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

I developed the template below as a tool to use when I set freelance journalism business goals for each year. This template can be used at any time of the year. A friend suggested that I share it with a broader audience.

The purpose of this template is to provide you with clarity on:

  1. Your highest-priority skills and beats
  2. Your financial goals for the coming year
  3. Your plan that uses your highest-priority skills and beats to achieve your financial goals

If you are doing non-journalistic writing, you can substitute “topics of expertise” for “beats.”

Balancing actSection 1: Your Beats and Skills

  1. Diagram all of the professional skills you might want to use and all of the beats that interest you.
  2. Rank them all from 1 to 4:
    1 = Enthusiastically interested
    2 = Moderately interested
    3 = Not very interested (but willing to try)
    4 = Not interested at all
  3. Separate and list these items by number. For each number, have a separate category for skills and another one for beats.
  4. Put asterisks next to the skills and beats that are in categories 1 through 3 and also are in high demand in the market.
  5. Underline the skills and beats that you want to make your top priorities. (These may not always match the items you marked in the previous step.)

Section 2: Your Schedule and Income

  1. Plan a grid for your schedule for the coming year using blocks (for example, Sept.-Dec.). Each block should correspond to a time period when you have a specific project configuration, a vacation, or a conference.
  2. Estimate how many hours per week you will spend doing each project. Create a separate estimate for each time block.
  3. Estimate your target income per month for each time block based on the sum of your monthly expenses, taxes, and desired savings.
  4. Calculate your monthly income for each time block and see if it meets your target. Where do you need to add projects to your calendar?
  5. Calculate how many hours you need to work per week during each time block to earn your target income. Use an estimated hourly rate. (Note: This template does not account for the fact that some invoices may be paid late. You may want to adjust your estimates if you expect a delay.)

Section 3: Your Project Plan

Looking at the following items, set your goals for each time block.

  1. Your number of hours that you need to work per week
  2. Your preferred skills and beats
  3. Your skills and beats that are popular in the market
  4. Your existing opportunities

If you are unsure about what the outcome of your work will be, you may want to make one time block chart that is a best-case scenario and another one that is a worst-case scenario.

I’m very interested in receiving feedback on this template via Twitter.

Data can be integrated seamlessly into stories that benefit communities, presenters told nonprofits and journalists at a conference on June 21. The event demonstrated how one can tap into information sources about communities whose voices are often unheard.

Data Day 2013, held at Northeastern University in Boston, showcased how successful data-based stories engage people on an emotional level. Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, and The Boston Foundation co-hosted the conference.

The morning keynote showed how a team from The Boston Globe accomplished this goal while writing about the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. Their finished project, 68 Blocks, includes photos, graphs, stories, videos, and an e-book.

“It took months and months to win even the beginnings of trust,” said senior assistant metro editor Steve Wilmsen. After hearing about how a 14-year-old boy was shot, Wilmsen wanted to “pierce the veil of preconceptions” surrounding the neighborhood. As the finished project said, “In a neighborhood known for gunfire, it’s easy to overlook beauty.”

“Half the time, the best things that I got were when I pretended I wasn’t there,” said reporter Meghan Irons. Another reporter, Akilah Johnson, avoided carrying her notebook and used a cell phone and even a church program as substitutes.

The newspaper sourced the “Voices of Bowdoin-Geneva” montage from community pictures found on Instagram. The images show graves, graduations, police, friendships, and family stories.

A survey asked youth whether they thought they would ever spend time in jail. 85.7% said, “No.” 91.7% of the respondents said they had not been in any gangs during the previous year.

The newspaper placed a massive public records request. In the finished project, a map of quality of life indicators shows problems with housing and basic utility services are common in the neighborhood. A second map shows homicides and shootings.

In the workshop “Engage Youth through Data and Mapping,” teenagers from Urbano Project described making public art to communicate data. They made sculptures dramatizing statistics about the MBTA, including crime figures and wait times. They wore the finished sculptures to a festival and talked with passersby about the data.

The teenagers used orange and black plastic discs and small metal weights to build wearable sculptures showing the transit statistics. They also attached painted whistles to t-shirts to depict a graph of various types of crime. All of the materials came from a recycling center in Lynn.

The group painted the whistles different colors to show the different types of crime. 70 percent of the crimes were fare evasions, 9 percent were considered violent crimes, and 15 percent were acts of assault or vandalism.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how transparent the T is with their data,” said Alison Kotkin, a staffer from Urbano Project.

The panel “Storming the Gates of City Hall and Corporate America: Open Data vs. Privacy and Community Change” presented provocative information about our collective privacy – or lack thereof. The presenters also offered tips for nonprofits.

“I usually start all my talks by apologizing on the behalf of all computer scientists everywhere,” said Dr. Latanya Sweeney, who works at Harvard University’s Data Privacy Lab.

“Most data sharing is hidden,” Sweeney explained. “It’s that lack of transparency that causes individuals harm.” She said 1/3 of Fortune 500 companies make hiring, firing and promotion decisions based on health data. 33 states share or sell personal health information. And it’s not difficult for organizations to identify individual patients within these data sets.

Sweeney said computer scientists can solve the problems they have created by following models similar to Google’s.

How can nonprofits get started working with community data? The panel provided many tips. Professor Michael Johnson of UMass-Boston said community organizations can access data and assistance through sources such as:

David Luberoff, a senior project advisor at Harvard University, encouraged Boston-area nonprofits to sign up on the BARI website to connect and collaborate.

A shorter version of this story was published on the MassNonprofit.org website

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.

Sometimes a picture is worth 200 Twitter follows. That’s what Ceres‘s online communications director, Brian Sant, learned when he ran a campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota. Oil companies use these flares to burn away unwanted natural gas they do not plan to save or sell.

North Dakota’s natural gas flares are visible from the night sky and rival major cities in their brightness. Sant circulated the following photo of the night landscape of North America via social media and email. The response was electric. Writers picked up the story.

North Dakota gas flares light the night sky
A photo from Ceres’s campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota.

Sant showed the results of this campaign at New England Women in Energy and the Environment‘s March 14 panel discussion, Social Media Success in the Energy and Environmental Sectors. He also described how he uses podcasts, videos and infographics to make data attractive for social media distribution.

Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding partner at Practically Green, talked about her exploration of the nuances of behavior change. Working with an enthusiastic group of interns and staff, she develops social software that companies and individuals can use to alter their environmental behavior.

Practically Green is building on the current wave of interest in gamification – making activities more like computer games – and integrating that approach with social media. The resulting product makes conserving water and other resources less like doing a chore and more like using Facebook.

“You’re not alone,” one of Robinson’s slides said. Robinson wants her software to engage people in communication, not just give them tasks to do in isolation. Based on the rapid expansion of demand for her product, this approach is certainly working.

Cindy Jolicoeur, vice president of Marketing Drive, used a different tactic in her work with the Mass Save energy efficiency program. She leveraged consumer interest in sharing information about deals and taking advantage of discounts to build the fan base for the Mass Save Facebook page from around 2,000 to over 15,000. These likes came as a result of targeted promotions and advertising across multiple media. Consumers developed a relationship with Mass Save and used the page to ask questions about energy efficiency.

“People want to connect with people,” said Cindy Hoots, corporate social responsibility account director at Cone Communications. She encouraged the audience to be informal on social media. Being able to respond on the fly is crucial, she said. She recommended keeping an unofficial FAQ on hand to use in response to stakeholder comments.

“Not all these stakeholders are friendly,” Hoots said. “Some can be a thorn in your side. Others may have an activist bent.”

Building relationships with stakeholders is a complex process, Hoots said. First, one needs to identify who they are. Second, one needs to understand their values and priorities. Third, one needs to learn how to reach them. And that’s just the first phase of action. One also needs to prioritize influencers, reach out to them, and offer them resources they want.

Hoots recommended two online tools for identifying influencers: Traackr and SocMetrics. These sites can give one basic information about the behavior of influencers and help one develop a plan for building relationships.

There are many ways communicators can engage stakeholders and build support for sustainable actions. This discussion demonstrated how Twitter, Hootsuite, Facebook, and other social media tools can support energy and environmental organizations in reaching their goals successfully. Sometimes, all it takes is a surprising picture.

“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)

Blogs tend to evaporate into the stratosphere of outdated software and broken links unless they are maintained and managed. Now, Jennifer Harbster, a staffer at the Library of Congress, wants to keep groundbreaking science blogs alive.

The Library of Congress began preserving websites in the year 2000. The library chooses which websites to preserve based on their historical value. This year, staff are accepting suggestions of which science blogs to save for future generations. Blogs which feature original research and ideas are the most likely to be selected, Harbster said.

The main goal of the Science Blogs Collection will be to capture a representative sample of science research, writing, teaching and communication, as well as scientific discourse in the United States.

Harbster said the main criteria for choosing a science blog to save are:

  1. What is the usefulness of this information?
  2. Will this blog supplement a preexisting collection?
  3. Does this blog have research value?
  4. Is the blog at risk?
  5. Can the blog be easily captured?

If you want to suggest a science blog for preservation, visit the Library of Congress website and submit your idea.

Meanwhile, at ScienceBlogs, Frank Swain has suggested selling curated collections of blog posts as e-books. If this idea catches on, it could be another way to preserve the writing of science bloggers.


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In November, I withdrew into the snowy environment of northern Massachusetts to reflect on my goals for the coming year. I live next to a park belonging to the Trustees of Reservations, so bluejays and nuthatches kept me company while I wrote. Before and after work, I spent hours sifting through my ideas about what to cultivate – and what to prune back – during the coming year.

Nuthatch
A nuthatch (Source: Terry Sohl)

I took a three-week vacation from Twitter to reduce the “noise” in my environment. Surrounded by the peace and quiet of the wildlife refuge, I made some difficult decisions about my priorities and commitments for the coming year.

  • I chose to offer the services that match my personality, background and interests. So I rewrote the skills, experience and bio pages of this website – as well as my LinkedIn profile. These pages now show my commitment to working on writing and technology projects that have social benefits. They also emphasize my experience in engineering and fascination with the way things work.
  • I made the difficult decision to close out my media relations contract and focus on content production – writing, website editing, and social media outreach. I gave notice to my client on January 2nd and am currently seeking a new project to replace that contract.
  • Translating science content is very satisfying for me. The more technical it is, the better. Working with an MIT professor on a physics book earlier this year showed me that not only do I have the “chops” for hard science, I relish covering it. I feel confident promoting my services to academics and technology professionals. I plan to seek out more science-intensive projects during the coming year. I am comfortable working with clients anywhere in the United States.
  • Although I want to keep at least one nonprofit project on my calendar at any time, I don’t plan to specialize in working for nonprofits. I am very interested in partnering with green businesses and universities and combining projects from different sectors. I recently signed up to do a long-term blogging project for a brownfield remediation business and plan to take on other similar projects.
  • I’m in the process of retooling NetSquared Boston, the meetup I co-organize, to make sure that it addresses unmet needs within the nonprofit tech community. My leadership role in NetSquared Boston gives me many professional opportunities, including networking and low-cost computer training. I plan to refresh some of my web development and software skills soon to stay current with the state-of-the-art technology that is coming out each year.
  • Although I was considering moving to Denver or Chicago earlier, I now plan to stay in Massachusetts for the next few years. I visited family in Chicago in early January and made the decision while I was there. Although I miss Chicago, there are many reasons for me to stay in Massachusetts.
  • Finally, I have a resolution to take more risks with writing and journalism this coming year. I want to go to events like the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, take the leap toward doing projects that are outside my comfort zone, and continue to experiment stylistically as a writer.

I’ve pruned back my commitments from 2012 now so that new ideas can flourish. If the flower that I am attempting to cultivate has a name, it’s a “science and technology writing flower.” It probably looks like this image:

Fractal flower
Fractal flower (Source: 123RF)

Identifying and following my dreams was what led to my success in graduate school. After a year of freelance work, stopping to take time to smell the roses and retool my approach to my career goals was exactly what I needed this winter.


This post won’t be complete until I invite you to follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

I’m starting to believe apocalyptic predictions are becoming a journalistic cliché. Just this last week, an anticlimactic end of the world generated a considerable amount of tourism in Central America. And this isn’t the first time people have expected the world to end recently. The Rapture was scheduled to occur last year. The year 2000 was also supposed to bring mass disruption to society.

Apocalyptic predictions are also becoming commonplace in environmental news, a genre I read and write regularly. Because I wrote a graduate thesis on media framing, I have strong opinions about the uselessness of this story line.

Thinking about apocalypses paralyzes audiences. It also creates fear and removes personal responsibility. The end of the world is, by definition, beyond our control. In contrast, global warming is a situation where we can limit the damage.

Here’s a simple analogy to describe global warming’s effect on how we think.

When I was in junior high, I went sledding with a friend. My sled went out of control and began sailing in a dangerous direction. Since I was a levelheaded pre-teenager, I realized I had three options:

  1. I could pretend nothing was wrong. This is the way most Americans I know respond to global warming today. They make very few lifestyle changes. Most of my friends and relatives are not passionate environmentalists. Inaction is a very common response to large-scale environmental problems.
  2. I could panic. This is the “deer in the headlights” response to global warming which I see very often among concerned environmentalists. Apocalyptic framing in the news feeds directly into this situation. Some people who panic become hyper-focused on self-preservation. Others freeze, do nothing, worry, and never take proactive actions. And some take practical actions that are rational, but do so with a huge burden of fear and guilt.
  3. I could choose to minimize the damage. That is what I did; I intentionally flipped the sled over before it went completely out of control. I was embarrassed, but I wasn’t injured. This attitude is the most practical way to respond to global warming today, I think. We need to recognize we’re going out of control, be realistic, take action, risk embarrassment, make mistakes, and salvage the situation as best we can.

Unfortunately, the news industry is not designed to lead audiences toward such a rational response to environmental disasters. Instead, we are given narratives that suggest we have already failed and that the end is near. This happens because:

  1. In the United States, there is a bias within journalism against recommending actions or solutions. There is also a bias against communicating the recommendations of advocacy organizations. I think that in a situation as dire as the one we face with global warming, it’s reasonable to call these judgments biases. There is nothing objective about failing to recommend action in the face of an emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend hurricane preparedness; why aren’t more reporters recommending reducing the impact of global warming?
  2. Negative news attracts more pageviews. In the old school lingo – “If it bleeds, it leads.” Stories with positive angles lack shock value. If pageviews are a cynical writer’s only goal, then yes, apocalyptic framing works until audiences burn out. Some audiences may already tune out environmental news because of its negativity.
  3. Some environmentalists deliberately frame these stories as apocalyptic to raise awareness or communicate urgency. Reporters then pick up on this culturally powerful framing and transmit it to readers. Based on the popularity of apocalypses today, it’s understandable that this framing is common. But it is also disempowering, discouraging and fear-generating.

What’s the solution? Well, I plan to be a good example for other writers and take the “end of the world” frame out of my media vocabulary. I want to leave readers empowered with common sense information, not paralyzed with anxiety about the future.

And from now on, any time that someone suggests to me that an apocalypse is coming, I will be deeply skeptical. I suggest you do the same.


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