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.


  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.


  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.


  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.


  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.


A wave of infographics has hit the Internet. In this sea of visual information, how can one decide what differentiates a good infographic from a bad one? How can you decide whether or not to make an infographic of your own?

Surprise Your Readers

I believe the best infographics change readers’ perspectives. The infographic below – about the relationship between fitness and intelligence – shifted my perspective when I read it.

Stereotypically, many people in the United States think exercise has little to do with being an “A” student. For people who have demanding jobs, there can even be social pressure not to exercise.

This infographic from Classes and Careers shows that exercise improves mental performance throughout one’s life.

Exercise Makes You Smart - Infographic

Think in Terms of Graphics, Not Words

Here’s an infographic which is too text-heavy. The organization which created it, FitnessHealthZone, has put lengthy explanations in the infographic rather than pulling out key statistics and diagramming them.

Vegetables and Physical Activity - Infographic

Use Design to Make Your Points Clear

Present information in ways that make sense to readers and lead them through your thought process.

Would you start a PowerPoint presentation with your last slide? Probably not. Expect your reader’s eye to travel through the infographic in sequence. Treat the infographic as a presentation that starts at the top of the page. Use design to draw readers’ attention to the sequence of ideas you want them to see.

The following infographic from Health Science should begin with images about the health impacts of sugar. Because it omits them, it is much less persuasive than it would be otherwise. Also, one of the diagrams implies that 44 percent of an individual fruit drink contains juice rather than showing that 44 percent of all fruit drinks contain juice.

Motivate Action by Focusing on Impacts

If you’re going to use an infographic to encourage readers to take political action, it’s especially important that you motivate them to do so. The fruit drink infographic focuses on documenting advertising dollars while omitting most of the health concerns. The advertising dollars aren’t the main problem – the health consequences are.

Make Recommended Actions Easy to Do

Asking a relatively passive online audience to push legislators for regulation of fruit drinks may not be realistic. A link to a petition might be a better option.

The personal actions shown below – drinking water and reading ingredient lists – are likely to appeal to parents and shoppers.

The infographic about vegetables and exercise suggests many easy actions but doesn’t present them in a graphic format.

Use Contrast and Humor

The exercise and intelligence infographic uses contrasts to show the effects of different types of exercise.

The fruit drink infographic is the best example of contrast and humor in this post. Its use of mustaches to represent misbehaving beverages is catchy. The calorie comparison between fruit drinks and chicken legs is also well done.

Soda's Evil Twin - Fruit Drinks

Find Online Design Tools

Are you interested in making your own infographics? Try visiting Visual.ly. Makeuseof has reviewed a few other tools. .Net Magazine has a tutorial which outlines some of the ideas I’ve included above but doesn’t focus on motivation, logical flow and action as much as I did in this post.

There’s power in numbers. That was the consensus in the workshops I visited this Friday at the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission’s Data Day in Boston.

MAPC Data Day logo

The name “Data Day” may not conjure up visions of dramatic reversals of public policy. But the community advocates and data experts at the conference knew otherwise. Here are two stories they told about how data can change how we judge people and situations – both socially and legally.

There are many ways environmental organizations can use data to change conversations. The Knight Foundation funded a data-sharing project which bridged divides between environmental justice groups. Projects like this one can yield local stories for both traditional and social media. What chemicals are in your neighborhood’s backyard?

Although the EPA’s approach to reporting potential flooding may seem dry, reports on climate change indicators in the United States can also provide story ideas for journalists. If climate change produces floods or disrupts the growing season, superimposing those maps on maps of crop production could yield interesting results – especially for crops grown in low-lying areas. In some states, the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” may be very different in a few years from what it is today.

Joel Wool is an organizer at GreenDorchester. GreenDorchester’s recent and/or seed projects include DotBike, a summer farmers’ market, the Dorchester Community Co-op, the Dorchester Winter Farmers’ Market, the TNT Greenspace Master Plan, and urban agriculture.

How did you become involved in working with GreenDorchester?

I did an Americorps position in Dorchester with an organization where my supervisor was the executive director for GreenDorchester. I was doing the community events, web development, [connecting with] local resources… I transitioned from that generic work into environmental advocacy.

How is your experience working as an environmentalist in a multicultural, class-diverse community different from how it might be in another neighborhood?

One way I entered the topic is by thinking of public health, global health, environmental health, [and] global warming… There’s a lot of parallels in the ways people talk about global health and local environment… There’s a lot of issues of media [about] whose voices are heard.

The fact people have categories of global North and South [also applies to Boston]… In downtown Boston, people are healthier. In Dorchester, it takes longer [to get] things like Hubway… and there’s a media justice issue. There’s inequity in resources and in public amenities.

It’s harder to get things that are positive on people’s radar because violence has got everyone worried… You don’t read about community relations. There’s very serious local civic engagement in Dorchester and Mattapan. Neighbors really know each other. You don’t get that in other parts of Boston.

It takes different strategies to reach out to each community… A lot of it’s personal and trust-based.

What are some of the things that you do to be inclusive of people of different cultural backgrounds and income levels?

With extremely limited capacity, trying to get things multilingual, we use community partners to translate. If we have a Creole flyer, [we use] the Haitian listserv. Ethnic radio [is] a big one. Affordability, working to make that possible. [It’s] a huge issue, making sure the food cooperative and farmer’s market are promoted multilingual and multichannel.

When possible, we’ve given away bike lights and bike locks so safety is a free thing. We’ve given away free reusable tote bags and helped promote Renew Boston. All of these are things the city has money for.

Do you think that the environmental movement in Boston could do more to address these concerns? If so, what would you recommend that they do?

I would say that looking to local partners is essential and that does require financial help. City, state and federal groups need to find groups with established connections in the local community. [Local] groups have collapsed due to lack of funding… There’s this constant struggle for operational money. It’s very hard to get the money to pay people.

In the case of outreach to multi-ethnic communities, that’s very essential. [It might mean volunteering] to do the translation for a community meeting. It might mean spray painting… to do outreach.

Physical presence is a big thing. I’ve tried to make it there and introduce myself. To really believe you’re committed to everyone, people have to see you in person.

If you were going to introduce environmentalists from the rest of Boston to Dorchester, what places would you recommend they visit?

There’s a couple green space development projects – Nightingale Community Garden and the Talbot Norfolk Triangle. The Ashmont T station and the square around it [have] been redone. There’s public art, there’s a farmer’s market there in summer, and there’s a historical clock.

We did a multimedia historical tour with smartphones and [numbers you could call] at one site [in 2010 and 2011]. It’s called My Dot Tour. You could also leave your comments about what you were doing there. Last summer it was less theatrical but very multimedia.

Projects like that are great in areas that have a lot of history but people don’t really know. Dorchester is the largest, oldest neighborhood in Boston. Part of the economic development is the history.

In a stopgap solution to an international health crisis, a program called ColaLife is about to use Coca-Cola’s distribution system to bring digestive medicine to places in sub-Saharan Africa where one can buy Coca-Cola but not basic medicines. “One in five children were dying of dehydration in places where you could always have a Coke and a smile,” said Alison Craiglow Hockenberry in a news story for Changemakers.com.

The anti-diarrhea kits will fit into spaces between the bottles in the classic-style red Coca-Cola boxes that are shipped around the world. Zambia is the first country to begin the program, which will start in January.

Coca-Cola advertising (country unknown) (Source: stock.xchng)

Over three years of public-private partnership building took place before these kits were ready to send out to Zambia. The process has been highly collaborative. Package designers changed their plans after hearing feedback from women who wanted reusable and not biodegradable bottles. The program developers also did local market research while developing the name of the package.

To forestall criticism of packaging medicine together with sugary drinks, Hockenberry commented that buying Coca-Cola is not required to receive the medicine. At this stage, the soft drink’s popularity could provide a logical route for sending medication overseas.

Obviously, this program does not change the larger health issues that plague sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world, but it is an interesting example of social innovation and resourceful thinking.

There is a striking lack of mainstream news coverage of the health hazards posed by beauty products, such as hair relaxers and skin lighteners, that are commonly used by black women. African-American women spend more on beauty products than white women do, but far too little research has looked at how women use these products.

So when the New York City-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice set out to survey African, African-American, and Latina women this year to find out how they use beauty products and what they know about them, it was an important step toward increasing awareness of a long-standing women’s health issue.

“We noticed that groups conducting surveys around this have focused on middle-class white women,” Ogonnaya Dotson-Newman, campaign director for WE ACT in Harlem, told The Uptowner. “But there is a whole area of hair products that you wouldn’t know about unless you live in certain urban areas.”

Rochelle Ritchie

Straight hair has often — and unfairly — been an occupational requirement for black women. TV journalism is one of the most problematic fields (see the Maynard Institute’s historical view of “good hair” on the TV news). Reporter Rochelle Ritchie’s 2010 story (right) about going natural with her hair — and doing so publicly — made headlines and is included in the Body Image chapter in the new “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”

Keonte Coleman, an assistant journalism professor at Bennett College, has more on Ritchie’s backstory and decision to cut her hair on TV, and the standards to which black women in professional media positions are often held.

“Maybe there aren’t any guidelines preventing natural hairstyles, but there is a culture in place that fosters the need for black women to look like their white counterparts,” writes Coleman.

The ingredients of hair relaxers, which many black women use to straighten their curls, are anything but relaxing. Almost all of the samples of currently available hair relaxers tested by Environmental Working Group (EWG) were ranked highly toxic, although limited information was available. Allergic reactions, hormone disruption, immune system toxicity and organ toxicity were four of the main risks.

In contrast, hair straighteners, which are more commonly used by white women, have generally been considered to be relatively safer. EWG’s website shows most of these products are medium-risk with the highest concerns being allergic reactions, immune toxicity and hormone disruption. These risks are similar to those of the hair polishers which are used by women of color.

That was the thinking, at least, until 2010, when concern about formaldehyde in Brazilian keratin hair straighteners made headlines after salon workers in Oregon and internationally complained of breathing problems and eye irritation. Formaldehyde is an industrial chemical that can cause a host of health problems, including an increased risk of cancer.

In response, the FDA this year sent a warning letter to the makers of the hair straightening product Brazilian Blowout, which was found to contain formaldehyde even though it was labeled “formaldehyde free.” (The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics provides a timeline and status update since complaints were first lodged.)

It’s interesting that the formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowout drew criticism from the FDA, while the many ingredients in hair relaxers African-American women use have remained under the radar. These relaxers, as well as costly hair extensions, have been on the market for a long time.

Yumna Mohamed, reporting for The Uptowner, summarized some of the research on black women’s hair products:

While hair dyes, bleaches and relaxers have already been linked to skin problems (including rashes, burns, itching and hair loss), a number of national studies are being conducted to determine whether women of color face higher risks of breast and lung cancer from beauty product exposure.

Dr. Mary Beth Terry, a Columbia University epidemiologist, published a study in May in the Journal of Immigration and Minority Health showing that African-American and African-Caribbean women were more likely to be exposed to hormonally active chemicals in hair products than white women, and used them more often.

“These products are often used daily and over the course of many years,” Terry says. “A number of these commonly used products contain endocrine disruptors and placenta, and exposure to these could cause women to be more susceptible to hormone-sensitive diseases such as aggressive breast cancer.”

WE ACT expects to release its survey findings in January. It will use the information to lobby the cosmetics industry and advise women about the dangers in hair products.

Originally published by Our Bodies, Our Blog and republished by WBUR.

An enlightening article in the Wall Street Journal informed me and other readers that belief in climate change is a religion.

This was news to me. Most religious beliefs – including the prophecy that the world will end in 2012 – are not tested by crowds of scientists working overtime.

But there is a grain of truth in the article. Movies such as The Day After Tomorrow do use apocalyptic images to describe climate change. In the real world, erratically changing corporate profits, peanut butter shortages, an end to Kentucky bourbon supplies, and even mass migrations are not apocalypses. Even a resource war over water or energy does not qualify as an apocalypse – although civilians and veterans might wish they still had bourbon after that.

Some of the more extreme peak oil preparation websites show how panic can grip people in the face of change. Faced by large-scale environmental revolt – unpredictable weather, changeable agriculture, species migration, and economic and global instability – environmentalists may be tempted to pick an apocalypse narrative as the best fit.

Choosing to call climate change an apocalypse is a serious tactical mistake because apocalypses are completely outside our control. It would be better to compare climate change to the Great Depression or World War II. We should mobilize, adapt, do public works projects, strengthen the social safety net, and set up systems of mutual aid.

And no, predicting poverty and war is not a religious or apocalyptic statement. Climate change isn’t equivalent to a near-earth supernova. However, we need to work hard to avert unnecessary suffering.

"We Can Do It!"
"We Can Do It!" Source: J. Howard Miller (Wikipedia)

Urban visionary Majora Carter described her ability to reimagine cities and neighborhoods at the Boston Museum of Science on Nov. 2. She told the story of her work to “green the ghetto” by connecting young people with environmental jobs, her efforts to transform an abandoned dump and a jail into community-friendly spaces, and her plans to use civic spirit to spruce up the image of local food.

When some people visit a city, they fall in love with a scenic vista. Majora Carter fell in love with the view of brilliant sunlight on the Bronx River behind a garbage dump. After cleaning up the waterfront, she got married in the park she helped create. The park won the Rudy Bruner Award in 2009. Her work has received many awards and has also been the subject of a TED talk.

Hunt's Point Riverside Park before the redesign
Hunt's Point Riverside Park before the redesign (Source: Majora Carter Group)
Hunt's Point Riverside Park after the redesign
Hunt's Point Riverside Park after the redesign (Source: Sessions College)

Carter described the community where she grew up, the South Bronx, as “a war zone.” She grew up surrounded by poverty, white flight and arson; her father worked as a janitor at a local jail. Landlords torched their own properties instead of renting to low-income people of color.

Carter decided to leave the neighborhood and chose higher education as the best route. But her quest for education led her to move back to the South Bronx to save money during graduate school.

“The hopeful ones” leave low-income neighborhoods when it’s no longer legal for landlords to segregate by race, Carter said. The departure of entrepreneurial youth and lack of investment leave two types of businesses in poor communities – marginal businesses that are unwanted in other neighborhoods and exploitative companies such as payday loan businesses.

When she rediscovered the South Bronx, Carter was impatient to change her neighborhood. She began by cleaning up the riverfront. “Public space is the great democratizer,” Carter said. She is now making plans to convert the jail where her father worked into a business development center and apartment building. She described standing outside the former jail with posters of her ideas to get feedback from people in the community.

“Poor kids who do poorly in school go to jail in this country,” said Carter. She links pollution – specifically, fossil fuel pollution – to the learning disabilities which put children on the path toward a life of crime.

One solution to deepening poverty and frequent incarceration is to put people to work. Green jobs programs can increase workers’ income, integrate them into the community, inspire them to seek higher education, and keep them out of the prison system. Carter built the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST), which taught green jobs candidates workplace skills and routed them into urban environmental careers. She said 85 percent of the graduates are still employed and 10 percent have gone to college. She believes this approach should be the norm, not an exception, in low-income communities. She showed a slide of her neighborhood covered with green rooftops; this is her goal.

“No one has to move out of their neighborhood to live in a better one,” said Carter. But to transform cities, neighborhoods need to organize around a vision of a better community. When Carter became involved in the environmental justice movement, she said, “we were good at fighting against stuff, but we weren’t really good at figuring out what we wanted to fight for.”

One answer: fight for your city. Civic pride is the motif of a new national brand of locally grown food which Carter is developing collaboratively. The brand has a simple label: Root for [your city]. Each participating city will have its own Root brand.

Carter’s work encourages civic pride in low-income communities. There are many places like the South Bronx in the United States – neighborhoods that need vision, energy and optimism. “Good uses will drive out the bad ones,” Carter said. “It is going to raise the bar for what is beautiful and what is acceptable and what is needed in our communities.”

Now that OPOWER is using social science to help us encourage our Facebook friends to save energy, I’ve become curious about the role of social circles in environmentalism. Do environmental values diffuse socially into the larger community? And, if they do, how can one accelerate that process?

Eco-friendly choices aren’t the only kind of behavior that may be contagious. Weight loss studies imply that people both adjust their size to match their friends and cluster socially based on their weight. The book The Social Animal says people not only mirror the facial expressions of their families, but subtly seek out partners and friends who mirror their own appearances and values. This mirroring and filtering process is both subtle and continuous.

Advertising encourages us to use product choices to express ourselves – thereby showing our values, interests and character to potential coworkers, friends and partners. Even being “real” – for example, going without makeup – can be a statement. So can environmental decisions.

Including social circles in one’s perspective can lead to intriguing questions about environmentalism. How do environmentalists find each other? If environmentalists cluster too closely, will our innovations diffuse into the rest of society? On the other hand, if we spread out into a dispersed community, will we still be able to change the culture around us? If we want our social norms to catch on, what should we do? Should we try to reach a critical mass? Should we look for tipping points?

I’m very skeptical about the effectiveness of social marketing messages related to death and destruction. Although the end of the world may come soon if we don’t quit smoking, start exercising, and end environmental justice violations, I’m not sure audiences will listen to us if we tell them so.

The tradition of being a lone voice in the wilderness is very well-established in the environmental movement. I wrote a paper about John Muir’s communication style for a science media course during grad school. However, being a lone voice doesn’t work well in marketing or social media. It’s a new era; we need a new style.

On Twitter, I see many environmental headlines proclaiming death and destruction. Reframing health crisis messaging is difficult, but I believe it has to be done. Here are three reasons to rewrite those headlines:

  1. Compassion fatigue and news burnout may discourage audiences. Although bad news attracts page views, I’ve seen little to no evidence that it’s an effective tool for promoting socially positive actions. Fear-based messages may be practical for some types of outreach, but they aren’t particularly effective for encouraging long-term behavior change. For example, resistance to cigarette smoking now appears to be a matter of peer acceptance – not fear of cancer.
  2. Female and/or minority audiences may already believe their actions will not make a difference. Social marketers should build audiences’ confidence and support them in taking action.
  3. Health crisis messaging may discourage audiences that haven’t experienced the problem directly. Cancer patients are often assertive advocates, but their zeal doesn’t necessarily translate into a larger mass movement.

Social marketers who want to address health issues need a new toolbox. We need language that’s persuasive, confident and encouraging. Think “Oprah,” not “Metallica.”