Representation matters: Better writing through diversity (SciWrite 2020)

The pandemic has a few upsides: students from Science Writing (ENG 520) got to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers from their office chairs. Here is the last of a series of posts with their perspectives.

Representation matters: Better writing through diversity

A Reflection from the ScienceWriters2020 Conference

by Lauren Pharr

How many diverse voices have you included in your story?

A new initiative that is emerging from the science writing community is working on breaking barriers when it comes to the stories that we write. This means including diverse perspectives.

Attending the virtual ScienceWriters2020 Conference this year, the topic of diversity in science writing was a very common and necessary one, setting the scene in multiple sessions and talks. The “Representation matters: better writing through diversity” session allowed an open space for multiple science writers and journalists to come together and talk about ways in which we can better include and expand genders and minorities through the stories that we tell.

Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, begins the session with a self-reflection and a pretty surprising statistic. In 2013, Adrienne published an article on Medium describing her efforts to track gender diversity in her stories the previous year:

“I knew that the statistics were bad, and thinking purely about gender that women were overrepresented or oversexualized,” says LaFrance. “How visible were women in my work”?

Using a computer generated analysis which breaks subjects down by gender and name, LaFrance found her answer.

“Across 136 articles I have mentioned 2,075 people; only 25% were women.”

Put into perspective, that’s 1,566 men and 509 women.

LaFrance says we must do better and “spend more time cultivating more diverse sources.”

Indeed, it is important for writers and editors to reflect multiple kinds of diversity in their writing, including genders, cultures, languages, and experiences. Here are some useful takeaways discussed in the session which can certainly help you as a writer do just that!

  1. Spend more time cultivating more diverse sources.

Don’t pick the first top name scientist or figure that you come to. Really dive deep into the story and as you are working to tell it, see how other voices who most likely might be overlooked can shape your story and help to tell it the best.

  1. Think in terms of Inclusivity and find different angles.

A journalist was given an assignment to write about Covid-19 and climate change and found a researcher to interview who did a lot of work for social equity issues. During the interview, the journalist saw that they could not talk about Covid-19 and climate change without discussing social disparities and communities of color.

  1. Always be compassionate towards your source.

Assure your source that this is not your story tell, but theirs. Be sure to clarify to your source that they will have a voice in story and the readers will know exactly who it is about. It is also a good idea to ask your source how they would like to be identified in the story. You always want to reflect that you are a trustworthy writer and that you care about your source’s feelings and rights.

  1. Go that extra mile to find a respected Minority.

Being that the journalism field is working to become more diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity, there may be some instances where some minorities will still feel uncomfortable with an ally reporting on sensitive issues. As a journalist or writer, think about finding a collaborative ambassador to the community who might can be a part for the story and speak on the communities’ behalf. In today’s times, there are still some instances where we have to depend on allies to tell our stories.

  1. Tracking and Self-Accountability.

Seeing that more diverse voices need to be included in our writing, make it a goal as a writer to hold yourself accountable and track the sources that you interview. It may be helpful to keep a spreadsheet.

At the end of your interview, leave off with the question: “Is there anything you wish I asked you or I might have not known to ask you.”

This is where all the good stuff will come out.

So I ask again: How many diverse voices have you included in your story?