Last year, while reporting a story about artificial intelligence, I had a conversation with Adji Bousso Dieng, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton University and founder of The Africa I Know, a nonprofit organization that’s using media and education to inspire young Africans and improve how Africa is globally portrayed. As we wrapped up, she mentioned the lack of African voices in science journalism. “Innovators and scientists and technologies from Africa aren’t usually showcased,” says Dieng. But seeing African people in scientific and technical roles is vital for young people. “It plays into your conscience,” she says. And for young Africans specifically, she adds, “It tells you, you can be like this person … you can be an innovator, a creator.”
Her words stuck with me. As a Scottish journalist reporting predominantly for publications in the United States, I have spent most of my career writing in English and interviewing expert sources in Europe and the U.S. That has been the easy path for me and many others. After all, most leading scientific journals are published in English; many studies’ corresponding authors are in the U.S. or Europe. And it generally takes less time for me and other English speakers to connect with sources in these countries than in others where we might run up against language and cultural barriers. “I’ve often found that Western journalists tend to pick an easier way, that is only to interview those with the same language and time zone,” says Dyna Rochmyaningsih, a freelance science journalist based in South Sumatra, Indonesia.
Still, I knew that by not working harder to include more geographically diverse sources, including scholars from the Global South, I was missing out on expertise and perspectives that might make my stories richer and more accurate. Barbara Fraser, a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Lima, Peru, offers one example: local scientists who work year-round at a field site, offering them more nuanced perspectives on an ecosystem or community than researchers who drop in for a season at a time. It’s about capturing the details, she says—and establishing rapport. “Local people may say things to them that they won’t say to a foreign scientist,” she says, even one who speaks the local language.
The consequences of these oversights aren’t just about a loss of narrative detail—they risk misportraying what science is, and whom it is done by. As science journalist Paul Adepoju, who is based in Lagos, Nigeria, puts it, “The goal of research is to expand the body of knowledge. Without ensuring representation and inclusion, knowledge and research may be inequitably skewed,” and as a result, the public “underinformed or totally misled.” The fact that most science is published and amplified by Western voices is both a cause and effect of these biases—trend that more diverse sourcing can help remedy. “Science matters everywhere,” says Dewi Safitri, a science journalist at CNN Indonesia. Without showcasing that fact, reporters risk perpetuating “the myth that science is a feature of the Global North.”
The omission of global voices is easy to ignore. Readers and journalists, after all, often have a difficult time conceptualizing what they have already missed. But this only reinforces the problem, says Vasudevan Mukunth, deputy science editor at The Hindu in Chennai, India. Those new to the science writing world, he says, may get the impression from their more seasoned colleagues’ work “that nothing is lost when they also don’t speak to these scholars,” who are then “rendered further invisible,” compounding the oppression and systemic inequities imposed by history, nationalism, censorship, and other forces.
With all this in mind, then, I wondered how I could remedy my own habits. A key problem, I knew, was a basic one: I wasn’t entirely sure where to start looking for geographically diverse scientists to talk to.
Conversations with colleagues revealed several other obstacles I hadn’t even considered. The skew toward English-speaking researchers in English-speaking countries biases the papers that search engines turn up—and, therefore, the types of science that get written about. There’s an especially serious lack of visibility for researchers in countries that are part of the Global South. And even after contact is made, time zones, language barriers, and different preferences for etiquette can make interviewing some of those researchers logistically tough.
Navigating those hurdles isn’t easy—and may even require rethinking some reporting basics, from which expert sources may be best suited for a story, to the methods we use to communicate across geographies and time zones. But heavy legwork leads to big payoffs. And better sourcing inevitably leads to better journalism. Through it all, reporters “must tread lightly, carefully, and be constantly alert to the possibility,” Mukunth says, that without globally diverse sources, their stories may be “incomplete.”
Building a Geographically Diverse Source List
Reaching out to experts abroad can sometimes feel like restarting your sourcing process from scratch. But it doesn’t have to. Here are a few tips to leverage some of the tools and strategies you probably already use in cultivating sources:
- Work your existing connections. One easy way to kick-start your list of potential sources is to ask some of your go-to sources which of their international colleagues are doing groundbreaking work in their field. Encourage them to elevate the voices of lesser-heard colleagues or more junior scientists just getting their start. If you don’t know any researchers in a region you’d like to tap into or if you’re looking for contact information, you can first talk to a local journalist or a representative science journalism institution to get a phone or an email from a scientist, suggests Daniel Dieb, a science journalist based in Brazil and treasurer of RedeComCiência (the Brazilian Network of Science Journalists and Communicators).
- Leverage the search functions of academic databases and university websites. Some databases, such as PubMed, allow users to search scientific papers by geographic location, which can often lead to authors from the country in question. Having a country in mind can also lead you to major universities in that nation or region. Try searching their department websites for researchers with field-specific expertise.
- Make the most of social media. Don’t be shy about scoping out journalists whose work you admire or who cover beats related to yours, especially if they work abroad. See what scientists, institutions, and organizations they’re following on Twitter and other platforms, and follow the breadcrumbs to build your own follow lists.
- Seek help from specialist organizations that can connect you directly with experts or try combing through databases yourself. Some organizations have media teams that can connect you to geographically diverse experts. Others curate lists of scientists, broken down by region or discipline, that you can search independently (see box at bottom).
Strategies for Connecting
Firing off an email can be a great way to reach a new source, but when going outside their comfort zone, journalists sometimes must get more creative with the ways they establish contact. Sources in some countries might be more used to chatting with colleagues over WhatsApp or social media—platforms that are less by-the-book but might be more likely to get a response. Twitter often yields results for Adepoju, who has frequently used the platform’s direct-message feature to establish contact with experts across Africa.
For interviews themselves, messaging apps are sometimes more reliable than phone or video calls, especially when time-zone incompatibilities or poor connectivity are an issue. Seattle-based journalist Wudan Yan, who covers science and society, says she often conducts interviews through WhatsApp voice memos, a method that she finds yields more natural, less stilted conversation than texting. In addition, she says, using voice memos allows sources to respond on their own time.
Other scientists may prefer to communicate strictly by email, sometimes for reasons that might be less familiar to reporters accustomed to using only U.S. or European sources. Mukunth says this is the case, for example, for some Indian government scientists, who may need to keep written records of interviews or have responses approved by superiors.
In any of these venues, patience and open-mindedness are key. Preferences for tone, greetings, and more can vary widely by country, even by individual; it never hurts to try to brush up on local etiquette, where possible, even if it’s a mere matter of figuring out whether a source would prefer to be addressed as “doctor,” “professor,” or something else. And in certain cases, cultural considerations around journalists themselves may come into play. In India, “I know from personal experience that most scientists don’t know or understand why science journalists exist,” Mukunth says. “To them, peer review is the highest form of knowledge verification … they sincerely believe there is nothing to be gained by communicating advanced scientific concepts to the people at large.”
Navigating those situations may take extra creativity or building more source rapport. Faux pas may still come up as you go. When they do, it helps to just be up-front: Apologize, thank them for cluing you in, and consider asking the source for advice on how to avoid the same mistake again.
Language barriers, too, may require extra legwork to navigate. Some sources may be comfortable speaking in English but with accents that challenge certain transcription software. Mukunth says he’s noticed that a lot of programs struggle with Indian accents, for instance, making manual transcription a safer option. (Some open-source AI tools in development, such as the OpenAI tool Whisper, may improve accent recognition soon.)
Some sources might also be more comfortable speaking in their own language, potentially making translation necessary. Sometimes, AI tools are enough. But for the most accuracy and nuance, human translators tend to do it best. When reporting abroad, Yan often collaborates with local journalists, sometimes called “fixers” or (as Yan prefers) “producers”—a great option, when handled ethically.
These and other considerations can often stretch out the reporting timeline—which can also balloon when contacting sources in parts of the world without reliable internet, due to factors such as socioeconomic status, natural disasters, or civil unrest. The key is patience, Mukunth says.
Such patience is especially important when the root issue behind a delayed response is, for the source, a more pressing problem than the need to respond to an interview request. And the wait is often worth it. For one thing, hearing a source explain these circumstances can also enrich a reporter’s understanding of the scientific situation they’re trying to capture, suggests Dieb.
These considerations aren’t always easy or intuitive. But there’s no replacement for hearing a firsthand account of scientific efforts from the place they’re being done—as well as the stakes at hand. And as international networks expand, they can get easier to grow further. And the skills picked up in overcoming some of these logistical hurdles can make reporters better at their jobs even when interviewing sources closer to home.
Karen Emslie is a freelance science and technology journalist. Her work has appeared in Wired UK, The Atlantic, Knowable Magazine, BBC Earth, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Aeon, Medium, and other publications. She regularly contributes to Communications of the ACM. Follow her on Twitter at @damnrebelbitch.