Alone in a Room Full of Science Writers

On being the only Indian woman at a science writers’ conference.

You’ve probably seen this photo of a little black boy patting President Obama’s head. Yes, the photo is adorable and yes, it makes the President instantly likeable. But beyond all that, its backstory carries a powerful message: the little boy wanted to touch the President’s hair to see whether it felt like his own. And it apparently did.

You can never overestimate how empowering it is to see someone who looks like you—only older and more successful. That, much more than well-meaning advice and encouragement, tells you that you can make it.

So you can imagine how disappointing it was when I looked around at a national conference of science writers in Gainesville, FL, last weekend and saw no one—no one—who looked like me.

I’ve been a journalist for about fifteen years, so I wasn’t looking for a mentor. I served on a panel about freelancer ethics, met new writers over drinks, caught up with old colleagues, and generally did fine. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how I might have felt if I were just starting out.

If you’re a young, white science journalist with good taste in eyeglass frames and dirty-blond hair, congratulations! You could have walked into any conversation in any room at the conference and felt instantly at home. I was born and raised in India, and look the part, so I wasn’t engaged in any mirroring. I had one brief conversation at the conference with a male journalist of Indian descent, and a longer one with an Asian-American one. I spotted a couple of East Asian women, and heard rumors of an African-American woman.

Did I mention there were nearly 500 journalists at the conference?

Perhaps to you all this seems normal. But I live in New York, where all colors, races and classes mingle constantly, and where this degree of—I’m just going to say it, “whiteness”—is just not normal. More to the point, it’s not healthy for the field.

To stay relevant, science journalism needs fresh ideas—and the homogeneous group I saw at the conference is inherently limited in the ideas it can offer. Newsrooms everywhere are grappling with this problem, and we can learn from them what’s working and what’s not. But first, we have to acknowledge that this is a problem.

Without diversity in newsrooms, what you get is a small group of (mostly privileged) people writing for another small group of (mostly privileged) people. Entire stories are missed, and those that do get written have the same, tired perspectives, missing nuances of color, race, class, gender and ethnicity.

I learned this lesson early in my career. When I was still a student at New York University, I joined the South Asian Journalists Association, where I felt instantly comfortable. And then I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to travel to Seattle for UNITY, then a joint event of four organizations — the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association and the Asian American Journalists Association — that had only happened once before.

Part of my scholarship entailed reporting for the conference newspaper, working with some of the best editors in the country. It was a beautiful sight, that newsroom, and it felt amazing to be a part of it. One of the days of the conference, I had four stories in the paper, and I remember feeling incredibly proud when my Asian-American editor gave me kudos. Those editors taught me to look beyond the numbers at the subtleties of class and race in a way that my white, mostly male teachers at NYU had not.

As I moved forward in science journalism, though, I spent less and less time at those conferences. My true peers are science journalists, and I want to feel at home at science journalism events — not just at meetings of minority journalists.

Last weekend at Science Writers 2013, a joint conference of the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, one-tenth of the attendees were students and well over one-third were first-timers. A bad experience could certainly make it their last. I am an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s science health and environmental reporting program where 4 of the 14 students in this year’s class are minorities, including 3 foreign students. What if one of them had come to this meeting and left feeling unsupported? Or, worse, unwelcome?

Believe me, this isn’t just hypothetical. One talented journalist told me that she stopped going to National Association of Science Writers (NASW) conferences because she felt like the “token brown person.” She started going to the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference instead “because it seemed a much younger, diverse, and energetic crowd,” she said. “NASW really felt like old world journalists clinging to their turf. It also seems very cliquish, which just seemed really childish to me.”

To be fair, it’s not just the NASW. A colleague across the pond laments the lack of diversity at the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) events, too. In fact, it might just be science journalism in general.

I asked NASW officers about this, and within a day, I had multiple responses. Past presidents wrote saying they had tried booths at UNITY, sessions on science journalism at conferences of Asian-American and black journalists, efforts to bring Latino journalists to NASW, collaboration with international groups.

All of these efforts sound right — so why didn’t they work?

“My sense, based partly on my experience hiring science journalists, is that talented minority journalists have a lot of options and tend not to choose science, which is a niche beat,” says Nancy Shute, ex-president of NASW. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

Perhaps it would help if the outreach efforts included minority journalists. For example, the session at the National Association of Black Journalists involved Robin Lloyd, Ivan Oransky, David Kroll and Danielle Lee. I really admire the goal here, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for all four people, but three of the four are not, how shall I put this… black.

That little kid, Jacob Philadephia, decided he could indeed be president one day because he saw someone like himself in that office, not because someone white told him so.

What this means is that the onus is on me, and every other minority journalist, to make sure we’re part of the outreach. But I also think this is something that won’t happen unless we all care and get involved.

The NASW panel on sexual harassment tells me that our community is capable of facing ugly truths and taking steps to change them. What can we do to champion minorities in science journalism? Would travel scholarships to conferences help? Would pairing students with mentors make any difference? Should NASW (and ABSW) establish special committees to address minority issues?

I don’t expect to solve any of this right away. All I want us is to begin the discussion — as a community — and do what we journalists do best: look for answers to the tough questions.