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Rebekah Corlew: Mass Media Fellows Leap from Labs to Newsrooms

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It should be a good time for science news.

More than a third of Americans in a recent Pew Research Center survey say they regularly hear or read about science, and about one in six actively seek it out. Science communicators such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye have become superstars.

But while new breakthroughs against disease, the discovery of new planets circling faraway stars, or the effects of climate change here on Earth still bubble up into popular news outlets, the news industry’s financial squeeze is making it harder for breakthroughs to get aired.

It’s against this backdrop that AAAS will start taking applications for its latest class of Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows. Those chosen will spend ten weeks in the summer of 2018 experiencing the news business from the inside. They’ll be reporting, writing, and producing stories for outlets ranging from big-city daily newspapers and national broadcasters to science and technology-focused publications such as Discover or WIRED.

And overseeing that process is Rebekah Corlew, the fellowship’s project director.

Corlew talked a bit with MemberCentral about the program, how changes in the media landscape have affected it, and what participants can expect.

 

The media industry has been undergoing a lot of changes over the years. How has the program changed with it?

When the fellowship first started there was no internet. And just as the internet has changed the world, it has also changed where the world gets its news. In the early years, MMF Fellows used to publish in print or on the airwaves, and they still do, but most media organizations also have a huge online presence. That means that our Fellows’ stories are seen by so many more people around the world. Some of their stories are seen by hundreds of thousands, and even millions of people. They also have the ability to see, right after their work is published, how many people are reading, viewing or listening to their story. That’s pretty huge for a student who maybe has their scientific paper read by a handful of people.

In the years since the internet, the media landscape continues to change and the rate of that change seems to be picking up speed. So yes, the fellowship continues to change to stay on the leading edge of where media is going. We continually add new sites and change the training to focus on current practices and issues. The fellows are also much more connected now than they could be in the past. Even though they are spread out around the country, they chat constantly via social media apps like Slack, helping each other acclimate to the newsroom and swapping tips and story ideas. So I think that technology has helped increase the rate of their learning, and the reach of their work.

What are some of the characteristics of the outlets that host a Mass Media Fellow?

One of the most important things is that they have a welcoming environment for the fellows and a supportive mentor. Although the fellows are talented writers, they’re scientists coming directly out of the lab into a newsroom. And it’s a pretty huge change. It’s similar to a journalist coming straight out of the newsroom and going into a lab. It’s pretty foreign. We need to have journalists who are good mentors who will help them make that transition. So we rely a lot on sites that we’ve had for many years that have proven records of excellent mentorship. We also rely on alumni and friends of the program to point us to people who will be good mentors. This year we expanded to include the Washington Post because Laura Helmuth, their new Health, Science and Environment Editor, asked to host a fellow. We had worked with Laura when she was at other sites in the past and she’s a phenomenal mentor with a glowing reputation among science writers. And we were right: her 2017 fellow had an epic summer. We closely monitor the experiences of the fellows to ensure that we have the best sites and mentors.

Secondly, we strive to have a variety of media types. We really want to span all sources of trusted news in the US. We have newspapers like the LA Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, magazines like National Geographic and Scientific American, radio [outlets] like NPR and KQED, and television outlets, like PBS NewsHour and CNN. We also aim for geographic diversity, with sites are all over the country.

How is the fellowship funded?

Scientific societies including AAAS support the fellowship along with foundations like Heising-Simons Foundation and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Support from the societies and foundations go back many years. The American Geophysical Union has sponsored a fellow for 21 years! The American Statistical Association joined the sponsor list just this year. They and many other sponsoring organizations make it possible for us to include a large group of fellows each year, and offer such a wide variety of media sites. We (and their fellows) are very grateful to them all! We are always looking for additional support and in 2017 we looked to members and friends of the program. Through a fundraising campaign, 60 individuals donated gifts ranging from $25 to $5,000 and helped raise enough to place two additional fellows, allowing us to add the Washington Post and Smithsonian Magazine to our sites. We are continuing this drive for 2018.

Science journalism has taken hits in the last few years as a lot of publications have cut staff. But you also hear there’s more interest. What do you see out there?

All of the sites are very interested in covering science. They have a hard time doing it because they often don’t have people on their staff that feel comfortable really digging in to understand the science and find the unique stories. It’s hard. Newsrooms are continuing to be slashed and the science desks are often the first to see the hit.

Some of our sites have no one with science experience on staff so they are really enthusiastic about having a scientist for the summer and developing working relationships that extend after the fellowship. Every year the sites tell me how pleased they were to be involved. It’s a lot of work to teach a scientist journalism in ten weeks while battling deadlines and the pressure of a newsroom. But the sites keep coming back and other sites are on a waiting list to take a fellow.

Additionally, where people are getting their news has been changing for the last ten years and the dust hasn’t really settled. Things will continue to change and it’s great to have scientists on the forefront of that change. They can actually contribute to the answers about where news, information, and media are going. Science is in the headlines and will continue to be an even more important part of daily dialogue. People are realizing more and more how important science is in their lives, and how science can find the answers to make things better in so many different areas. Our scientists’ role is to share the interesting science findings that people will find relevant to their lives.

There also appears to be more interest in science communication within the scientific community—getting these findings out and communicating the facts more clearly. How has that affected the media fellows program?

I think scientists are starting to really understand the vital importance of engaging with the public and that requires training in science AND communication. So even the scientists who want to stay at the bench and have no ambitions toward journalism are starting to really value their colleagues who are pursuing communication roles.

There are more young scientists interested in science communication, but it takes training and practice to be a really good science journalist or science writer. So even though there’s a lot of interest, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and a lot of unique training to get to the level of science journalist or science writer.

What could the 2018 Mass Media Fellows expect to be doing in the future?

About a third become science journalists. We have had some really successful science journalists, like Joe Palca or Richard Harris at NPR. About a third of them go back to the bench like Eric Lander, Director of the Broad Institute. And about a third become science communicators—not necessarily journalists, but people supporting science communication in interesting ways. Some have their own very popular YouTube channels, consulting companies, and alumni Neal Baer is an award winning TV writer and producer. One 2017 fellow began a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship at NSF the week after finishing her Mass Media Fellowship, and others have done this as well, introducing them to the policy world.

Is there anything that you would say to those who may be thinking about applying to the program?

Do it. Apply. Alumni say that it is the best thing they've ever done and life changing. You can hear it directly from some of our alumni in an upcoming webinar on November 7th. And we'll be talking about application procedures, tips from reviewers, and answering your questions. You can find out and register for the webinar on the apply page of the program website.

What’s your background and how did you get into this arm of the association?

After I finished a PhD in neurobiology I started a postdoc. I really enjoyed bench science but quickly moved into a leadership role in the lab and became the Research Coordinator for my department. While in that role I also launched a Post-Baccalaureate Research program and became the “Lead Public Engagement Scientist” for the institute. I’ve always been active in efforts to increase science literacy in the community and even though I was loving the science, I was getting most excited about building events and connections with the community and working with scientists to help them develop their talents. Developing and launching the Post-Baccalaureate program along with other events and projects working with scientists at all levels helped me see that my passion really lies in helping scientists. I love helping them find opportunities at the bench and beyond to benefit the world using their scientific background. What better place to do that than AAAS? When I saw my current job at AAAS posted, it had it all. Helping young scientists find their public engagement voice and turning up the volume on quality science journalism while at the same time ensuring better science engagement with underserved populations. Besides running the Mass Media Fellowship and managing the AAAS Minority Science Writers internship, I also get to plan and run the AAAS Classroom Science Days which takes place at the AAAS annual meeting each year and brings science to classrooms in underserved communities. Last year’s event reached ~3,400 high school and junior high students. So, yeah I love my job.

 

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