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With a Global Army of Science Writers, Tinsley Davis Supports Writers in Emerging COVID-19 Hot Spots

AAAS Fellow Tinsley Davis. Photo by Mark Bennington.

AAAS Fellow Tinsley Davis is not ready to let her guard down about COVID-19, even after half the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“I hear people talking about the pandemic in the past tense and that makes me anxious because it is not over in America and especially for countries like India that are suffering through surges,” she says. “I just haven’t been in a good place where I can even begin to reflect on the pandemic in the past tense.”

A trained microbiologist, Davis became the executive director of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) in 2008. And now, she has seen firsthand how science writers in the United States and the rest of the world have covered the pandemic. NASW boasts a membership of 2,165 journalists, communicators, and 360 students from all over the world. A sizable portion of members also serve as volunteers, helping with programming, mentoring and award judging, for example. And, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was these member volunteers who put NASW in a unique position to marshal its resources to support writers across the world. And it couldn’t have happened without them, according to Davis.

“NASW worked hard to provide resources for not only our members, but for those people who were not members but found themselves covering COVID-19,” Davis says. “We created COVID-19 resource lists; we harnessed the expertise of our freelance committee to create a tip sheet that we made available to anybody that talked about how to set up a home office.”

Still, Davis says, there were more than a few other challenges that made things harder for science journalists to do their jobs in an unprecedented time.

“Personally speaking, I have been saddened by the politicization of the pandemic and by the initial lack of federal response which cost lives,” she says. “I don’t think that is due to any lack of good science reporting, I think the problem is deeper…there are issues within our society in America that we need to examine.”

One of those societal issues, “fake news” and disinformation, has been on Davis’ radar for a while now.

“Misinformation has been a topic of discussion among science writers long before the COVID-19 pandemic and long before the most recent presidential administration,” she says. “It is important for science writers to discern between misinformation and disinformation.”

To provide writers with more tools, NASW hosted a virtual discussion around ways that science writers could deal with misinformation and the psychology of it. But it wasn’t long before science writers in NASW, and around the United States, found themselves not only drawn into the politicization of the COVID-19 response, but also racial tensions following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.

Davis and her colleagues quickly shared resources and advice on how to help science writing and journalism during this watershed moment. This same guidance can also apply to those in the scientific community who need pointers.

“If you are part of an overrepresented group in your field, work to increase diversity. When a reporter calls, consider referring them to those in your laboratory, institution, and field whose lived experiences and identities are different than your own,” she suggests. “If you don’t know any BIPOC researchers, do the work to broaden your personal network and foster diversity in your field.”

The United States might be getting ahead of the virus, but as new variants flare up in other parts of the world and vaccine inequality becomes real, Davis has to position NASW to not only respond to the needs of overseas members covering the pandemic, but also ensure continuity at home and boost up the next generation of science journalists. To that effect, NASW is offering for the second time this year a virtual summer mentoring program. The program sprang from an idea that NASW education committee volunteers came up with after internships evaporated due to COVID-19.

“We had 98 students sign up and 98 volunteer members sign up to mentor and we created a new student newsroom on the website,” she says.

Thanks to the work of volunteer mentors from across NASW, other initiatives were part of the program.  Experienced NASW volunteers received story pitches from students which were sent to different editors to help those students make that initial, first difficult contact. According to Davis, some students were able to get published for the first time with this support. NASW also held a student writing contest, and now all three of those student winners are current AAAS Mass Media Fellows.   

Davis, who started out herself organizing conferences for NASW in 2004, says it is invigorating.

“To be in a position where I can say that is a fabulous idea, let’s figure out how to make it happen and I can remove roadblocks, ease the way and create a path forward for the community, I think that is pretty special,” she says.

 

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