Female solar installerConversations about diversity in journalism seem to move forward in fits and starts. Often, I see journalists who write about science, technology, engineering or math devoting a lot of Twitter bandwidth to their frustration about the lack of representation of female and minority writers in our field.

The Atlantic has attributed the news industry’s overall lack of diversity to journalism’s financial crisis.

In response, I’ve written this blog post to share insights based on my experiences of running a relatively diverse environmental newsroom.

This newsroom is at Yale Center for Business and the Environment. It is staffed by a paid team of around 35 graduate students. They are expanding their science writing skills and subject-matter expertise. They produce articles, videos and podcasts for two sites that operate in parallel. The sites are covering environmental finance related to ecosystem conservation and clean energy.

Both sites produce solutions journalism that helps environmental industries grow by analyzing their failures and successes. We provide a third-party perspective, publishing hard news, analyzing the latest trends, and following detailed newsroom guidelines.

As of the end of 2015, 29.7% of the students on our team were people of color. (This compares to a 2014 average figure of 13.3% for reporters at daily newspapers, which is much less than the corresponding 37.4% of the entire United States population. These statistics were quoted by Columbia Journalism Review.)

At the same time, 54% of the students on our team were women. (Nationally, according to a 2013 report by Media Matters for America, women comprise 38% of news reporting staff. This figure has remained level for over a decade. As of 2013, the national overall population average was 51%.)

Most of the writers we hire have college degrees in science or engineering. They are usually new to journalism.

Women and people of color play key roles on both leadership teams.

Both of our sites were started through partnerships with nonprofits. I developed the first site in 2012 at Clean Energy Finance Center, a small national NGO. The site’s performance led to Yale University sponsoring the project and expanding it. Then, our team collaborated with a second NGO, Conservation Finance Network, to create a similarly structured site in partnership with them in 2015.

My experiences with these sites led me to think about what can make news websites inclusive of diverse perspectives. I explored these ideas by developing the list below.

How can we attract writers from a range of backgrounds to our websites? Here are some observations based on my experiences.

Content

  1. Start publishing articles that are relevant to groups whose voices are not already being heard. Keep an eye out for pitches and story concepts about them. Publishing these stories will attract contributors who have relevant expertise. One can make a strong argument that this is essential if your publication wants to provide quality coverage that reflects the existing diversity of the United States and supports democracy. This focus can also make it possible for your team to get the scoop on more original ideas. In my case, the websites I edit have an internationally and regionally diverse scope. This has resulted in us publishing articles about energy access in developing nations. We’re also covering communities that are off the beaten path in our field. For example, I wrote about an Amish and Mennonite community in Iowa that participated in an award-winning solar program. We have also been covering the Caribbean and Mexico sometimes. The Spanish speakers on our team have assisted us with this.
  2. Consider expanding your health-related coverage. Environmental communication research suggests some underrepresented groups may find health-related articles compelling. Within other science beats, there are different health controversies journalists can explore. Both of the websites I edit are publishing articles about climate resilience. We are looking into survival issues in multifamily housing for low-income communities. We are also writing about climate resilience through stormwater management in diverse urban environments.
  3. Evaluate multimedia’s potential. If you want to appeal to millenials or diversify your audience in other ways, video and audio may increase your reach. Podcasts can also have a broad appeal. We’re finding that our readers are motivated to listen to audio.

Language

  1. Make your publication concrete, relevant and readable. Keep sentence and paragraph lengths manageable. Use words that are not too arcane. Don’t strive to impress readers by being obscure or abstract. Obscurity is not a virtue on the Internet, where even readers with Ph.D.s will scan your articles rapidly. Readers want to know the relevance of articles right away.
  2. Eliminate belittling language about class, gender and race. Avoid publishing articles that talk down to people of various backgrounds. Look at how your website frames the lives of people whose background differs from that of your writers. For example, if your website perpetually refers to students from urban high schools in negative terms, people from similar backgrounds may not want to pitch articles to you. Issues like this have been addressed by the creation of minority-oriented publications in the past.
  3. Encourage writers to use their own voices and propose articles related to their interests and experiences. Don’t homogenize your publication. I’ve seen that if writers feel more comfortable being expressive, they will produce better work on average, regardless of their backgrounds.

Cost

  1. Pay your writers competitively. It is tempting to opt out of journalism if one does not come from an affluent background and is having difficulty paying one’s bills. According to The Guardian, expecting interns to write for free will most likely decrease the diversity of your job applicants. So will expecting writers to produce unpaid or underpaid content.
  2. Locate your office in an area with a manageable cost of living. If rents are sky-high, allow writers to work remotely or consider moving your office.
  3. Offer benefits if possible. Assuming that freelancers can easily absorb their own health expenses is a common habit in this industry. However, it may be reducing the diversity of news sites. Depending on the budget of your site, you may or may not be able to provide benefits. Lack of health insurance may filter out writers who are not able to obtain access through their spouses. This is an issue that could be resolved by industry organizations seeking to obtain group discounts on insurance.

Integration

  1. Be relatively friendly online and offline, even if you are busy. If you have a forbidding persona as an editor, people from underrepresented groups may be reluctant to approach you with their ideas or pitches. I make a point of being accessible and talking with journalists online. Doing this gives me the opportunity to learn new skills, get the pulse of the industry, and listen to useful conversations. I mentor other journalists from time to time, but try not to overcommit.
  2. Seek out sources from underrepresented groups. This can expand your dialogue with them and the writers they know. Journalists from these groups will see this interaction and may become interested in pitching. This may broaden the ideas you cover, which can benefit your publication. According to an article from Society of Professional Journalists, this can help to make your publication representative of the larger community. I am reaching out to some new sources this spring and summer to look for story ideas.
  3. Expect your writers to have varying lifestyles and social views. For example, when working with writers on your team, be aware of diversity in their family situations, religious views, social circles, and diets. Nothing says “we don’t want vegans on our team” like hosting an event at a restaurant that only serves steak and seafood. The reverse is also true; don’t assume that all of your writers are into health food unless that is the topic of your publication.
  4. Connect with organizations for minorities in journalism as your schedule allows. You can use these connections to recruit contributors. You can also ask members of these groups for informal feedback about your beat and your publication. This can give you ideas about how to improve what you are doing and reach new audiences or sources. I am following the #divsciwri Twitter hashtag to see what people are saying about diversity in science journalism. I am also observing some diversity-related conversations about media entrepreneurship on Facebook and elsewhere.

I would welcome comments from other journalists about how these ideas can be exported to larger news operations or adapted for your own sites. If you are inspired to write blog posts or articles that build on any of these questions, please contact me via Twitter or LinkedIn to let me know. This post is intended as a starting point for conversation.

 

When you can’t traipse around the United States to travel to two months of journalism conferences, what do you do? This fall, I listened in via Twitter and collected the advice that I found. I attended one of these conferences in person as well.

Here are some of the best morsels of information that I gleaned from this fall’s harvest of journalism conference tweets. Enjoy!

Wheat harvestThese tweets are from the following conferences:

#editors3D – American Society of Newspaper Editors

#SEJ2015 – Society of Environmental Journalists

#SciWri15 – National Association of Science Writers

#ONA15 – Online News Association

#LION15 – Local Independent Online News

#NENPA2015 – New England Newspaper and Press Association

Overview

Surround yourself with friends in the industry. It can really help you. #ONA15failfest #ONA15
.@cephillips‘s @StanfordJourn class, along w/ @BallState & @SJSU, produced a site covering #Editors3d this weekend: http://bit.ly/1M27zB1

The (very unofficial) blog of ONA15. Blog: bit.ly/ONA15_LA #ONA15

Takeaways from the Reshaping Social Newsgathering panel w @acarvin, @mjenkins, and @Niketa Blog: bit.ly/ONA15_LA #ona15

#ONA15 Said it before and will say again, @ONAConf‘s commitment to represent women, LGBT and people of colour is exemplary. Thank you.

Brands

MT @tomlevenson: RT @swannoelle: It is editors’ perception of who you are as a writer that determines the assignments you get.

RT @cbquist: “How writers see themselves may not be the way that the rest of the world sees them. “ @scicurious #Bwordsciwri #sciwri15

RT @swannoelle: Your narrative style can be a brand that is applied to a variety of beats. #Bwordsciwri #sciwri15

Newsroom Management

MT @wearehearken: Resources galore for community engagement strategies! From my #ONAcomm session http://bit.ly/ona-engage

Here’s @pewresearch‘s report about online harassment: pewrsr.ch/1rfpq7 http://ow.ly/TB0F5V #ONA15

RT @rosybattaglia: RT @ONA: .@Poynter on our new Build Your Own Ethics tool: http://bit.ly/1G5Auw5  #ONAethics #ONA15

Think about email newsletter as a product. Who is your audience? What problem are you trying to solve? –@millie @gregory #ONA15

Praise your writers. That’s a parenting technique and an editing technique. And pay ’em well. @robinlloyd99 #sciwri15 #editing2015

RT @itsren: Finding funders is like dating — you just need to find the right people who will sit down and connect with you. #LION15

RT @itsren: If you can’t beat your competitors to the punch, try to be more comprehensive and credible. There’s no value to the same junk.

Accuracy and truth suffers when [your] media relies on freelancers and inexperienced journalists and competes with viral news. #editors3D

Media startup founders listen up: “Do just one thing really well” says @farano #editors3D

RT @lionpubs: Partner to get your journalism spread to a bigger audience, improve branding and reach funders, says @LyleMuller #lion15

RT @palewire: ICYMI: Today we released this new free and open source @WordPress tool for news archiving at #ONA15. Talk: http://bit.ly/wordpress-memento-talk … Code: http://pastpages.github.io/wordpress-memento-plugin/ …

Love this insight from @tseelig : One of most powerful things you can do is question the questions you ask. #editors3D

Hey, millennials read, care, pay for news. Yet another prezo tells us what we better already know @tbr1 #editors3D

Editors

@tseelig says you need to inspire others to innovate. Editor challenge is to inspire trained skeptics — journos. #editors3D

“Long stories are still read, people.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

“You have to think of how your readers use your information.” – DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

“Many of these editors are still in the past.” – Mario Garcia #NENPA2015

“The era of at-a-glance journalism has arrived.” – Mario Garcia #NENPA2015

A good editor suggests wording / phrasing but leaves it up to the writer to make the changes. #sciwri15

.@laurahelmuth: As editor, be aware of the power balance. #sciwri15 #editing2015

To be an editor, you have to have a high tolerance for meetings @laurahelmuth #sciwri15

When The New York Times introduced bulleted lists in 2015, “I thought it was a moment to celebrate.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

Um, love. People like long stories via @tbr1 #editors3D #readtoyourkids

“Just because it’s short doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.” – @koci on mini-narratives #editors3D #thinktofu

RT @aconnersimons: Make sure writers still feel in control of their words, says @areesesantafe. #sciwri15 #editing2015

RT @aconnersimons: .@robinlloyd99: journalists often don’t realize how helpful it is to write a story outline. #sciwri15 #editing2015

RT @bobfinn: .@JamieShreeve: Can’t expect writers to write the story you would have written.#editing2015 #sciwri15

RT @ashleybraun: Editors should help the writers rediscover the joy of the story that first inspired it, says @laurahelmuth #sciwri15

MT @KashaPatel: On science editing: “You have to know when to impose your vision on the story and when to back off” –@JamieShreeve

RT @bradscriber: RT @bobfinn: .@laurahelmuth: As an editor you have a huge responsibility not to let a writer embarrass himself/herself.

Diversity

If your community is getting browner & your newsroom is getting whiter your bottom line will get redder. @RussContreras to #editors3D #ASNE

The touchstone of diversity training in newsrooms is Dori Maynard’s Fault Lines. Required reading for journos mije.org/faultlines #ona15

Of about 2200 members of @ScienceWriters, 89% are white. We must be active on seeking diversity. #sciwriwomen  #sciwri15

Q: How often are women used as sources in journalism? A: not often enough #sexisminsciwri #sciwri2015

“Diversity is the only way for us to be competitive right now,” @mitrakalita tells newspaper orgs @ #editors3D

.@drmariogarcia: Millennials need to mentor their bosses. #nenpa2015 @nenpa

.@mitrakalita: Don’t let anyone be the only one talking about diversity in hiring in your newsroom. #editors3D

MT @ejwillingham: Says @deborahblum: “monoculture isn’t good for anything and that includes the profession of journalism”

RT @juliebastuk: RT @ejwillingham: The Freelance Writer Bill of Rights is here: http://sciencewritingsummit.org/freelance-writer-bill-of-rights/ … #sciwriwomen #sciwri15

MT @apoorva_nyc: RT @NidhiSubs: For internships: Hire outside of your immediate pool. Contact @culturedish @WritersofColor etc to advertise

MT @fkwang: RT @DrMRFrancis: .@apoorva_nyc : don’t underpay interns. That alone opens the pool to far more applicants. #sciwri15

MT @DrMRFrancis: .@apoorva_nyc : trade magazines are much friendlier to non-white writers. Pipeline privileges white people. #sciwri15

Another piece of advice for editors: Bring up diversity all the time. @mitrakalita speaking to #editors3D

RT @sciencesense: People fear the things they don’t understand– Mark Johnson #sciwri15

Reporters

RT @preetinmalani: RT @laurahelmuth: Re: #sciwri15 #editing2015: Are You a Writer or an Editor? Part I: The Writers http://www.theopennotebook.com/2013/01/15/should-you-be-a-writer-or-an-editor-part-i-the-writers/ …

MT @science_eye: RT @bradscriber: Here’s the Open Notebook post, How Not to Pitch, that @robinlloyd99 mentioned http://bit.ly/1jVN6kN

Also not brought up yet: What about COIs stemming from unpaid activism? #sciwri15

StrawberriesWe’re honored to have won an #ona15 award for our investigation on the Dark Side of the Strawberry! Read it here: revealnews.org/article/califo…

RT @DrMRFrancis: No shame in wanting to be paid reasonable money for doing quality work. Repeat this, loudly, over and over. #sciwri15

#Sciencewriters must get out of usual environment/office; shoe leather reporting required – @marynmck #otherstories

MT @JoAnnaScience: Here’s an essay by @SorenWheeler about keeping humor in your science writing http://www.lastwordonnothing.com/2012/06/05/guest-post-make-me-feel-something-please/ …

MT @arconklin: Burkhard Bilger types his sources’ responses while interviewing, leading to awkward pauses and quote gold. #sciwri1

RT @scienceengage: You can write the absurd but find its significance, and you can write about something serious and make it absurd

On how to interview: Be real with subjects, like w/friends in a bar. Model your own authenticity to elicit theirs. #HumorNASW15  #sciwri15

MT @alizardx: RT @JoAnnaScience: “humor works when it humanizes, when it levels the playing field,”- @SorenWheeler #sciwri15 #HumorNASW15

RT @scienceengage: You can be funny and respectful towards your subject #sciwri15

RT @marcabrahams: RT @AjSolliday: From @MarcAbrahams: Describe the unexpected clearly. It’s funny. #HumorNASW15 #sciwri15

RT @lillianhwang: RT @ErinPodolak: Reporting is an “opportunity to engage with people’s complexity” says @marynmck #sciwri15

“These are the best of times to be a storyteller.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

MT @LizDrogeYoung: Women far less likely to be expert scientist sources in stories #sciwriwomen

RT @koriosc: RT @laurenkwolf: Fact checking is not a punishment. It’s protecting your work–Brad Scriber #sciwri15

RT @managewski: Acknowledge that you’re a journalist, but also a person. – @kimfox #ONA15 #ONA15failfest

Technology and Multimedia

In @saraquinn research, audience spend 50% more time with professional images over amateur images. #editors3D

Another great #ONA15 find: a free guide for verifying photos and videos by  @firstdraftnews medium.com/1st-draft/are-…

How to handle the haters on social: kill ’em with kindness #ONA15

You can get the 2016 edition of our annual trends report here: https://goo.gl/DDsulZ  #ona15

More on bots in the newsroom – “Should journalists worry?” bit.ly/1gYCmAh @ONANewsroom #ONA15

“I’m surprised at the number of people in newsrooms who do not have a Twitter account.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

RT @millie: If you read one thing about push notifications, read @lauraelizdavis‘s very smart piece http://www.buzzfeed.com/lauradavis/hope-you-appreciate-this#.atkjY6Vgn … #ona15

RT @DavidHo: From #50Apps at #ONA15 – Our technology is meaningless without the humanity that gives it purpose.

With the advent of mobile, “computers are going the way of print.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

Use images to “get the reader into the story.” – @DrMarioRGarcia #NENPA2015

.@drmariogarcia: 1/3 of news team will not get on digital train. #nenpa2015 @nenpa

MT @AnnaNowo: .@abexlumberg on podcast funding: team up with people as creative at the business side as you are creative at the journalism

“Social media is not a broadcast platform.” – @NoahBombard #NENPA2015

Science Journalism

MT @kari_choi: RT @ensiamedia: New to science writing? Interested in environmental journalism? Check out Ensia’s mentor program (we pay!)

Imp’t from @JoelAchenbach: Journalists need to be aware of hyping findings, be knowledgeable about reproducibility in science #editors3D

#sciwri15 So many political issues have become so tribalized that it’s a waste of time to talk facts #globalwarming

In fight against poverty, “the truth is often uncomfortable.” Our job as science writers: to seek the truth without fear or favor #sciwri15

RT #VJin140: #sciwri15 award for #longform science reporting goes to #insideclimate team: insideclimatenews.org/fracking-eagle… https://t.co/qwE

Love this wonk translation from @susangoldberg: “how to fix it and how to live with it” – not “climate mitigation & adaptation” #editors3d

Thank you. “We need more political reporters who are comfortable with science reporting.” @MichaelOreskes #editors3D

Thx @CleoPaskal for shout-out for @NewSecurityBeat! #sej2015 Also see @CntrClimSec #climatesecurity 101 http://bit.ly/1R2KcoJ

@burkese Q&A on nexus of energy, natl security, & climate & its impact on the armed services http://ow.ly/TekuF  #SEJ2015

RT @00sarrett: RT @fenellasaunders: #sciwri15 data journ w @leHotz: lidar map of NYC for solar power potential.

Can we expect environmental journalists to connect the dots between biodiversity and climate change? #SEJ2015 @1earthok

LOL. RT @leiashotfirst: RT @raminskibba: Aaronson: “Black holes are like Vegas: what happens there, stays there!” #sciwri15 #blackholefail

ICYMI: @erikvance on ethical quandaries for science writers – good followup to the debate at #sciwri15 via @TheLWON: http://ow.ly/TB0F5

RT @lizdrogeyoung: RT @susannakohler: Hedge words = the error bars of science writing. #factcheck #sciwri15

If you were driving to go to a job interview in a new city, would you forget to research the company, get into your car wearing ripped jeans, and not bother to bring a GPS or a map?

I didn’t think so. Urban landscape

But every day, aspiring journalists set up Twitter accounts exactly that way, hoping to attract business that never comes.

Some of us leave Twitter’s default images of eggs up as our profile photos.

Some of us use Twitter to post about our nightlife and coffee habits. If nightlife and coffee aren’t part of your beat, it’s generally best not to post about them much.

Some of us aren’t sure what we want our niches or beats to be, so we post randomly about anything – and follow anyone. This is also not a good idea. In journalism, specialists earn more than generalists, I find.

Some of us use Twitter to be one-way communicators – broadcasting our own content, but never retweeting or interacting. But on Twitter and in real life, being a good listener is part of being a good conversationalist.

Some of us are drawn into controversial conversations that are unrelated to our beats or interests. Keep a sticky note up as a reminder not to join these discussions, if necessary. Unless you want to become known as highly political, don’t go there. And if a troll starts bothering you, handle it sensibly and move on.

But perhaps most importantly, many of us really don’t know how to plumb the depths of Twitter’s search and list features to find the hashtags and search terms that could be valuable to us.

Did you know you can make a large list of your competitors by looking for keywords related to your specialty and adding your fellow writers to a new list?

Did you know you can make a list of potential sources by looking up keywords related to your beat or to target organizations?

Did you know you can make a list of potential employers and their staff? Look for hiring managers and be sure to include them. Search for keywords related to employers – or names of their organizations.

My favorite list contains tweets from a group of news editors whose work I admire. My main career goal is to edit news websites and magazines, so I am watching my peers and role models to see what they are posting.

You can also use keyword searches related to articles you have written or topics you want to follow.

Is there a conference you’ve missed this week? Look up the conference hashtag, search for it, and take notes or participate in the conversation.

Finally, don’t forget to look up hashtags like #journalismjobs, #scicomm, and #mediadiversity when you are job hunting. Or try combinations of words – like “journalism job Chicago” without the quotes.

This post is loosely based on insights from a Twitter workshop I delivered for Science Writers of Western Massachusetts on June 27, 2015. For more info about our group, please visit our Facebook page. For details about my journalism and teaching experience, please visit my LinkedIn bio.

Reading The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age gave me a glimpse into the world of full-time magazine writing – a world which I may never enter but still view with enthusiasm and curiosity. 

Science journalists spend their lives digging through the mud of news content, research articles, conversations and experiences for gems – ideas that, when polished into queries, will capture the attention of editors. Some journalists even spend their vacations building the background structures of local stories.

Gems
Science journalists look for ideas and polish them. Photo Credit: bored-now via Compfight cc

A science article may start with a very rough idea that needs extensive polishing. Sometimes, just a sparkle or flash indicates the value of the query within. A query e-mail cannot be simply a discussion of a topic – it needs a newsworthy angle and some exploration of the potential arc of the story.

As journalists explore their subject matter, they use audio and visual tools to record their surroundings. These tools may include tape recorders, cameras and note-taking equipment. Part of their work during interviews is to capture the context of the stories – personal details, local color, and other highlights that give stories personality and depth.

When science journalists are ready to build their story lines, they use a range of newswriting structures. One of the structures is called a “layer cake” because it alternates between scenes and their context. Putting together a story is an intuitive and experimental process similar to assembling an artistic or architectural model.

Architectural model
Putting together a story is like constructing a 3-D model or artwork. Photo Credit: Al_HikesAZ via Compfight cc

On reading the handbook, I resolved to include more concrete details in the stories I produce. My experiments with visual descriptions have turned out well in the past. Both with print stories and multimedia, I see the process of journalism as being like creating a three-dimensional piece of art – adding some elements, removing others, and seeing how the structure hangs together.

Can shaking buildings be exciting? A live taping of You’re the Expert at MIT Museum on April 16 revealed the answer is “yes” – especially when one’s surrounded by an appreciative audience in Cambridge on a Tuesday night.

You’re the Expert uses comedy to add pizzazz and the occasional double entendre to explanations of academic research. According to the show’s website, its podcast has been climbing the charts on iTunes.

The comedians applied their razor-sharp wits to solving structural engineering problems and defining jargon. Although their responses would have been academic disasters in a civil engineering class, they led to explosions of laughter.

What are modal parameters? “This bridge is dead,” comedian Myq Kaplan said, confusing the words with “mortal parameters.”

What is system identification? “When a bridge tells you what its name is,” Kaplan replied.

What is structural health monitoring? Placing monitor lizards on a bridge, an audience member guessed.

monitor lizard
Would you want this lizard to test a bridge for you? Photo Credit: Joachim S. Müller via Compfight cc

The guest, assistant professor Babak Moaveni from Tufts University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, assured us no lizards are involved in structural health monitoring.

Structural health monitoring, Moaveni’s specialty, focuses on finding out how “healthy” a building, bridge or other structure may be – and how long it is likely to survive. It’s like using a stethoscope or other medical test equipment – except for structures, not people. 

The equipment Moaveni uses is sometimes expensive. He can send a drone helicopter underneath a bridge to measure how well the bridge is holding up under its everyday loads.

Moaveni also shakes buildings to find out how they respond. The audience chortled while he explained how he excites buildings by using mechanical shakers.

“The smaller one is called Mighty Mouse,” Moaveni said with a straight face.

“Could it make me a martini?” comedian Robert Woo asked.

Nondestructive testing may be hip, but it can't make you a martini. Photo Credit: wickenden via Compfight cc
Nondestructive testing may be hip, but it can’t make you a martini. Photo Credit: wickenden via Compfight cc

Kaplan described nondestructive testing dramatically. “Just as Batman did in The Dark Knight, this man and his army of cameras are our last line of defense.”

Moaveni doesn’t just shake structures and take photos of them, though. Some of the testing is destructive.

“We are planning to destroy a building in California. It’s in the city of El Centro,” Moaveni said. He explained that every structure has its natural frequency, but that does not mean it is destroyed at that frequency.

“I’m not saying we go and break something to hear the damage,” Moaveni clarified. He uses these tests to find out how buildings respond to earthquakes.

Gesturing overhead, Moaveni described how one might test a building like the MIT Museum.

“This building is already excited,” Chris Duffy, the host and producer, quipped.

“This is the most excited a museum gets,” Kaplan said.

“Usually, my class doesn’t get this excited,” Moaveni said as he described the definition of manual excitation. Loud guffaws from the audience interrupted him.

Moaveni said his current research involves predicting when structures may fail in the future. “We want to have a ‘check building’ light,” he said.

Since 30 percent of bridges in the United States have outlived their design life, according to Moaveni, being able to predict when a bridge will fail would be extremely useful.

“Is that man a God? Maybe. That is up to peer review,” Woo commented.

Climate Access hosted an online conversation on May 13 about how United States environmental communicators can build relationships with low-income and minority communities. Insights from Detroit, Mississippi, Alabama, New York, New Orleans, and southeastern coastal states enriched the conversation.

“The folks who are most impacted or most vulnerable are not at the planning table,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. She said low-income minority communities may have poor-quality housing, live in flood plains, lack infrastructure, and have few grocery stores nearby. During weather-related disasters, women become more likely to experience domestic abuse and sexual violence.

When weather-related disasters happen, authorities don’t always communicate with low-income housing residents, Patterson said. She recalled one flood in Mississippi where people returned to homes that “were contaminated with mold and other toxins.”

In Alabama, Patterson said, a black family was turned away by a nearby church during a tornado and returned home. As a result, almost all of the family died.

Environmental organizations can be part of the solution to climate-related social problems by building genuine, sincere relationships with low-income and minority communities. “A relationship takes time and takes investment,” said Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, chieftess and head-of-state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation in the southeastern United States.

For minority communities, Patterson said, contacts from majority organizations can feel very “transactional.” “There is not enough attention to just building relationships,” she said.

Goodwine offered advice for minority community leaders who want to build connections with environmental organizations. “One of the key elements is being vigilant about seeing what people are working on besides your own circle of people. You can start to reach out to groups that don’t even know you exist.”

Approaching people by speaking about topics that interest them already is also valuable. Community activists may not think the issues they care about are connected to climate change. For example, said Ann Baughman, associate director of Freshwater Future, the Detroit activists she has met care about improving safety, beautifying the city, getting rid of vacant lots, and taking care of trash. Planting rain gardens can beautify Detroit while helping the city adapt to climate change.

5920783902_84f25012a4_m

Photo Credit: buckshot.jones via Compfight cc

Freshwater Future’s staff went through a one-day training on environmental justice once they realized they needed to reach out to the urban communities in the Great Lakes region which are likely to be hit hard by global warming’s weather and flooding. The training was led by Judy Hatcher, executive director of the Pesticide Action Network.

Local low-income and/or minority communities may be very familiar with the signs of global warming in their own backyards – or on their shores. “We literally live in a hurricane zone,” said Goodwine. “We became knowledgeable for how to watch for different changes in the environment.”

Goodwine observed trees falling along the shore and herbs not growing correctly. “It made me be more inquisitive as to erosion,” she said. This motivated her to learn more about sea level rise and climate change.

“I take examples from my daily life and what has happened and utilize it in inter-generational training,” Goodwine explained. Before she began talking about sea level rise with the Gullah/Geechee Nation, she said, her community thought of sea level rise as a problem which affected people in other countries.

The Gullah/Geechee Nation is working to prevent erosion and preserve water quality by planting oyster beds in shoreline areas where people are unlikely to walk. “We have been evaluating areas where oysters grew over the generations,” she said. “Where the shore is more firm, we bag the oyster shells. The more that we have these oyster shells planted into our waterways, the more we have a barrier. There are a number of creatures that feed from the oyster beds. Other sea creatures lay their eggs in the oyster beds so they can have a safe haven.”

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Photo Credit: Basenisa via Compfightcc

Cara Pike, director of Climate Access, said hands-on activities like planting oysters can help bring concepts of climate change, sea level rise, and erosion prevention into perspective for people who are new to these subjects.

Localized messaging matters to Goodwine as well. “We are place-based people. Staying there is always part of people’s ongoing life identity in this region. That’s the thing that galvanizes people who have been there for generations.”

Goodwine said she would like to see scientists share their resources by doing community-based environmental work and hiring staff from underrepresented groups.

Environmental organizations can also partner with local leaders. “We come in mostly as a way to provide some resources,” Baughman said. Freshwater Future links local organizations to small grants, professional expertise, and regional policy activism.

Reaching out to underrepresented communities “can be uncomfortable, it can be a little scary, but you have to do it,” Baughman said. “Start building authentic relationships. That trust has to be built on something real.”

Like a will-o’-the-wisp, Earth Day captures media attention periodically before fading into the background again.

Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-'o-the-wisp.
Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-o’-the-wisp. (Source: Kikasz via Compfight cc)

Why does this happen? Thomas Hayden has some ideas about why media focus on environmental topics waxes and wanes. He mapped out the coverage of environmental topics in The New York Times and found a gradual upward trend over the decades, punctuated by wild fluctuations.

These fluctuations – the jagged peaks on his graph – happen to coincide with our collective moments of excitement about environmentalism, which I have renamed:

  • “hippies and whales”
  • “tropical rainforests”
  • “temperate rainforests”
  • “climate change science”
  • “climate change movie”
  • “climate change reality” 

Although journalists’ interest in environmental issues may be growing over time, it is based on short-term events and catastrophes.

Do other people forget about environmentalism as often as journalists do? It’s hard to say. But an article on fads and the environment suggests social trends need to build on deeper underlying values in society to succeed.

This is an important point. If you want to build a successful environmental trend or meme, you need to speak to what already matters to people – their existing cultures and priorities.

Should environmentalists try to catch people’s attention with a series of trends and hot topics? Maybe that is not enough.

Like dieting, environmental change has to be more than a fad to succeed. If environmentalists want to achieve long-term, successful social change, that will require making structural changes to our everyday lifestyles so positive choices will lead to rewards. These rewards do not all have to be financial; they can be social. They can even involve saving time or simplifying our lives. 

Maybe environmentalists need to augment those will-o’-the-wisps of media coverage with solid structural changes behind the scenes.

When scientists describe how non-specialists misunderstand their language, there’s often a note of sadness in the discussion. If only the United States public was more enlightened than it is today, some bloggers say, then people would understand the language of science. 

A recent Scientific American blog post described how non-scientists in the United States misunderstand the scientific meanings of words like “theory,” “significant,” “hypothesis” and “natural.” A post on the Science 2.0 website provides a longer list of words that are often misunderstood.

What’s wrong with hoping the public will understand scientific language someday? Nothing. But we live in a society where scientists are a specialized group, often socially distant from many of the people who misunderstand them. If scientists want to eradicate misunderstandings and strengthen public awareness of the value of science, better communication and more social interaction is the best solution.

There are tips available online for scientists who want to do a good job of communicating their research and ideas in the classroom. I’ve edited some of these tips myself. When I was working at the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), I edited two book sections showing how scientists can respond to misunderstandings immediately when talking with students. Here’s a shortened excerpt from one of the sections:

Problems of Terminology

1. Confusing the technical meanings and the ordinary meanings of words.
Some scientific terms have technical meanings that are very different from their common sense meanings.

2. Using words that have technical meanings and not realizing it.
Some ordinary English words are used as technical terms, as explained above, but experienced scientists (such as graduate students and lecturers) are so used to using these words that they often forget that these words have special meanings. So the scientists don’t define the terms and then are surprised when the students don’t know what they mean.

3. Getting confused when using similar but not identical terms.
Certain pairs of terms seem to be difficult to distinguish – for example, “gene” and “allele,” as well as “chromosome” and “chromatid.” To make it worse, some of these terms are synonyms in common speech, such as “inhibition” and “repression.” A good way to clear up confusion is to compare and contrast; compare what the two terms have in common and contrast their differences.

DNA
Students sometimes misunderstand terms related to genes and DNA. (Source: stock.xchng)

A second section covers the various types of misunderstandings that can occur.

Preconceived Notions

Preconceived notions are popular conceptions rooted in everyday experiences. For example, many people believe that water flowing underground must flow in streams because the water they see at the earth’s surface flows in streams. Preconceived notions plague students’ views of heat, energy, and gravity…

Nonscientific Beliefs

Nonscientific beliefs include views learned by students from sources other than scientific education, such as religious or mythical teachings…

Conceptual Misunderstandings

Conceptual misunderstandings arise when students are taught scientific information in a way that does not provoke them to confront paradoxes and conflicts resulting from their own preconceived notions and nonscientific beliefs. To deal with their confusion, students construct faulty models that usually are so weak that the students themselves are insecure about the concepts.

Vernacular Misconceptions

Vernacular misconceptions arise from the use of words that mean one thing in everyday life and another in a scientific context (i.e., “work”). A geology professor noted that students have difficulty with the idea that glaciers retreat, because they picture the glacier stopping, turning around, and moving in the opposite direction. Substitution of the word “melt” for “retreat” helps reinforce the correct interpretation that the front end of the glacier simply melts faster than the ice advances.

Glacier in Argentina
Students may not understand that glaciers retreat by melting rather than turning around and moving backward. (Source: stock.xchng)

Factual Misconceptions

Factual misconceptions are falsities often learned at an early age and retained unchallenged into adulthood. If you think about it, the idea that “lightning never strikes twice in the same place” is clearly nonsense, but that notion may be buried somewhere in your belief system.

Correcting science misconceptions requires a sophisticated understanding of both communication and science. Investing more resources in science education can help improve public science literacy. But scientists may also need to consider using alternate words for concepts that most people misunderstand.

“What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in your climate work?” David Minkow, who edits content for Climate Access and the Social Capital Project, asked me this question recently.

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

My neighbors listen to very good music... whether they like it or not.
Get to know your audiences’ cultural preferences as well as you know your neighbors’. (Source: Someecards.com)

Sometimes the act of simplifying jargon can be very amusing. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this week, one of the presenters cited this xkcd comic strip with a down-to-earth illustration of a space shuttle. Its humor comes from its simple language.

Space shuttle comic strip
A space shuttle diagram which uses only the 1000 most popular words in the English language.

Try explaining the next piece of technology you own using language like this. It is challenging translating technical language into simple terms. But try it anyway – you might learn something interesting about science communication.

If you write about science, remember most people don’t know what a transistor is, let alone a superconductor. Here are two ultra-simple definitions:

  • A transistor is a product that can amplify electronic signals and switch them on and off.
  • A superconductor is a material that transmits electricity extremely well when it is very cold.

See how entertaining it can be to simplify technical writing?


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