Mass Media Fellows Prepare for a Summer of Science Journalism

The 2018 Mass Media Fellows, joined here by AAAS CEO Rush Holt, gathered at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., for an intensive introduction to science journalism. | Neil Orman/AAAS

AAAS’ Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship program has sent 24 scientists-turned-journalists into newsrooms around the country for the summer.

The competitive program places graduate students, undergrads and postdocs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in newsrooms, where they spend 10 weeks reporting, writing and producing science news. AAAS, other scientific societies and foundations like Johnson & Johnson's Champions of Science fund the program. 

The outlets that host fellows are diverse, ranging from local papers like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to science-focused publications like STAT and Scientific American. The sites, which include five outlets participating in the program for the first time, encompass broadcast news as well as print and web publications. Regardless of the medium, the goal of the program remains consistent: increase public understanding of science and technology.

Over the course of its 45-year history, the Mass Media Fellows program has placed more than 700 scientists, each sponsored by a scientific society, foundation or, in a first for the program this year, a university, in newsrooms around the country. Its alumni include prominent names in the science world, such as pioneering geneticist Eric Lander, the director of MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute and the co-chair of President Barack Obama’s Council on Advisors on Science and Technology.

The program’s alumni also populate the ranks of journalism and writing, including Joe Palca and Richard Harris, both NPR science reporters, and Neal Baer, a pediatrician-turned-writer and producer for TV shows ER and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – all three of whom offered expertise and advice to the fellows during a June 6-8 orientation in Washington, D.C.

While current fellows bring writing and public communication experience to the fellowship, everyone takes part in the orientation, which serves as a journalism “boot camp” before the fellows depart for newsrooms around the country. The largest class ever of Mass Media Fellows was joined by the three participants in the Minority Science Writer Internship program, through which students interested in a journalism career spend a summer writing for Science.

The orientation included sessions on tracking down news stories, pitching them to editors, interviewing sources and writing a news story like a journalist. Fellows learned about newsroom ethics, discussed how to use social media as journalists and grappled with issues like how to convince readers that a piece of news is important without overselling or overhyping the news.

Bob Hirshon, program director at AAAS and the host of the daily one-minute broadcast Science Update, offered fellows guidance on that dilemma: they should avoid sweeping claims by putting new discoveries in perspective, he said. Drawing upon their scientific expertise, fellows are equipped to think of metaphors and associations that others might not know about to accurately put science news in context, Hirshon said.

“Everyone had useful and interesting advice,” said Allie Weill, who is spending the summer San Francisco public TV station KQED, splitting her time between writing science news for their website and working with the production team on the station’s “Deep Look” video series. Weill, who is completing her Ph.D. in fire ecology at University of California, Davis, said she particularly appreciated getting to hear varied perspectives from professional science journalists “and how they actually bring those principles into practice.”

Another highlight of the orientation for Weill: meeting the other fellows. Since the orientation, they have continued the conversation on the chat platform Slack, where they ask questions, offer advice and share story ideas.

Ian Haydon, a biochemistry Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington who is writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer, echoed the importance of the group’s camaraderie.

“Even though we’re far-flung and all across the country, we’re all at really similar places in our careers – and in our thinking about our careers – and we’re all embarking on this new journey where we feel like novices,” Haydon said.

A 2014 survey of alumni conducted by the Mass Media Fellows program found that about one-third of respondents said the program changed the course of their career. More than 40 percent of program alumni work as journalists or public information officers; those who stayed in science reported benefiting from improved communication skills.

Regardless of their future field of employment, fellows can play an essential role in countering a widespread public disregard for scientific evidence, Rush Holt, AAAS’ chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, told fellows at their orientation.

“Science is badly needed,” Holt said. “If we can tell in every single story and every single media outlet the story of the evidence, we could really help address – not cure, but help address – this problem of a disrespect for evidence, an erosion in the appreciation of the importance of science.”