Applying 'Diversity in Science Writing' to Native Journalists

Terri Hansen

This column was originally posted on MinorityPostDoc.org.

Coastal tribes began documenting thousands of dead fish, crabs and other alarming changes on the beaches of Washington State’s rugged coastline in 2006.

“It’s scary,” the late Billy Frank Jr. said at the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission in 2010. “The State of Washington hasn’t been managing it. The federal government hasn’t been managing it. We’ve got to bring the science people in to tell them what we’re talking about.”

Science is increasingly important in Indian country as tribal communities face escalating environmental stresses and climatic changes. The need for Native journalists to report related, rapidly evolving science and technology has never been greater, and, although not specific to Native Americans was one of many issues addressed by the “Supporting Diversity in Science Writing” panel at the Science Writers 2014 conference (SciWri14).

Diversity in the newsroom ensures that all voices are being heard, all communities are being covered, Tracie Powell, chair of the National Association of Black Journalists digital task force, and founder of All Digitocracy told the attentive, overflowing audience.

It resonated. A lack of Native journalists in the newsroom means that 566 tribal nations in 32 states get little news coverage. As Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock tribal member and former editorial page editor at the now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer once told the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “There are complex legal issues [to access in Indian country], but there are also barriers of benign neglect” (RCFP 2006).

SciWri14 panelist Philip Yam, managing editor online for Scientific American, and president of the Asian American Journalists Association NY chapter pointed out, “Many minority journalists don’t realize that what they do can be science journalism. We must reach them.” Yes! Native journalists are committing science journalism as they report environmental degradation, mining, climate disruptions, toxic substances, health and other issues that regularly affect tribal nations.

Powell noted there was a lot of effort to bring diversity into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but not as much into journalism. That holds true in Indian country where ample funding from the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program support STEM education (Rose 2014). NOAA grants promote tribally-affiliated climate and STEM education, while NASA partners with tribal college STEM projects.

Good! It’s needed. But so too are Native journalists to report what those projects hold for their communities. The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) annual silent auction is the largest funder of their scholarship program, outside of private donations and foundation funding, NAJA’s communications and membership manager Rebecca Landsberry said in an email.

The knowledge, experience, and pearls of wisdom gleaned from each SciWri14 panelist applied in one way or another to all minority journalists. But, as I heard said, “One size doesn’t fit all,” and I was curious why Native Americans and Latinos weren’t represented as panelists.

Danielle Lee, co-founder of the National Science & Technology News Service, a Scientific American blogger, and panel co-organizer, said part of the springboard for the panel was an essay that ran in Medium last year, Alone in a Room Full of Science Writers, by panel moderator Apoorva Mandavilli, editorial director of SFARI.org and an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s science writing program.

One of the questions Mandavilli asked: What can we do to champion minorities in science journalism?

Accordingly, Lee, Mandavilli, and Nidhi Subbaraman, staff writer for The Boston Globe’s BetaBoston, co-organized this diversity panel, the first of its kind for the conference jointly planned by the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. (The Science Writers 2013 conference did have a Women’s Session addressing gender diversity.)

“I’m sure the lack of knowledge about Native and Latino science reporters means I couldn’t recommend many individuals to the panel,” Lee said. But not for lack of effort, I learned, tracing Lee’s outreach on Muckrack archives to science writers for panel ideas as beginning last year. (Muckrack also tracked her ardent outreach in encouraging journalists of color to apply for the NASW Diversity Travel Fellowship, of which I was a fortunate recipient.)

Lee had Osage tribal member Cynthia-Lou Coleman, a professor and researcher at Portland State University, in mind. Coleman studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians, and blogs at Native Science. However, her expertise was needed at the annual SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) conference that took place in Los Angeles conflicting with the SciWri14 event.

For the coming years, Lee hopes to build a longer list of diverse science writers that includes several Latino and Native American science, health, and environmental reporters to participate at the Science Writing conference and to discuss science communication careers at respective diversity journalism meetings like NAJA, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and UNITY.

Science Writers 2014 proved a wonderful opportunity to meet like-minded colleagues, network, and learn. It’s my hope that Native journalists will have further opportunities to discover what I have – that science can be approachable, exciting, and yes, fun!

References & Related Literature

Tips for reporters covering American Indian issues, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Fall 2006

J. Lovell (2014) Diversity in Science Journalism. Did Someone Say Science?, October 29

A. Mandavilli (2013) Alone in a Room Full of Science Writers. Medium, November 8

L. Marshall (2014) Supporting Diversity in Science Writing, National Association of Science Writers, October 20

T. Powell (2014) Diversifying Science Journalism. All Digitocracy, October 19

C. Rose (2014) STEM Programs Take Tribal Colleges Into the Future, Indian Country Today Media Network, September 9

Terri Hansen (Native American, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska) is a journalist covering the science and environment beat for the national Indian Country Today Media Network, as well as environmental magazines. Ms. Hansen’s focus is the environment, environmental health, and earth and climate sciences as pertains to Native and Indigenous communities. (See clips at Muckrack.) She hails from Portland, Oregon, and has lived in a number of natural areas of the Pacific Northwest. She earned her undergraduate degree in communications from Portland State University. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Press Foundation, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and the Earth Journalism Network. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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Valerie Goodness's picture
Barriers of benign neglect”? Maybe 500 years of silencing the original environmental scientists of this continent has a little something to do with why Native science writers are neglected? Native science writers' opinions fly in the face of for profit science and that rubs people the wrong way. There is a new toxic world of science writers now. Those on the payroll of PR Think Tanks that attack any Native scientist who speaks out against the GMO threat to Indigenous traditional food species like corn, salmon and many more; or against timber clear-cutting, or overfishing, or damming or selling Arizona's Apache Leap to an Australian mining company. As a Native science writer I have had my NSF funding threatened, my life threatened and even my children harassed. The second it is mentioned that a Native is a scientist the daggers are drawn and words like "pseudo scientist" or Shepard Krech's "ecological Indian that killed off the mega flora and mega fauna" is thrown in our faces. These "all Natives are ignorant anti-science liberals" rhetoric by the toxic hater privileged science writers tend to argue ad hominem obfuscations that have nothing to do with science, like the ice bridge theory so are you really a Native scientists or ask what our blood quantum is in order to meet some privileged qualifying litmus test before our science can be trusted. My favorite is "your position is political, not scientific" when the argument of science and polluting water, or damming rivers, or killing Lamprey, or re-wilding only species that can be commoditized, not culturally significant species to Tribes. No other ethnicity is racially profiled in science as Native American scientists are. Non-Native scientists have found comfort is speaking for us. They say stuff like "Indians would light fires and walk away, they never used fire to improve their lands, they weren't capable of making logical thoughts like that". Another recent favorite was when I was having a conversation about the Inuit being first to try to bring climate change to the attention of scientists decades earlier than western scientists even thought about climate change. And this old scientist told me, "well the Inuits don't know or care about climate change" they just want "us" (meaning white male scientists) to fix the sea rising. Here's one for you that a "science writer" argued with me, as a Native scientist she was insistent that I agree that BT toxin corn artificially modified was done exactly the way Indians modified corn through selective breeding. And when I said this was scientifically untrue, she lit into me calling me a science denier ignorant "F-word"... I hear it all the time, "Indians don't care about that" from my Caucasian science colleagues in their way of silencing me, a Native scientist. The same reason why universities don't hire Native scholars is the same reason why science journals don't hire Native scientists. To silence our version of history, science and our voices. To disappear us.
Valerie Goodness