Science, Journalism, and Diversity: What Science Writers are Doing about that Diversity Problem

By Jacqueline Howard

Here’s the good news first — the representation of women and ethnic minorities in science and science journalism has increased in recent decades. Here’s the bad news — the overall pace of diversification remains pretty slow.

In fact, a team of six scientists from Yale University, Skidmore College, and Leiden University in the Netherlands revealed the scientific community’s lack of diversity — and ways to address this “persistent” problem — in a recent paper that was published in the journal Science.

But was such research really needed to show this problem exists? Just google five simple words: “Lack of diversity in science.” You’ll likely see different newspaper headlines appearing on the first page of search results, ranging from “What’s behind the lack of ethnic diversity in science,” to “Lack of diversity means loss of talent,” and to my personal favorite, “Diversity in STEM: What it is, and why it matters.”

It’s crystal clear, science has a diversity problem. And many of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) board members agree that this problem has filtered into the science journalism world, which is why the board approved the creation of a new diversity committee during the Science Writers 2014 conference in Columbus, Ohio on October 17.

“The chairs, Nidhi Subbaraman and Apoorva Mandavilli, are putting the committee together now and encourage people to volunteer to join”, Laura Helmuth, vice president of NASW, said in an email. “The committee will be working closely with the membership committee to build a more diverse membership…I think the membership of NASW should resemble the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States in general. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Such a resemblance isn’t even seen in journalism as a whole — let alone, science journalism. An annual census conducted by the American Society of News Editors last year found that racial minorities make up only around 13 percent of newspaper newsrooms.

The latest survey conducted by the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University found that the minority workforce in TV news has reached 22.4 percent, and in radio news it has reached 13 percent. But that survey also noted that in the U.S, racial or ethnic minorities make up a much higher percentage — as in, 36.9 percent — of the general workforce population.

As for science journalists alone, an independent survey of minority science writers conducted last year by The Open Notebook and science journalist Francie Diep could only round up 46 minority science writers as respondents — compared to the 618 science writers who were respondents in the NASW’s salary survey last year.

stories we…cover…have repercussions for public health & social justice

Enough said.

“There are so many reasons diversity is needed in journalism in general and science writing in particular,” Helmuth said. “People in the majority subculture can be shockingly ignorant about minority subcultures. That’s a problem for any profession with insufficient diversity, but it’s much more of a problem for journalism - we’re supposed to report on the most important things happening in the world, tell meaningful stories, keep a watch on people with power, cover conflicts, etc. Any newsroom or professional organization needs people with a variety of experience, background, perspective, and social networks if we want to do this accurately and thoroughly.”

She added that science journalism has an even deeper reason for needing diversity.

“We tend to be the people responsible for identifying experts in a given field,” she said, “and if they are all white guys from Harvard, that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. It has repercussions for science education (which kids decide to go into STEM), science funding, and hiring committee decisions. The stories we choose to cover as science journalists have repercussions for public health and social justice.”

Therefore, the goal of NASW’s new diversity committee so far, co-chair Nidhi Subbaraman explained in a separate email, is to enhance diversity in science journalism by bringing reporters with a variety of perspectives and voices into the field, while also serving as a support network for current minority reporters.

NASW’s past outreach efforts have included participating in conferences held by minority journalism organizations — from UNITY (an alliance of journalists for diversity) to the Asian American Journalists Association. [Editor’s note: For a roster of diversity journalism organizations, see the Stakeholders page.]

“After considering many options,” Carol Morton, a former board member of NASW, explained in an email, “we decided to reach out to minority journalism organizations to propose professional development workshops that showcase timely science-related topics and science journalism career options.”

And now, diversity committee co-chair Apoorva Mandavilli opened up in an interview during the NASW conference about how she is optimistic about these new diversity outreach efforts.

“I think this will be an ongoing thing,” she said. “I think it’ll take a long time to even get to any place where we can feel good about where things are, but I think that this is a start. At least, a start of talking about it and that’s the first step.”

References & Related Literature

American Society of News Editors (2014) Census

F. Diep (2014) Diversity in Science Writing: A Survey, The Open Notebook, September 23

K. Gibbs (2014) Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters, Scientific American Voices, September 10

GrrlScientist (2014) Lack of diversity means loss of talent for UK scientific workforce, The Guardian.com, March 7

L. Marshall (2014) Supporting Diversity in Science Writing, National Association of Science Writers, October 20

C.A. Moss-Racusin, J. van der Toorn, J.F. Dovidio, V.L. Brescoll, M.J. Graham, J. Handelsman (2014) Scientific Diversity Interventions, Science, 343:615-616

B. Papper (2014) Women, minorities make newsroom gains, Radio Television Digital News Association, July 28

T. Powell (2014) Diversifying Science Journalism, All Digitocracy, October 19

K. Schwartz (2014) What’s Behind the Lack of Ethnic Diversity in Science Education?, KQED Mind/Shift, January 4, 2014

Skidmore College News Moss-Racusin leads effort to address “persistent” bias in academia, February 6, 2014

Jacqueline Howard is an associate editor at HuffPost Science, host/producer of The Huffington Post original video series “Talk Nerdy To Me,” and weekly commentator on HuffPost Live. Ms. Howard attended the Science Writers 2014 conference on a DiverseScholar NASW Diversity Travel Fellowship. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo credit: J. Howard

The citation for this article is:
J. Howard (2014) Science, Journalism, and Diversity: What Science Writers Are Doing About That Diversity Problem.
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Published 21-Oct-2014