Supporting diversity in science writing

By Lisa Marshall

Despite small steps forward and an encouraging groundswell of concern about the issue, racism and sexism are alive and well in U.S. newsrooms, and diversity remains sorely lacking. This according to a panel of journalists who met Saturday at the NASW conference, for a lively, standing-room-only discussion on “Supporting Diversity in Science Writing.”

The numbers alone speak volumes: According to the American Society of Newspapers and Editors (ASNE’s) 2014 diversity survey, 13% of newspaper reporters are racial and ethnic minorities, a number that has dipped slightly since 2006 as the percentage in the U.S. population has climbed to 37%. A recent Open Notebook survey to gauge the experiences of science writers of color got only 46 responses from journalists who identified as such. (In contrast, NASW’s recent salary survey drew 618 responses). African-American journalists have been hard hit across print and broadcast, with the number working at newspapers dropping 40% since 1997. “We have actually gone backward,” said panelist Tracie Powell, founder of AllDigitocracy.org.

That’s a problem not only for journalists of color, but also for media organizations, who — without the benefit of diverse perspectives — leave themselves vulnerable to the creep of “unintentional mistakes,” said panelist Phil Yam, managing editor at Scientific American online and a member of the Asian American Journalist’s Association. He recalled the unfortunate headline MSNBC wrote in 1998 when Tara Lipinski edged out Michelle Kwan for the Olympic gold medal in figure skating: “American beats out Kwan.” Kwan is also American. Another editor shared a story of an article he recently saw on a proof, describing an object as “flesh colored.”

Women also face challenges, particularly in the realm of science reporting, where several in the room spoke of a “boys club” culture. “I can’t tell you how many times I have shown up to a shoot and the crew is asking ‘When is the producer going to show up?’” said panelist Anna Lee Strachan, a freelance documentary producer.

Panelist Nidhi Subbaraman, a staff writer for the Boston Globe, said many outlets are not prepared to navigate the administrative issues, such as visas, which come with hiring a writer from another country. “I have had job offerings from three different organizations who changed their minds once they realized I was not a citizen,” said Subbaraman, who was born in India.

But along with a frank airing of concerns came solutions.

Powell, co-chair of the National Association of Black Journalists, called on journalists to diversify the educational pipeline by reaching into high schools and urging students of color to pursue journalism. She also encouraged journalists to call out organizations which fail to support diversity (she pointed to Politico.com and CNN) and follow the lead of those who are. “Buzzfeed has the most diverse masthead in the industry right now.”

Strachan, who produces science documentaries for Nova, said she makes a concerted effort to include diversity in front of the camera also, in part to show young viewers of color that there is a place for them in both science writing and science.

On an optimistic end-note, panelist noted the emergence of several new organizations, including Culture Dish and the Journalism Diversity Project. The fact that Saturday’s discussion took place at all was an encouraging step, said Subbaraman.

“We have an opportunity here to translate all the attention this issue is being given into more change.”

Oct. 20, 2014

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