Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Understanding push-pull market forces and promoting science to under-served audiences

Whenever a news source or blog community claims to be a go-to source of information for African-American audiences, I take a quick look at the tabs or regular feature titles and I always find one major subject area lacking: Science.

To be fair, science coverage across all media outlets has been severely cut back. However, long before the threat of extinction of print media, Black Newspapers and Magazines didn't have much to offer in the area of science coverage. And when online media became more popular, the trend didn't change. Where's the science? Other than the occasional Black health update and the annual Black History Month profile articles, Black periodicals do not feature science news. The lone exception is if the article has a Black angle, in other words, if the article can be tied directly to issues that identify with the African-American community, such as disparity statistics or African-American firsts.

Acknowledging some past confrontations with research communities, there is a general uncertainty when it comes to science and science research within the African-American community. However, I don't understand how or why this has translated to an overwhelming lack of coverage of science-related topics altogether.

My time teaching science to inner-city high school students as a NSF GK-12 Fellow really opened my eyes to something every science communicator should understand: I needed to relate the information to them in a way they would understand and in a medium they would readily consume. As my efforts to share science with under-served audiences grew, I realized that I needed to carry my message to them, not wait for them to come to me.

A year ago I published two articles in the St. Louis American, a local Black weekly paper. These articles were well-received by the editor and the public. I was invited to submit more articles. I did. I saw writing for this news outlet as a chance to share interesting and relevant science with a general audience. I was carrying the message - science news - to them - a demographic that was probably not subscribed to other popular science media, but might be modestly interested in some general science topics. However, none of my other submissions were as eagerly accepted as my first two articles. I concluded that these latter articles may not have been as attractive because they lacked an obvious 'why it matters to Black people' angle. I never received any formal feedback for my submissions, so I'm not sure.

Although, I write about science issues in a way that (attempts to) directly engage (s) the African-American community, I felt dismayed by the perceived pressure to always 'African-American-ize' the stories. Race or politics or socio-economics factors aren't always the hook for Black audiences. Or is it? Perhaps it was my lack of skill in writing science-related articles for general audiences. I twice applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellows Program and was twice turned down. I figured I needed to learn 'how' to write for general audiences in a professional manner. Again, I received to no feedback on my denial, so I concluded my interest in learning how to communicate science to target audiences was too narrow for AAAS, but I don't know.

So, I was left with my expertise in science and my passion for science outreach, yet no vehicle to deliver the message directly to my target audience. Then I read blog post by Bora that articulated all of deepest thoughts and feelings about this matter, emphasis mine.

The problem is with the "push" versus "pull" models of communication. Many scientists communicate well, but are only allowed by the mainstream media to use the "pull" model which attracts only those who are already interested in science. The examples of "pull" media for science are popular science magazines, news sections of scientific journals, science sections of newspapers, science blogs, science-related radio shows, science-related shows on cable TV, i.e., all those places where people have a choice to seek this information or bypass it.

It is the mainstream media that controls all the "push" venues - the most popular print, radio and TV venues that are seen by everyone and where science could, potentially, be mixed in with the news coverage of other areas of life, thus delivering science stories to people who otherwise would never seek them. And it is there that the scientists have no access, certainly no access on their own terms, and thus it is there where the science communication is blocked. Scientists communicate all the time, and do it well, but only to the already receptive audience which actively seeks them - in special sections, or self-made media, carefully quarantined away from the mainstream news. The corporate media
actively prevents the scientists from access to the non-receptive yet potentially interested audience.

Image credit:

This so true. Looking specifically at this issue via an African-American or urban community lens, the pull forces are relatively weak compared to coverage about economics, politics, and celebrity gossip. However, outlets such as weekly Black Newspapers, Ebony/Jet, AOL BlackVoices or even BET TV and Radio One have amazing push power on their readership/listenership/viewership. Very large numbers people loyally tune into these media outlets and if they dared to include more science-related coverage people would consume it (and use it to inform their lives). Plus, it would make huge inroads to closing the science literacy gap (and eliminating anti-intellectualism) within some parts of the African-American community.

Just my thoughts,


Marty said...

I'm impressed that you had the opportunity to write for the American. I don't remember the Black newspapers in St. Louis publishing anything science related when I was growing up.

Didn't have science in school for that matter until high school. Thank goodness for PBS in my early years.

Are you thinking of approaching the larger Black media outlets?

Miriam Goldstein said...

I entirely agree. I am a big advocate of online science outreach, yet it is important to remember that much online science stuff only reaches people who are already reading about science on the internet. I wonder if it is possible to partner with a targeted audience outlet (e.g, AOL BlackVoice) to do a short-term science adventure blog? Like "Dr. Lee Battles Shrews!!!"? Maybe the adventure part can act a lure into the general cool science?

Anonymous said...

love your blogs on Scientific, I really liked your review. Nice information! Your content unique and meaningful.

Ilmu Pengetahuan said...

I like your blog and your efforts in science. Hopefully with science a better world will be made. Thank you.

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