How to Communicate Ciencia to Bicultural Audiences

By Iveliz Martel
Reporting on the #SciWri16 #ComoSciWri session.

Communicating science can be challenging, but communicating science (ciencia in Spanish) to bicultural and bilingual audiences takes that challenge to a new level. Science journalists not only have to deal with the limitations of science itself, such as jargon and complicated topics; but, they also need to understand the context of those multicultural audiences.

But difficulty is no reason to dodge a good challenge. Science writers and communicators can use several techniques to successfully accomplish this job. Speakers at the session Communicating Ciencia: Adapting to the Changing Faces and Voices of Mass Media provided journalists at the ScienceWriters2016 conference with a toolbox on how to communicate science in the United States to culturally diverse audiences by using the U.S. Latino and Hispanic experiences as examples. See below for a Storify archive of this #ComoSciWri session’s tweets [Roca 2016] and listen to a report about the session [Martel 2016]. Also, the session organizers curate a Resources webpage.

#ComoSciWri Panel Testimonials

Aleszu Bajak, founder of LatinAmericanScience.org and a senior writer at Undark, emphasized that science journalists need to understand that readers are not homogenous. People in every community have “real faces,” he said. That is why finding the human component behind science helps make stories meaningful to the audience.

“I try to write about as many human stories as possible,” Bajak said. He explained that science journalists don’t need to be members of a particular culture to be able to understand its codes. “I embrace a lot of that, feeling a little bit like a fish out of water,” he said. “With journalism, you are always kind of a fish out of water.”

In order to face that challenge and tell good stories, Bajak says it is key to establish relationships with your “fixers” — members of a community who can help you when reporting a story — and talking to people in the community. Doing so can help you navigate your audience’s culture.

“Don’t write the story before you talk to the people,” added Claudia Tibbs, a science educator and bilingual communicator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. “I think it’s really important to get either in touch with your raices or going to where people are.” She believes that visiting the places where people are dealing with those issues you are covering is important to create stories that are authentic.

In that sense, José González, founder of Latino Outdoors, said that journalists have to ask themselves some questions before approaching the communities they are working with.

Don’t write the story before you talk to the people

“What may be some cultural markers that are important?” he said. “If we are looking at Latinos, how does respect play out in their community? How does spiritualism play out? How does the role of family play out?”

According to González, these types of questions help journalists effectively approach those communities and allow them to connect with audiences that are diverse within themselves. Some of these community members are recent immigrants while others have been in the country for generations.

Breaking down the vocabulary

Identifying the audience’s context, whether geographical or cultural, is also relevant when trying to engage these diverse audiences, said Tibbs, because that will help you find connections that are meaningful to them. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, she tries to make sure that students and teachers visiting the place are not just consumers of information but also orators of information.

“A lot of that has to do with introducing new vocabulary,” she said. “Some terms just don’t resonate well.” So, educators at the aquarium try to be flexible with the words they use when communicating about what they do or the species they work with. At the aquarium, they also take advantages of social media tools that can make science funny and humorous. “Memes are great to share all that information in a way that is visual and can engage a lot of different people,” she said.

Being aware of where you are coming from as a science journalist or communicator is also crucial, González added, “because it can help you understand that the language that I am using or the terminology needs to be amplified rather than just simplified.”

“We don’t want to dumb it down for people,” he explained. “We want to make sure that they are understanding, and it sticks.” Science has its own language, culture and concepts, which may not be familiar to bicultural audiences, he said.

Understanding concepts such as the scientific method may help you bridge the science with the audience. For example, understanding different burdens of proof in science can help you explain the difference between a theory and a law. These types of concepts, González said, are usually miscommunicated to the public. “You get these little debates like ‘evolution is just a theory; therefore, it’s not real’,” he said. That kind of misconception arises from a misunderstanding of the scientific meaning of “theory” versus the more common lay definition of the term in everyday language.

Breaking down jargon is something that Robin Gose, director of education at Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin, Texas, pointed out as crucial in order to turn science into the reader’s third language. For Gose, it is about creating a “comfort zone” for the members of the audience. That way, she said, “they can learn something that is significant and that hopefully can be seen as meaningful to them and ultimately can be inspirational.”

Different recycling campaigns in the past, for instance, have been successful on educating children on waste management practices by explaining to them how to read the numbers on the bottom of items such as plastic bottles, Gose illustrated.

Communicating science in simple terms is particularly useful to motivate children to become future scientists, engineers, or science enthusiasts, she explained. They can be aware of environmental issues that might affect them, have intelligent conversations with their peers, and make informed decisions in the future. However, to be able to make those connections, Gose said, they need to approach science through their conversational language and their own words, whether they are in English or Spanish. “If they can do that, they’ll understand science in a much more fundamental level,” she said.

Gose also stressed the importance of human component of science as a way to encourage people to give science a place in their worlds. That human aspect may be, for example, including in your stories Latino or Hispanic scientists conducting groundbreaking research. The ultimate goal, Gose said, is not only to get people to read or watch or listen to an interesting human story — “We want them to learn something about science along the way.”

References or Relevant Literature

I.F. Gonzalez (2014) Hispanic Audiences and Diversity in Science Journalism, DiverseScholar, 5:4

I. Martel (2016) Listen How to Communicate Ciencia to Bicultural Audiences, DiverseScholarTV, December 31

O. Miyamoto Gomez (2016) Let’s make connections, not translations, ScienceWriters, October 31

A.I. Roca (2016) #SciWri16 #ComoSciWri, Storify, October 30

E. Rodriguez Mega (2015) Is America Latina Present in Science Journalism? DiverseScholar, 6:7

Photos/Figures

(top) #ComoSciWri panel speakers (left to right): Bajak, Tibbs, González, Gose, and session co-organizer Ben Young Landis. (Credit: Becky Oskin, session co-organizer)
(middle) Use memes to communicate concepts with context. (Credit: #ComoSciWri website)
(bottom) #ComoSciWri small group discussion. (Credit: B. Oskin)

The citation for this article is:
I. Martel (2016) How to Communicate Ciencia to Bicultural Audiences.
DiverseScholar 7:4

Iveliz Martel is a Chilean science journalist who graduated from Texas A&M University’s graduate science communication program in 2016. She has pursued mainly radio journalism since 2007, when she received her bachelor’s degree and started working at Cooperativa, one of the most important news radio stations in Chile. Now, she works as a correspondent in the United States for Chilean media and recently started freelance writing about Latin American science stories. Martel attended the ScienceWriters 2016 conference on a DiverseScholar SciComm Diversity Travel Fellowship. We thank mentor Tara Haelle for editing this article. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


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Last updated 31-Dec-2016,
Published 30-Dec-2016