This weekend I had the opportunity to surround myself with some very smart people. The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) and the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) are meeting in Columbus, Ohio right now discussing a lot of heady topics like how to write about science for children, genetically modified crops and neutrino astronomy. But they are also talking about ways more scientists can write for general news publications, both as staff writers and freelancers as well as how to make science journalism – and science journalism coverage – more inclusive.
I will post jobs and contact information about a few vacancies I’ve learned about so far (you can find them under our digital jobs up top); and I’ll blog separately about other things I’ve learned so far at the conference. For now I want to highlight a panel I participated on titled, “Supporting Diversity in Science Writing.” Not only are the organizations supporting college curricula to train scientists and researchers to go into newsrooms as editors and reporters, the NASW also announced this weekend that it will create a diversity committee to attract, train, support and increase the number of science journalists of color. All Digitocracy hopes to begin working with NASW on that initiative soon. The organization already has a head-start in the form of its Diversity Travel Scholarships, awards created to encourage underrepresented minorities in science journalism to attend the ScienceWriters2014 conference
On Saturday, day two of the conference, Francie Diep, a freelance science reporter; Anna Lee Strachan, a freelance science producer; Nidhi Subbaraman, staff writer for The Boston Globe’s Beta Boston blog, which focuses on tech news and Philip Yam, managing editor of Scientific American joined me to discuss how best to support minority science writers to help them succeed. The panel discussion, hosted by Culture Dish, an online community of science writers, was moderated by Apoorva Mandavilli who, along with Subbaraman, founded the community. Mandavilli is also editorial director of the Simons Foundation, which specializes in autism research.
We covered overt and subtle discrimination against journalists of color, as well as the challenges international reporters face in the newsroom, or in getting newsroom jobs. We strategized about ways editors can identify more diverse journalists and how to reach out to various journalism associations and allies in helping to address diversity deficiencies in newsroom cultures.
I initially wondered whether the premise of the panel – that “a growing number of minorities are practicing science writing” – was, in fact, accurate. Last year, the American Society of News Editors found that ethnic minorities make up 12.37 percent of newsrooms in 2013, down from a high of 13.73 percent in 2006. And in August the Pew Research Center reported that the number of black journalists working at U.S. Daily newspapers has dropped 40 percent since 1997. “That represents a loss of almost 1,200 journalists — from 2,946 in 1997 to 1,754 in 2013,” the study shows. Further, the report states, black journalists in the local TV news workforce dropped from 12 percent in 2009 to just 10 percent in 2013. The number of black journalists is highly volatile, less than one percent of black journalists worked in radio in 2004; the number now stands at nearly four percent.
When one looks at the number of black journalists who are news directors or news editors, the numbers are even more dismal. “For black journalists in leadership positions, the story is mixed. 2013 was a record year for black TV news directors, whose percentage increased to the highest level recorded by RTDNA: 4%. Although that represents a small fraction of decision makers, it is more than double the percentage in 1994,” Pew reports. “There was no change in the proportion of black radio news directors from 2012 to 2013, it remained at about 2%. The rate of black newspaper supervisors remained at 5% in 2013, which is equal to the percentage ASNE reported in 1997.”
Hispanic journalists are also getting displaced in the current news climate of layoffs and buyouts. According to the ASNE study, the number of Hispanic journalists working in U.S. newsrooms has dropped 32 percent since 2007. “Over the last decade, the number of Latino journalists in legacy newsrooms has hovered between 4 percent and 4.5 percent of total newsroom staffs,” Borderzine reports. Based on the ASNE census, the number of Asian American journalists inside U.S. newsrooms (about 1,156 in 2014, down from 1,164 in 2013) has also been trending downward, though not as pronounced as the other groups. In fairness, the numbers weren’t that sizable to start with; the he smallest group, Native American journalists, saw a slight uptick in their numbers (from 141 in 2013 to 146 in 2014).
So all this made me wonder: How can a growing number of minorities be practicing science writing when numbers overall are down. Diep attempted to answer this question with a survey she conducted earlier this year; she shared her survey results during Saturday’s panel. Diep received feedback from 46 respondents, a majority of whom said “they hadn’t noticed any bias against them in their careers.” That, for me, spurred more questions, especially since we know, both empirically and anecdotally, that people of color experience high rates of workplace harassment and discrimination, including 31 percent of Asians and 26 percent of African Americans, according to a 2005 Gallup poll. Workshop panelists described their own instances of feeling discriminated against inside their newsrooms (Yam talked about a woman editor who often used slurs to describe ethnic minorities, how it is sometimes assumed that he knows less because he is an ethnic minority, and how some colleagues have also assumed he wasn’t born or raised in America simply because of his name or physical appearance. Strachan discussed multiple instances of more subtle forms of racism or sexism she has experienced in her career, including being treated as a subordinate rather than the boss on assignments). Personally, I have experienced racism more times than I care to remember, including once when a job offer was made from a hiring manager, but later rescinded by his boss who assumed and questioned me about a supposed membership to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons, the NAACP. For the record, I have never been a member of the NAACP, and would never want to work for an editor who assumed as much based on evidence as flimsy as my skin color or membership to the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ).
Back to Diep’s survey. While a majority of the respondents said they had not experienced racism, some others shared their stories.
Deip acknowledged that her sample of responses may be too small to draw firm conclusions. Of those, 59 percent of he respondents were Asian; 17 percent described themselves as black, African, African American or Caribbean; nine percent Latino or Hispanic only; nine percent white Latino or Hispanic; four percent described themselves as biracial (two or more races); two percent of respondents said they are Arab.
In the end, we really don’t know how many journalists of color hold science beats inside U.S. newsrooms as there is no empirical data. Perhaps that is a question the National Association of Science Writers’ new diversity committee can help answer. What we do know, based on the attendance at this year’s conference in Columbus, is that more journalists of color should join the association, not only to access some of the many jobs available in this field, but because we need more people of color writing about how science impacts nearly every facet of public life, especially in communities of color. From more accurate coverage about Ebola to shedding light on health and environmental issues that negatively impact people of color disproportionately, journalism needs journalists of color with an expertise in biology, chemistry and social sciences to help make scientific information accessible to the general public.
Below is a Storify of our panel discussion on supporting diversity in science writing curated by Alberto Roca, executive director of Diverse Scholar, which works to diversify the number of doctoral scholars, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math.