Over the past year, I had the privilege of serving as The Varsity’s Science Editor. The Varsity is the University of Toronto’s student newspaper of record and is Canada’s largest student paper. I was responsible for curating and editing the content in The Varsity’s Science section.
The post I held gave me a platform, albeit small, to make changes that I wanted to see in media. To me, having a platform meant ensuring diversity and inclusion were always a part of the conversation. As editors, the articles we assign, the sources we contact, and the angles we pursue shape our coverage. Fostering diversity in newsrooms — in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender, and ability — can also help us cover unique stories that we might otherwise misreport, or not cover at all.
The post I held gave me a platform, albeit small, to make changes that I wanted to see in media.
A 2017 survey found that out of 87 editors at student papers across Canada, 62 percent were female, 23 percent identified as a visible minority, and 22.9 percent identified as a gender or sexual minority. The results from this survey indicate that student papers across Canada are faring better than the national average, but there is still a long way to go: the same survey reported only 3.4 percent of the editors identified as Indigenous.
Unlike traditional media outlets, student papers require little to no experience to contribute. Whether or not students intend to pursue journalism, limiting the barrier to writing opportunities is an important first step in ensuring diverse coverage and a diverse group of editors.
“Student papers have an excellent chance to promote diversity and inclusion,” said Shaan Bhambra, a former science editor of The Varsity and medical student at McGill University. “Since student papers serve as incubators for future journalists, providing opportunities fairly and equitably allows us to contribute to how we want journalism to look in the future.”
Specific to science journalism, student newspapers are in a unique position to be placed close to the research taking place on campus.
For instance, Audrey Goldfarb, a PhD student, launched Research Rochester, a recurring column at the University of Rochester’s Campus Times that profiled researchers. But she found that some researchers didn’t feel their work was worthy of coverage or felt that readers wouldn’t be interested in their work.
“By explaining and celebrating the achievements of students I interviewed, I saw their confidence shine through,” wrote Goldfarb. “Validation is especially important for women and minorities who are taught that they must prove themselves worthy of belonging, that they need to earn their place more than does the white man next to them.”
Javiera Gutierrez Duran, a writer at The Varsity, also produced profiles on women in STEM throughout the year. When Duran first proposed the idea, I felt that we should reserve these profiles for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science; timeliness often dictates what stories we decide to cover. But I realized that diversity shouldn’t be treated as a one-off theme. Women in STEM don’t just exist on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
In addition, I took inspiration from 500 Women Scientists and created a list of sources that were women or visible minorities. A 2015 report found a mere 24 percent of news sources and article subjects are women. Creating connections with underrepresented groups can help us, as writers, tell stories that are more representative of our communities.
Creating connections with underrepresented groups can help us, as writers, tell stories that are more representative of our communities.
In March 2019, Javiera worked on an article on the state of Indigenous health for The Varsity: “The professor I was interviewing mentioned that they had launched a Master’s program of Indigenous public health,” said Javiera. “I realized that people are willing to help us with our stories, but it is our job to reach out. The stories are there; it’s our responsibility to reach out and make the effort to write them.”
In addition to ensuring The Varsity’s Science section highlighted minorities, I wanted to bring attention to trainees. I’d often receive press releases that acknowledged professors, the senior authors, but failed to mention lead authors, who were often graduate students, and sometimes even undergraduate students.
“Undergraduates have had huge roles in science projects, often working very closely with graduate students on their own projects but are hardly ever mentioned,” wrote Clara Thaysen, a former associate science editor at The Varsity and master’s student at the University of Toronto. “We should give a voice to undergraduate (and graduate) student science because these are the scientists that often have the greatest understanding of their particular project — not necessarily the professor.”
Clara Thaysen, a former associate science editor at The Varsity
“We should give a voice to undergraduate (and graduate) student science because these are the scientists that often have the greatest understanding of their particular project — not necessarily the professor.”
As someone who has worked alongside graduate students before, I knew something had to change in our coverage of research. When I sent out pitches, I referred our writers to the student in charge of the project. As a result, our writers have profiled student-led research projects and undergraduate research conferences that would’ve otherwise not received attention elsewhere.
Trainees also benefit from media interviews by helping them develop their science communication skills.
“Graduate students may not be as comfortable with speaking to journalists about their own studies and would rather defer to their supervisors,” said Farah Qaiser, a freelance writer and master’s student at the University of Toronto. “By developing these science and media communication skills through the university’s own media relations office, or external organizations, we can begin to see more students, and individuals belonging to under-represented groups, respond to media requests and be less afraid when it comes to speaking about their expertise.”
Implementing such changes occurs in small steps and will continue to take shape over time. I knew that one year wouldn’t change everything, but I felt confident that the Science section was moving in the right direction. If we want more representation in science journalism, the change starts with student newspapers.