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Mass Media Fellowship Highlights the Need for Science Communicators

The 47th class of Mass Media Science & Technology Fellows heading out to newsrooms around the country this summer are part of one of the oldest ongoing science communication initiatives by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Since its inaugural summer in 1975, more than 750 scientists, engineers and mathematicians in the fellowship have spent 10 weeks reporting and writing news stories at media outlets around the U.S. For the participants, the program is a way to explore a new career or improve their science communication skills. But alumni and AAAS staff say the fellowship also expands the public audience for scientific news.

"Journalism, writing, communicating about science — these are all critical for shaping public understanding of the world around us," said AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh in his remarks addressing the newest fellowship class on June 2.

The program has several alumni who made the switch from science to journalism after the fellowship. David Kestenbaum, a former correspondent for National Public Radio and now senior editor at This American Life, got his start in radio as a 1997 Mass Media fellow. At the time, he was a physics researcher at Fermilab, but the writing life beckoned.

"I did have this feeling looking at press coverage of particle physics that I was doing, that it seemed very sterile and disconnected from the real lives of what it was like to actually do the science … this isn't actually getting at the craziness of it," he recalled at the orientation for the 2021 fellows. "And so I had some idea that I could bring something different to it."

Other fellows have used what they learned during their summer internships in their academic careers. Johanna Varner, an assistant professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University, had considered switching to journalism during her 2015 summer working at KQED Science, but took an academic teaching position instead. During the fellowship, she learned film production and storytelling skills that she uses in her teaching, especially with students who aren't science majors.

"I think having done the Mass Media fellowship is one of the most valuable experiences that I have ever had," said Varner, who received AAAS's 2018 Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science for her citizen science initiatives and serves as an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador.

Johanna Varner
Johanna Varner

"I think that it made me a better teacher, it made me better as a scientist trying to portray my own research in the media in a way that I will be happy with, and it gave me the skills to teach students to be more informed consumers of news and media," she said.

Dina Garcia, an assistant professor of health behavior and policy at the Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine and director of the Kalpulli Research Group, was a 2017 Mass Media fellow who spent her summer at CNN Español.

Lessons from the fellowship have carried over into her academic career as well. "Every clip I generated throughout my fellowship with CNN Español required me to collaborate with others within and outside the newsroom," Garcia said. "Similarly, conducting innovative research requires collaboration across disciplines and fields, including journalism. As an assistant professor I now incorporate assignments in my courses that foster transdisciplinary collaboration, for which effective communication is key."

"I also incorporate assignments where students are encouraged to use diverse approaches like zines and digital stories to communicate their ideas to broad audiences," she added.

Expanding the Program

The fellowship program has expanded into new kinds of media outlets such as online video sites and Spanish-language media and has made a concerted effort to place fellows in newsrooms outside of the East and West Coasts, said program director Kristin Lewis.

"Local journalism is one of the places where this fellowship really shines," Lewis said, since these smaller media outlets may not have dedicated science writers on staff or resources to cover science stories.

She recalled a story from 2019 fellow Jerald Pinson at The Austin American-Statesman, who covered a toxic outbreak of blue-green algae in Lady Bird Lake. "With him, they had an ecologist in-house who could understand what was going on, speak to the experts, and really be able to translate that story for the local community," said Lewis.

The fellowship brings science content to new audiences in this way, she added. "The people who are reading Scientific American or Wired are seeking out science news, generally. The people who are reading your local paper might not be, they might just be looking for the news that is local to them. And so if we can find ways to make those science stories relevant to local audiences, the better."

Last year, AAAS partnered with science journalism non-profit The Open Notebook to create a six-month follow-on mentorship program for the 2020 fellows, who missed out on some of the usual newsroom networking and guidance due to COVID-19 restrictions. Lewis said the fellowship would like to continue the mentorship program if financial support is available.

"The pandemic of the past year has only served to heighten the importance of accurate science journalism," Lewis said, "so this is a particularly relevant fellowship that AAAS is funding at the moment."

A version of this article first appeared in the AAAS News & Notes section of the June 25 2021 issue of Science.

[Credit for associated image: Fedor Kozyr/ iStock]