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 teaching people about science online, what tools should you have in your toolbox?

Science communication, at its best, cuts past popular intimidation about science and math to reach any audience. This video shows why it’s important to make science communication exciting.

What is Science Communication? from Morag Hickman on Vimeo.

Here’s a list of concepts to add to the tools you use when communicating science online.

1. Learning Styles

Although you may be a visual thinker and learn well by using mind maps or flow charts, your audiences may prefer listening or participating in active demonstrations. When I was working in a factory in 2001, I found that my coworkers on the shop floor preferred handling three-dimensional prototypes to reading files and printouts.

Some of your audiences may prefer concrete examples to abstract information or prefer synthesizing ideas to breaking them down. Science communication in classrooms usually favors abstract concepts, visual and auditory learning, and breaking down ideas. This leaves many students – especially ones who prefer concrete examples and active learning – out in the cold. This is one reason that science developed its “chilly” reputation.

2. Storytelling

Why does storytelling matter in science communication? For many reasons. If you’re trying to craft a message or idea that audiences will remember, a story line can act as a hook to increase their interest and help them remember the information.

People who provide on-the-job training are aware of the power of storytelling and use it frequently. I’ve seen one example in which a trainer used storytelling to teach an audience how to remember people’s names.

Storytelling is especially important if you want to encourage an audience to take a socially positive action. Smartmeme is one organization which uses storytelling about social issues to capture the attention of audiences.

Poynter’s News University offers storytelling courses for journalists. I recommend their video and audio storytelling classes highly.

3. Analogies

Comparing an unfamiliar science concept to a known one – especially an everyday experience – is a great tool for science communicators. You can use analogies to show differences in scale – for example, comparing the size of the sun to the size of other planets. Analogies can become very important if you’re describing things that are difficult to see or imagine, like nanoparticles.

You can also use analogies to compare and contrast human experiences with those of other species – for example, to describe the importance of a dog’s sense of smell. While it’s tempting to compare humans to animals, sometimes the similarities can lead to people personifying animals and thinking that we are more similar to them than we are.

John Maeda spoke at the MIT Media Lab this week about how art can energize science, technology, engineering and math. The event posting says “artists and designers make information more understandable, products more desirable, and new invention possible.”

Even though I missed the talk, the event inspired me to write about visual communication and science. Visual communication’s effectiveness isn’t just smoke and mirrors. Andrew Revkin wrote a post for the New York Times Dot Earth blog on the science of engaging the whole brain. The gist of the message: multimedia and visual communication help us grasp concepts and information that we might not understand otherwise. Revkin challenges data visualization experts “to find ways to envision, literally, that vague but vital concept called public health.”

Patterns of paper pollution
Paper pollution image by J. Henry Fair

Here are some examples of eye-catching visual communication:

Visual Science depicts patterns of paper pollution

Information Is Beautiful asks why the Wall Street protesters are angry

Breathing Earth shows global warming, birth and death rates

John Kyrk animates cell biology

Keep an eye on the Information Is Beautiful contest, where designers are developing ways to show the world’s non-renewable resources in multimedia format.