From Ideas to Action: #SciWri20 plenaries result in diversity resources

By Ling Xin

From the death of George Floyd to a pandemic that disproportionately affects minority communities, 2020 has been a year of reckoning when it comes to racial injustices in the United States.

With those events as a backdrop, the opening plenary at the ScienceWriters2020 conference, held virtually in October, challenged science communicators to confront the lack of diversity in our field. Titled “Toward more diverse and equitable science writing,” the session brought together newsroom leaders, institutional communicators, and experts on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to share insights and discuss best practices.

The speakers were Cassie Haynes, co-executive director of Resolve Philly; Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for journalism initiatives at The Dallas Morning News; Karen Magnuson, project director for New York and Michigan at Solutions Journalism Network; Robyn Perrin, director of strategic communications at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health; Natalie Rogers, communications and outreach specialist at the University of New Mexico; Robert Samuels, national political enterprise reporter at The Washington Post; and Viji Sathy, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The session explored how to put DEI values into practice to create diverse workplaces and produce accurate science coverage that includes and supports the voices of those who are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, are LGBTQIA, or are from other historically marginalized groups.

After George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed during an arrest by Minneapolis police, The Washington Post hired a dozen reporters and assigned coverage across different departments, Samuels said. When statistics showed that the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted Black and Latino communities, reporters like him were urged to ask deeper questions, for example, ‘why is it harder for people of color to observe social distancing practices?’ It turns out that living conditions are often cramped, with multiple generations living under one roof and family members having to go out to work to make ends meet. Samuels said it is important not to take a one-dimensional view when it comes to understanding communities of color. “We need to ask not only the ‘why’ question, but also ‘whose why’,” he said.

While reporters of color have unique cultural and language skills, they shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into covering diversity stories, said Huang, who is involved in recruitment and diversity training at The Dallas Morning News. “All journalists should understand and know how to deal with issues in diversity and equity,” he said, noting that journalism is a collaborative process in which everyone brings their own specialties and expertise. Samuels added that journalism is “the quest for curiosity” and that it is important for all journalists to be invested in diverse sources and stories.

“If you look at your source list and they all look and sound the same as you, and, worse, they all have the same perspective as you, that's not journalism, that's malpractice,” he said.

The speakers highlighted the importance of making DEI an ongoing effort. Rogers said one way is to broaden the definition of science and look beyond the hard sciences, which are traditionally dominated by white males. For example, Rogers said she was amplifying work by researchers at her university who are helping preserve a nearly extinct indigenous language in the northern part of New Mexico.

“It’s mostly about speaking about it all the time,” said Rogers in response to a question regarding institutional leaders who may not see diversity as a priority. “You have to keep anti-racism as part of the everyday conversations you have. And to look around and point out who is part of the conversations, who is being left out, and work to support voices that are often shut down or shut out,” she said. The plenary was co-organized by Shraddha Chakradhar, a reporter at STAT and Jenny Cutraro, founding director of Science Storytellers.

As a follow-up to the opening plenary, an afternoon workshop “Representation matters: Better writing through diversity” empowered writers and editors with practical tools to find and incorporate diverse voices in their stories, and to better articulate why that matters. The session was organized by Clinton Parks, Jeffrey Perkel, and Ben Young Landis.

In her introductory remarks, Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, shared her experience in tracking how many women she quoted in her own writing. Roughly 25% of the experts LaFrance quoted in 2012 were female, a number that surprised her, since she makes an effort to seek out women sources. As an editor, her focus has shifted from seeking diverse voices to seeking diverse bylines, but she suggested regular tracking as an essential component in achieving diverse science writing and diverse newsrooms.

The discussion about practical ways science writers can improve diversity in their own work continued in seven moderated breakout sessions into which conference participants were randomly assigned. Brainstorming during these sessions led to a resources and strategies document that is available for the science writing community.

ScienceWriters2020 attendees can access a video recording of these sessions in the Whova app until April 23, 2020.

Ling Xin was a science reporter for the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing for 12 years. In 2018, she came to Ohio University as an Enlight Foundation Fellow and recently earned her master’s in journalism. Now working as a freelance science writer, she mainly covers physics, astronomy, space missions, and science policy. Her writing has appeared in Scientific American, Science, and Physics World. Contact Ling at

November 9, 2020

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