Many of the most pressing issues facing the United States are connected to science and technology. The quest for energy independence, environmental change, and funding for stem cell research are obvious examples, but many other critical issues such as the world's food supply, nuclear proliferation, and so on, have important scientific components. Americans look to the media--print, broadcast, and online--to learn about these issues. Yet, even as the importance of science and technology to people's lives has increased, newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media have been laying off science journalists at an alarming rate.
Almost all science writers began their careers either as journalists or as scientists--and members of both of these professions are predominantly white.
But there's more to be concerned about than the apparently shrinking size of the science-writing work force. Another problem, one that's been around as long as science writing itself, is science journalism's lack of cultural and ethnic diversity. No reliable statistics exist, but anyone who spends much time around science writers--by attending the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), perhaps--will tell you that the work force is predominantly white.
Does it matter? In science-policy circles, it's widely accepted that the lack of diversity in the science work force is a reason for concern. And many of the same arguments apply to the lack of diversity among science writers. "There are issues today in science and health that disproportionately affect minority populations," says Rob Irion, director of the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Any good science journalist, he says, should be able to tell these stories. But, he says, just as research experience can enhance the work of his program's graduates, growing up in a minority community can enhance reporting about and for that community. "It's a perspective that resonates with the readers who need that information," he says.
In the opinion of Daniel Wildcat, Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation, scientists of color have the opportunity to make important contributions to science writing. Wildcat, chair of the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group and director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, is himself a writer on scientific issues. His latest work, Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge (Fulcrum Publishing), will be published in August.
Wildcat says that due to their oral traditions, Native American scientists, in particular, possess unique communication skills that are likely to be useful in a journalism career, especially in this new world of podcasts and blogs. "We come from peoples with a long tradition of storytelling," Wildcat says, something that effective communication with lay audiences requires.
In addition, Wildcat says, scientists and writers with nontraditional backgrounds bring with them life experiences that allow them to think differently than most scientists and other nonindigenous people. "There is sort of an inherent recognition within many indigenous worldviews that rejects the kinds of boxes in which scientists want to place knowledge," Wildcat says. Whereas the Western world is just now waking up to the consequences of its actions on the environment and global public health, he says, this is not news to indigenous peoples: "We see connections [that] sometimes others do not."
Democracy itself depends on the inclusion of the diversity of American voices in journalism--including journalism about science--says Kevin Olivas, director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Parity Project in Washington, D.C., which helps member news organizations improve their coverage of and interaction with the minority communities they serve. Many of this country's minority communities are watching their high-school dropout rates rise, which will only increase their reliance on popular science news. Being "a well-informed citizen is going to require knowledge of science and technology," he says. “Even knowing what car to buy is going to require knowledge of the latest in technological innovation.”
Olivas's Parity Project addresses this problem by helping its 25 member media organizations locate reporters of color and by setting up community boards whose members advise those organizations on what kinds of stories need to be told. "Science and technology affect everyone," Olivas says.
The lack of diversity
NASW does not collect statistics on the ethnic backgrounds of its members, but one longtime NASW member tells Science Careers, in an e-mail, "We have extremely few minority members, so few that I can probably name a good proportion of them just off the top of my head."
Almost all science writers begin their careers either as journalists or as scientists--and members of both of these professions are predominantly white. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, minorities make up nearly 33% of the U.S. population, but--according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors--only 13.5% of newsroom employees at daily newspapers belong to minority groups. The situation in science is worse; the 2008 Science and Engineering Indicators reports that in 2005--the latest year covered--just 5% of doctorates in science and engineering went to members of underrepresented minority groups.
Anecdotally, Irion has observed that the graduates of science writing programs reflect the state of diversity in science. "We draw our entire student population from students coming out of science programs," he says. Although a fair number of Asian Americans have completed the program, few of its students have been from underrepresented groups, he says. The current class is the first to include a Native American scientist since the program began in 1981. One African American and less than a handful of Latino students (including this writer) have passed through its doors.
A mutating profession
The media industry is changing in ways that make it difficult to predict the future of science writing, says Mariette DiChristina, president of NASW and executive editor of Scientific American. DiChristina notes that in recent months, the media industry has experienced cataclysmic downsizing. CNN's entire science and technology team was fired in December, a move protested by four science writers' groups, including NASW, in a joint statement.
"While the news industry continues to implode, our reliance on news is increasing," DiChristina says. People are hoping to find the future of journalism on the Internet, but Internet sites that compile news--including science news--draw on those shrinking traditional news outlets, DiChristina observes. "I really hope that if people realize that they need and depend on this information that we will find a way to compensate the people who report it," she says.
Yet, for now at least, graduates of science-writing programs seem to be finding jobs. Irion says his UCSC grads are being hired. And DiChristina, who teaches part-time in New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, says that the same is true for her students. And many scientists--including some Science Careers writers--continue to find work as science writers without formal training in the field. "Good writers are always busy," DiChristina says.
Precisely how writers will stay busy in the years to come is anyone's guess, Irion says. "We are probably moving in the direction of training the next generation of science writers, not science journalists," he says. Without newspaper staff jobs to aim for, some UCSC graduates are finding publishing niches on the Internet. In the future, some may find work at research institutions, disease-focused foundations, and environmental nonprofits, Irion says. Meanwhile, he adds, "we need to continue training young writers to look into scientific issues and hope that within 10 years, the online environment will mature enough so that viable and economically rewarding reporting can be done."
Writers at play
Where does this leave scientists of color who are considering science writing as a career? Those who love to write and who love science--but perhaps not the narrow focus and daily grind of research--are left with a tough decision. That's because, on the one hand, science writing can be rewarding and fun. But on the other, there's no denying that its future is unpredictable.
Kenneth Chang writes for The New York Times. As an Asian American, he is a member of one of the better-represented minority groups in science writing. A graduate of Irion's UCSC program, Chang worked at local newspapers during high school and college, so "I already knew I was a good writer," he says. "Then I turned out to be a mediocre physicist," so he chose a writing career. Chang, who has written about everything from Mars rover missions to the evolution of sonar in bats, encourages scientists who enjoy writing to consider science writing as a career. "I have much more fun writing about science than I did doing it," he says.
Angela Posada-Swafford, a freelance science writer, agrees that science writing is fun. She has traveled to the South Pole as part of a U.S. National Science Foundation program for journalists and been a passenger on NASA’s infamous vomit comet. She maintains a Web site, publishes two blogs, and writes mostly in Spanish for publications in Spain, Colombia--her native country--and other Latin American countries. Her series of children’s books, Aventureros de la Ciencia (Adventurers of Science), has been adopted by the Costa Rican government as a basis for teaching science in public schools.
A former newspaper reporter, Posada-Swafford stumbled on science writing and never looked back. "I see myself as having a role in connecting science and society. I not only give interesting information that puts science into context, but I can educate people about something as basic as the workings of the DNA molecule," she says. "I'm happy to know that I can make a modest living doing this. It's beautiful."
For More Information
For scientists who want to give science writing a try, check out the 10-week summer AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program.
AAAS also offers an internship at Science for minority science writers, although the award is intended for people with a journalism background, not scientists.
The six most competitive programs that train people with a science background to become writers are (in alphabetical order):
Center for Science and Medical Journalism
Earth and Environmental Science Journalism
-Johns Hopkins University's
Masters of Arts in Science Writing
-Massachusetts Institute of Technology's
Graduate Program in Science Writing
-New York University's
Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program
-University of California, Santa Cruzs
Science Communication Program
In addition, the following 2-year master’s degree programs offer their journalism students the option to focus on medical, basic science, or environmental reporting:
-University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism’s
Program in Science and Environmental Reporting
-University of Missouri’s School of Journalism:
Master of Arts Model in Environmental Reporting
-University of Wisconsin’s
School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s track in Science, Health, and Technology Reporting
For a complete list of science writing programs in the United States, see the Directory of Science Communication Courses and Programs. The site is a project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and lists 50 programs across the country.
The National Association of Science Writers has compiled a list of local, national, and international science writing, professional journalism, and general writing organization.
Images, top to bottom: Authorship, r.r. jones, New York Times, courtesy Angela Posada-Swafford
Camille Mojica Rey writes from Campbell, California.