2014 AAAS Mass Media Fellows Expand Reach to Spanish-Language Newsrooms

The first two AAAS Mass Media Fellows to work at Spanish-language news outlets found science coverage sorely needed.

Read this story in Spanish.

When 2014 AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellow Ana Aceves gave her editor a list of about eight story ideas on basic science concepts to put on Univision's website, the editor was ready to dismiss one right away. "She said, 'Why is the sky blue? Everyone knows the sky is blue because the ocean is blue,'" Aceves recounted later.

Aceves, an undergraduate majoring in astronomy and media studies at the University of California, Berkeley, explained to her editor that it's really blue because of the way molecules in the atmosphere scatter blue light more than other colors of light. It ended up being one of the science stories Aceves wrote and produced for Univision during her 10-week fellowship. Univision airs content in major U.S. cities and throughout Latin America and has 400 producers and reporters in its Miami-based newsroom. However, while some of its producers cover health, Aceves said she was the only one there covering science.

Top: Ana Aceves. Bottom: Nobel laureate Mario Molina discussed climate change, including AAAS' "What We Know" project, with NTN24's Luis Quevedo (seated) and Daniel Serrano. | AAAS/Dione Rossiter

"This is why I'm so passionate about doing science communication in Spanish," Aceves said. "There's just not many avenues for people to gather information about science in Spanish, and the information that they do have is, unfortunately, sometimes wrong."

Aceves was one of two AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows to be placed at a Spanish-language outlet this year, a first for the program. Thirteen other fellows also provided science or engineering expertise in newsrooms around the country while also getting intensive training and experience in practicing journalism.

"All too often, the communities that are not well served by mainstream science media also happen to be those which are particularly affected by larger societal forces, such as environment issues and health disparities," said Dione Rossiter, project director of the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program. "I believe it is central to the AAAS mission of 'serving society' to be a part of decreasing the disparities in access to relevant scientific content for these communities."

Daniel Serrano, a PhD graduate who studied drug delivery techniques at the University of Maryland, considered himself lucky to be placed with a Spanish-language television station in New York City called Nuestra Tele Noticias (NTN24). "There's almost nothing being produced about science in Spanish, but this station has a half-hour show dedicated to science, health and technology directed by a veteran reporter," he said.

Serrano interviewed scientists about their just-published research for the show, called Ciencia, Salud y Tecnología (Science, Health and Technology), and produced a feature on pterosaurs (flying reptiles). But he is most excited about a series of interviews he did of Hispanic scientists in which they explain why they became scientists, what their work life is like, and whether being a minority makes it more difficult to succeed.

"What really impacted me this summer was to realize the role of the science communication is not only to get people interested in science in general, but to also get children and younger people interested in becoming scientists," Serrano said. He also learned about the lack of Hispanics and other minorities in science classrooms.

The National Center for Education Statistics' latest national science scores for 8th graders in public schools show the disparities in science start early: the national average science score for white students was 163, compared to 136 for Hispanic students, and 128 for Black students. A 2003 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey of health literacy in adults also found that 41 percent of Hispanics had a "below basic" health literacy, compared to 24 percent for Blacks and 9 percent of whites.

"We can't just take science reporting in English and translate it into Spanish, Serrano said. "We need to do science communication with a purpose. For example, an unfortunate fact that a lot of minorities are in lower socioeconomic strata and have more health issues," and so can benefit from basic health information.

The education disparities likely also contribute to the lack of Spanish-speaking journalists and poor coverage of science in Spanish-language media, something Serrano and his mentor, Luis Quevedo, hope to change. They have plans to form an organization of Spanish-speaking science reporters.

"When I began my fellowship, I was coming from the point of view that there is a need for better science communication globally, even in English," Serrano said. "But I wasn't really aware of how much of a necessity it is for us to communicate science in Spanish both in the U.S. and in Latin America. After this, I realized that it's really, really important."