percentage of professionals in many STEM fields because of institutional and cultural biases. Working against the tide of structural inequality requires science journalists to make ongoing efforts to find and tell these minorities’ stories.


Break Out of Old Reporting Patterns—and Give Back

Cultivating new sources can take time. Turning news stories around on a tight deadline doesn’t always lend itself to elaborate new source-finding methods. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to prioritize diversity in sourcing when time is short. It’s often possible to improve diversity in sourcing just by remembering to pay attention to your choices. And feature writing offers more lead time, and so even more opportunity to cultivate new sources.

Platt reviews old stories for sources he’s used in the past, uses SheSource to find new sources, and regularly attends local nonprofit and community events to increase his network of contacts. He also asks sources for their personal backstory: how they became interested in the topic at hand. This approach, he says, can yield new stories or vastly different perspectives on the same story.


Relying heavily on past media coverage to find expert sources can perpetuate the exclusion of underrepresented groups. Breaking out of that mold requires casting a wider net and searching more systematically for sources.


Relying heavily on past media coverage to find expert sources can perpetuate the exclusion of underrepresented groups. Breaking out of that mold requires casting a wider net and searching more systematically for sources. Organizations that serve underrepresented communities can be good conduits to diverse sources for some kinds of stories. Sarah Gustavus, a radio producer in New Mexico, reaches out to professional groups such as the Hispano Chamber of Commerce, Native Public Media, and minority student science groups and their advisors at the local university. She cultivates relationships with journalists who are from local communities and are able to give her tips or help make connections in communities where she has less access.

Dasgupta recommends searching top scientific journals, databases, and university departments of the fields you report on to find new voices. Add the new people to your contact list for future stories and consider doing informational phone interviews to find out more about them and their research.

Don’t stop with just one new source, says Lee. “Go on friend-making missions.” A little-tapped resource, she says, is “affinity groups” in STEM such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, and others. These groups hold regional and national conferences rarely covered by the press. “You can have a front-row seat to meet professionals of color from a variety of fields and start relationships on the ground,” says Lee.

For reporters on deadline, Lee started the National Science & Technology News Service, which links journalists to scientists of color who have experience working with the media. Tweeting them (@NSTNSorg) for a source gets a quick response, she says. Other Twitter sources Lee recommends include:

When reporting abroad, reaching out to local journalists (also known as ”fixers”) and scientists can open doors to diverse voices and perspectives. If you are doing a story on Puerto Rico, can you interview Puerto Rican scientists? What about people from the local communities impacted?

National groups such as the Native American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, or the National Association of Hispanic Journalists can also help reporters find new voices, says Generation Justice’s Rael. She cautions, though, that connecting with journalist affinity groups only to find more sources may not be well received if it’s not reciprocated. Be ready to give back, and “learn to be an ally,” Rael says. Being an ally means calling attention to racism as well as being willing to advance the careers of journalists of color, share job opportunities, or take on mentees.


Broaden How You Define “Expert”

Diversifying the voices represented in your stories may also mean expanding your definition of who qualifies as an expert. “People in underrepresented communities have perspectives and experiences vastly different from state or federal officials, scientists, PIOs, and industry,” says Paskus. They may not be traditional “expert” sources, but they are experts on their own lives and the impact scientific developments have on them. Those perspectives can enrich science stories.


“You can’t parachute in and expect to get your story or quote. You have to build relationships over time.” ~ Antonia Gonzales, National Native News


People who aren’t used to being contacted by the media may be reluctant to speak with journalists. People from marginalized communities have developed a justified skepticism of the media because of past coverage. Many may wonder why they should talk to another reporter who will likely make them out to be poor, violent, uneducated, and helpless.

“You can’t parachute in and expect to get your story or quote,” said Antonia Gonzales of National Native News, speaking at a workshop she co-led with Gustavus at the annual meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists in April 2016. “You have to build relationships over time.”

Gustavus covers health and environment stories in which, as in Paskus’s reporting, the people most often impacted are Latino/Hispanic, Native, and low-income communities—communities where she is seen as an outsider. “They are taking a risk in talking with me,” says Gustavus. She works to build trust by giving them some control over the interview: taking more time, letting people talk without interrupting, letting them know they can refuse to answer any question they aren’t comfortable with. She also shows them her past stories, which in her case focus on more positive narratives: successful community events and programs, for example, or how challenges are overcome. Gustavus also attends at least one community event a month—not looking for stories, but just to get to know people.

Science writers can play a role in changing the media landscape, and perhaps even help increase diversity in science, by making time to find underrepresented voices, challenging the dominant science-media narrative by debunking stereotypes, and examining and talking about biases. Doing so may feel like a small contribution to an overwhelming problem. And it can be uncomfortable to discover one’s own weaknesses or to risk offending others in the process of learning. “I think [equity and diversity] gets really complicated and scary for everybody involved, and that’s why these conversations end up being so difficult to have,” Rael says. “But the more we have these conversations, the more we’ll end up having the kind of journalism as well as [equitable] representation that our world and our country deserves to have.”


Christina Selby
Christina Selby Courtesy of Christina Selby

Christina Selby is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a freelance writer and amateur photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She writes about conservation science, biodiversity, pollinators, and sustainable development. Her work has appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Green Money Journal, Mother Earth Living, and elsewhere. You can find her online at The Unfolding Earth, a blog featuring photography and environmental writing on global biodiversity hotspots; her website; or say hi on Twitter @christinaselby.

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