AAAS Mass Media Fellows and Minority Interns Showcase Real-World Reporting Efforts

A new assistive technology for people with severe paralysis and a study of the now-extinct saber-tooth tiger’s powerful forelimbs were among Dolly J. Krishnaswamy’s favorite reporting assignments during a summer reporting internship at Science magazine.

Krishnaswamy, an undergraduate biology and journalism major at Emory University, prepared 18 online stories, two podcasts, and two print articles as part of her AAAS Minority Science Writers Internship. She joined other AAAS journalism fellows and interns who showcased their summer efforts during poster presentations 17 August at the association’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Interviews with 2010 Mass Media Fellows: Rachel Bernstein, Los Angeles Times; Vabren Watts, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dolly Krishnaswamy, Science intern; and Deidre Lockwood, Chicago Tribune.

“The whole experience has been unforgettable,” Krishnaswamy said. “You receive instant redemption every single day, every hour, because you have to find out someone’s life story in 10 minutes over the telephone and then accurately report on it, in a way that will make other people care about the research.”

Krishnaswamy—one of two recipients of Minority Science Writers Internships and a dozen Mass Media Fellows dispatched by AAAS to work in newsrooms across the country this summer—said that she was particularly impressed by the editorial guidance she received.

Science Deputy News Editor Jeffrey Mervis, one of Krishnaswamy’s advisors, said: “Every year, the interns are such a delight. It’s always helpful for the Science News team to get the interns’ fresh take on what we do, and the interns get practical, hands-on experience in journalism.”

Nezile Mthembu, a junior at Bennett College for Women who also received a Minority Science Writers Internship, said that she learned how to effectively pitch stories to editors as well as techniques for reporting science news. “It took time to get into the rhythm of news reporting,” she explained. “But I gained confidence in my ability to identify news stories, and it triggered a strong interest in medical and health reporting. Now I want to go back to school and ask for a science section at the newspaper there!”

The Minority Science Writers Internships, established six years ago with support from the William T. Golden Endowment Fund for Program Innovation, provides hands-on training at Science for students interested in science writing and pursuing a career in journalism.

The 36-year-old AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowships program places science, engineering, and mathematics students in 10-week internships at newspapers, magazines, and radio outlets, from National Public Radio and the Chicago Tribune to the Los Angeles Times and Scientific American. Sponsoring organizations this year included the American Geophysical Union, the American Mathematical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Physiological Society, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and IEEE.

Economic challenges facing traditional U.S. media outlets are well-known: The respected 2010 State of the News Media report, an analysis of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, confirmed that “for the third consecutive year, only digital and cable news saw audiences grow” in 2009. “Newspapers, including online, saw ad revenue fall 26% during the year.”

But AAAS Senior Program Associate Stacey Pasco reported brighter news, based on her work as director of the Mass Media Fellows initiative. “In making site visits to the participating media outlets this year, anecdotally, there seems to have been some stabilization within newsrooms,” she said. “At AAAS, we continue to view these fellowships and internships as a critical way to support the highest-quality science journalism.”

Fellow Rachel Bernstein, a doctoral candidate in chemical biology at the University of California, Berkeley, said that an integrated science curriculum for students at an early stage and in-depth science journalism are equally critical to promoting a science-literate society. People need “perspective and the `big picture’ of what’s happening” in science, said Bernstein, who advocated for longer, more comprehensive science reporting. Her efforts at the Los Angeles Times included a report on the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, an imperiled Russian seed bank that is essential for ensuring that farmers in the United States and elsewhere continue to have diverse crop options.

At the Chicago Tribune, fellow Deirdre Lockwood, a Ph.D. candidate in oceanography at the University of Washington, put her scientific training to the test when she reported on a climate change study of the Great Lakes. In particular, she described research efforts to assess the role of the Great Lakes in soaking up as well as contributing to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. However, Lockwood also generated articles on HIV testing of teenagers and how to help children infested with head lice.

“It’s really important for us to help the public understand how science is used,” Lockwood said. In one of her stories, for instance, she assessed corporate findings on environmental health risks faced by oil spill workers. The public needs to be able to critically evaluate such information, she noted.

Yet another Mass Media Fellow, Vabren Watts, a doctoral candidate in biomedical science at Meharry Medical College, leveraged his knowledge of cardiology to report for the Philadelphia Inquirer on some students’ misuse of medication intended to prevent heart failure. Students sometimes “use the drugs to relieve performance anxiety,” Watts wrote in a news scoop that quoted young people and even a professor who advocated the use of beta-blockers to relieve stage freight.

Watts also spent time investigating kidney disease in African Americans, among other topics. He said that he developed ideas for stories based on a combination of assignments from editors, conference presentations, old-fashioned journalistic enterprise, and sources such as the AAAS Web site, EurekAlert!.

In Sacramento, California, “the state fair is a huge deal—just about every writer at the Sacramento Bee is obligated to write at least one story about it,” Mass Media Fellow Lulu Liu said jokingly. So Liu, a physics undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a feature story on the physics of amusement rides, and in particular, chaos theory, based on a study of the Tilt-a-Whirl by Richard Kautz of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Though amusement-park rides might sound like a safe, whimsical topic for a science journalism intern, Liu got her first taste of reader backlash. In describing an attraction that spins riders until they are “glued to the wall,” Liu wrote: “It’s not magic—just friction.” This prompted concerned readers to write to the newspaper, contending that “centrifugal force” pins riders to the wall of the ride. Editors subsequently published additional information, explaining that in fact multiple forces—gravity, normal or centripetal force, and indeed friction—come into play on the Starship 3000 ride.

“That’s what these internships are all about,” said Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, “real-world experiences in reporting science to the public, satisfying people’s curiosity about the world, and supporting their lifelong engagement with science.”