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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This roundup of posts from this blog shows my quirky, dry and occasionally grim sense of humor.

My sense of humor is one of the reasons I began this blog. I believe there should be a place in the world for science jokes. And since I rarely make science jokes at work – I stick to business during working hours – I make them on weekends.

Humor can be professionally risky. But most of the feedback I have received on these posts has been positive.

Here are my favorite posts from the humor section of this blog:

A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the CDC zombie apocalypse blog post.)

How to Bring Your Newsletter Back from the Dead – This Halloween post is based on my experiences reading and reviving newsletters.

The Powerpuff Approach to Energy Efficiency – This post is about an energy education program featuring heroes who look like a multicultural, coed version of the Powerpuff Girls. These heroes fight to save power, of course.

Zilowatt’s energy efficiency superheroes (Source: Zilowatt website)

What Science Communication and Cooking Have in Common – Telling science stories can be like writing down recipes. Read this post to see why.

Why a Zombie Apocalypse Story Helped the CDC – Does it surprise you that people would rather learn how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse than get ready for a hurricane?

How to Add Zest to Your Website – You, too, can spice up your website and add a slice of lemon.

The Real Science News Cycle – In this post, I reinterpret a cartoon from Ph.D. Comics.


Don’t forget that the sun will turn into a black hole, sucking the Earth and the Moon into an invisible abyss, unless you follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

claimtoken-50a01a203f085What makes energy journalism worth reading? Critical thinking, synthesis of information and perspectives, and coverage of the real-world impacts of programs can differentiate quality energy writing from other energy news.

I curate and write energy news for the Clean Energy Finance Center. So I’ve sorted through thousands of RSS posts and many Google alerts, looking for content that contains quality analysis and newsworthy ideas.

After reading these articles, I began asking questions about how energy journalism can be improved. A recent article from Grist explores this question from an industry-wide perspective. In this post, I’m offering a counterpoint to the Grist article by taking a “nuts and bolts” approach and brainstorming about how writers can improve their work.

A blog post from SmartPlanet has critiqued the absence of critical thinking and data analysis in some energy journalism. In January, I wrote a follow-up post with suggestions about how writers can ask questions about their data and get better results.

Thinking about the sources and reliability of data is just the beginning of retooling energy journalism, though. To make energy writing jump off the screen and catch readers’ attention, writers should try synthesizing information in original ways and reaching outside the field for ideas from other sources.

The Energy Efficiency Markets Blog* stands out as a very strong example of information synthesis. The authors of this blog draw ideas from multiple sources rather than writing single-sourced articles. They also develop interesting and original angles for stories.

Synthesizing ideas from multiple sources is one way to add depth to news stories and to combine ideas from interviewees who may disagree with one another. This can make energy journalism both more useful and more engaging than it would be otherwise.

Drawing on ideas from multiple stakeholders can also introduce practical perspectives. Practical perspectives can strengthen news articles, connect ideas to everyday life, and add human interest. I would encourage energy writers to reach beyond their usual lists of sources. For example, an article on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act might benefit from quotes from workforce development professionals, people whose homes have been weatherized, and green jobs training program graduates.

Weatherization photo
Including quotes and photos of weatherization can be one way to tell the story of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Source: Photobucket)
Energy efficiency and renewable energy decisions are not just theoretical mathematical exercises. Including the everyday stories of people who participate in these programs and/or benefit from them can add human interest to these stories and help a broader audience relate to them.

If you take the idea of synthesis to its logical conclusion, you’ll arrive at interdisciplinarity. One reason I combine communications ideas with writing about technical subjects is that I’m convinced these two fields can benefit from collaboration. Communicators can benefit from learning more about math and science, including how to cover it accurately. Engineering and science professionals can also benefit from learning communications skills.

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, in their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, have recommended training science graduates in media skills and paying them to do outreach.

Some energy organizations encourage researchers to write articles already. Many of the best articles I see on energy efficiency and renewable energy are produced by researchers, not media professionals. If research organizations start investing more in outreach than they do today – a step which I believe is necessary in the face of climate change and widespread science illiteracy – some of these researchers may end up as communicators.

Some of the skills that improve research – synthesis, critical thinking and awareness of practical outcomes – are the same skills which can strengthen energy journalism. So I’d encourage energy writers to think like researchers. I’d also encourage energy researchers to learn media skills and write news articles.

* Disclaimer: I collaborate with one of the authors of the Energy Efficiency Markets Blog.


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