Expert Commentary

5 reasons news stories about research need source diversity

Many journalists work hard to include people from different backgrounds in stories about local issues and events, but might not realize source diversity is also important in stories about science and research. Here are five reasons why.

source diversity research science faculty
(Gerd Altmann/Pixabay)

Many news outlets aim to produce news that reflects the communities they serve. That’s why journalists often seek people from different demographic groups to include in stories about local politics, education trends, holiday shopping and other issues and events. Some newsrooms even conduct source diversity audits to get a better sense of who’s featured in their coverage and who’s getting left out.

Journalists might not always realize source diversity is equally important in stories about science and research. In some ways, it’s more crucial. Here are five big reasons why:

1. Scholars who are racial and gender minorities often provide new perspectives and approaches to the problems they study, research finds.

When a team of researchers analyzed doctoral dissertations completed in the U.S. from 1977 to 2015, they found that historically underrepresented groups innovate at higher rates. Innovation, they point out, drives scientific progress.

The researchers looked at dissertations across scientific fields — the so-called “natural” sciences such as biology and physics as well as computer science, psychology and the social sciences, which include sociology and economics.

“Scholars from underrepresented groups have origins, concerns, and experiences that differ from groups traditionally represented, and their inclusion in academe diversifies scholarly perspectives,” the researchers write in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April 2020. “In fact, historically underrepresented groups often draw relations between ideas and concepts that have been traditionally missed or ignored.”

Diversity within the scientific community isn’t limited to race, ethnic or gender diversity, however. It includes differences related to culture, social class, religion, sexual orientation, geography and disability status, notes Understanding Science, a website the University of California Museum of Paleontology created to help educators explain science to students.

“While science can investigate any part of the natural world, progress is only made on those questions that scientists think to ask,” the website explains. “Our backgrounds and identities shape the questions we ask about the world.”

2. Scholars featured in news stories can help shape news coverage, which can, in turn, affect how audiences think about issues.

Dozens of academic studies demonstrate the news media’s influence on public opinion and policymaking.

“Media narratives matter because they shape and are bellwethers of solutions to public policy problems,” researchers from Harvard University, MIT and Western University write in a 2019 paper that examines differences in how newsrooms framed and how policymakers responded to the eras of increased crack cocaine use in the 1980s and opioids in more recent decades.

Historically, mainstream news outlets tended to prioritize the experiences and views of white people and men. By interviewing researchers from diverse backgrounds and amplifying their work, journalists can provide a fuller understanding of the issue or problem they’re reporting on.

Longtime education and health journalist Melba Newsome stresses that inclusive reporting is essential. She created a 10-step guide to help.

“Increasing the diversity of the sources we use and the people we feature is the first and most significant step in creating journalism that paints a more complete picture and is more relevant to audiences,” she writes in a 2021 essay in Nieman Reports.

3. News stories about research and academia should reflect the diversity of the scientific community.

Although the scientific community in the U.S. is still mostly white men, it has grown more diverse as more women and racial and ethnic minorities have pursued careers in research. At selective public universities in the U.S., diversity among tenured and tenure-track professors “modestly but persistently” increased between 2002 and 2022, an August 2023 working paper from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University reveals.

As the share of white faculty fell from 83% to 66%, the proportion of Asian, Black and Hispanic faculty rose. The percentages of assistant professors who were Black or Hispanic “have seen accelerated growth since the 2015-16 academic year.”

Nationally, a substantial proportion of scholars in some fields are women or people of color. In 2021, about one-third of people with doctoral degrees in social science who worked in academia in the U.S. were racial or ethnic minorities, according to the National Science Foundation. That year, people of color made up an even larger share of scholars working in academia with doctoral degrees in the life sciences, a broad category that includes biological, medical and agricultural sciences.

In 2022, women earned more than 60% of all doctoral degrees awarded in the U.S. in environmental science, food science and technology, criminology, anthropology, public policy analysis and several other fields, federal data show.

It’s unclear what the global scientific community looks like, in part because few countries monitor the race and ethnicity of individuals entering science-related fields, Scientific American has reported. However, in many regions of the world, scientists are tracked by gender and male scientists outnumber female scientists.

In South Korea, an estimated 87% of all authors of academic papers published between 1950 and 2020 were men, a recent analysis finds. The number was a little lower in Japan: 83%. In China, more than 3 out of 4 authors were men.

As the American research community has changed, scholars from different identity groups have formed dozens of professional and advocacy organizations, including the American Society of Hispanic Economists, 500 Queer Scientists, African American Women in Physics, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Lesbians Who Tech, and People of Color Also Know Stuff. These organizations are excellent resources for journalists seeking expertise from researchers from diverse backgrounds.

4. Focusing on source diversity helps journalists overcome biases in source selection.

Since 2013, NPR has tracked the demographics of sources appearing on its largest weekday radio programs, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” It later added “Weekend Edition” to the project. Conducting source audits is how NPR learned its reporters tended to choose sources who shared their racial or ethnic identity.

For example, in 2015, 40% of the sources Black reporters quoted were Black, and 10% of white reporters’ sources were Black, according to a 2018 report from NPR’s public editor, Jeanine Santucci. Slightly more than half of the people Latino reporters quoted were Latino, compared with 5% of the people white reporters quoted.

When NPR began tracking source diversity, 77% of sources were white. That number fell as NPR began to feature more people of color on its shows, the news organization states on its website. In fiscal year 2021, 61% of on-air sources were white.

Journalists such as Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ed Yong have taken it upon themselves to audit the source diversity in their own work. Several years ago, Yong wrote about his efforts to fix the gender imbalance in his stories for The Atlantic.

He used a spreadsheet to count his sources and, over two years, doubled the percentage of women included in his coverage — from around 24% to around 50%.

“How do you even know who your sources are if you’re not tracking it?” Doris Truong, director of teaching and diversity strategies at the Poynter Institute, is quoted as saying in a 2021 report about diversity and inclusion in journalism from the Global Future Council on Media, Entertainment and Sport. “If you’re not asking someone for their pronoun because you think you know it, how do you know it? If you don’t ask someone their race because you think you know it, how do you know it? If you just presume Kamala Harris is Black, you might be wrong.”

Academic publishers also are focusing on source diversity. Nature, a prominent academic journal that also provides news about research, began conducting source audits in 2021. It tracks the gender, geographic location and career stages of sources that appear in its news articles, podcasts and videos. About 90% of sources featured in Nature’s journalism are researchers.

The results of Nature’s first audit show that the majority of sources its newsroom quoted or paraphrased from April 2021 to January 2023 were men, people based in North America and Europe, and people in later parts of their careers.

“We will continue to record our data, and we aim to improve on these figures, proactively seeking out and trying to better represent voices from historically less-represented peoples and parts of the world,” the journal’s editors write in an editorial published early this year.

They note that while Nature did not collect data on sources’ race or ethnicity, the publication is “working to widen the racial and ethnic diversity of our sources to make our reporting more representative of global science.”

5. Source diversity can help journalists reach key segments of their audience and build trust in news outlets.

When public health officials want to launch a public education campaign in a marginalized community, they frequently enlist help from “trusted messengers,” or individuals whom community members consider credible sources of information. A trusted messenger might be a local physician or religious leader with deep ties to the area. Often, trusted messengers are racial or ethnic minorities.

Public health agencies and news outlets share a serious problem: Research studies over the years have repeatedly shown that many people of color don’t trust them. That can be dangerous during a pandemic, hurricane or other natural disaster, when government leaders rely on news organizations to help them get potentially life-saving information out quickly to the public.

Including trusted messengers in news stories may help news outlets reach certain demographic groups. But first, journalists need to know who the trusted messengers are for different segments of their audience.

Black adults trust scientists — especially medical scientists — more than they trust religious leaders, elected officials, the military, police officers, public school principals and business leaders to act in the public’s best interest, a 2022 report from the Pew Research Center concludes. Hispanic adults also tend to rate medical scientists, as well as scientists broadly, as more trustworthy than other prominent groups in society, a separate Pew report shows.

Generally speaking, physicians, nurses, scientists and pharmacists were the most trusted sources of health information during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a medical brief JAMA published in March.

When researchers organized 41 focus groups with people from marginalized groups to better understand their lack of trust in news outlets, most participants said they “saw news media as not only out of touch but at times an especially harmful force that did real damage to their communities, either through neglecting them altogether or exploiting them, reinforcing harmful stereotypes, or sensationalizing in divisive and polarizing ways.”

The resulting paper, released by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in April, outlines several recommendations for building trust. One of them: Report news that more fully, faithfully and fairly captures diverse perspectives.

About The Author