GW Researchers Engage with Area Science Journalists and Communicators

University experts discussed environmental racism and the ethics of AI in journalism at the D.C. Science Writers Association Professional Development Day.

May 9, 2024

keynote speaker was Kristi Pullen Fedinick, associate professor in environmental health at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health

Keynote speaker Kristi Pullen Fedinick, associate professor in environmental health at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health, talked about environmental racism. (Photos: William Atkins/GW Today)

Science reporters and editors, public information officers and broadcast producers—almost 150 of them—attended the D.C. Science Writers Association (DCSWA) Professional Development Day Saturday in the Grand Ballroom of the George Washington University Student Center.

GW Vice Provost for Research Pamela Norris greeted the participants, noting that their work “as science communicators is so critical, especially as the issues we face today grow increasingly complex and increasingly urgent.”

“The spaces for dialogue are only getting noisier,” Norris said. “They are overflowing with information, but also with misinformation and disinformation.”

She outlined a number of GW projects and programs that association members should become familiar with that could serve as sources of information and compelling stories, including the recently launched Global Food Institute, which aims to change the world through the power of food; and the Institute for Racial, Ethnic and Socioeconomic Equity, which promotes dialogue on eradicating racial, ethnic and socioeconomic inequality in the United States and around the world.

DCSWA President Sam Jones said that in the past 20 years Professional Development Day has become one of its signature events. The event, with support from GW’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Office of Communications and Marketing, has been held at GW for the past three years.

“My fellow board members and I are so grateful to have the support of George Washington University again this year,” she said. “It allows us to bring a range of exciting sessions to science communicators in the D.C. area as well as to virtual attendees. Being able to offer these opportunities to learn, as well as network and casually connect with others, is invaluable.”

The keynote speaker was Kristi Pullen Fedinick, associate professor in environmental health at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health. Fedinick spoke on environmental justice and data driven policy-making and the critical importance of engaging with the community to shape the narrative.

She placed the beginnings of the environmental justice movement in Warren County, North Carolina, whose predominantly Black population rose up in protest in the late 1970s after the community was chosen to be the site of a landfill to dispose of soil and transformers contaminated with toxic PCBs. Hundreds of the community were arrested during their protests.

“If we want to make sure we’re moving towards environmental justice for all people to live, work and pray free from contamination,” Fedinick said, “we need to think about the conditions that lead people to be exposed to those chemicals.

“Where people live is not accidental,” she noted, using a map to describe the practice of redlining in which banks restricted loans to areas with high rates of mortgage foreclosures. She focused on an area in Philadelphia in which 80% of the population is Black. Census tract data shows the life expectancy for Black males in that area is 67 years. A census tract less than a mile away where the population is less than 20% people of color has a life expectancy of 87,” she said.

“Less than a mile. . . a difference of 20 years in life expectancy,” Fedinick said.

In a morning workshop, Jessie Holland, associate director at the School of Media and Public Affairs, and Megan Ashford Grooms, a Washington Post editor, discussed the ethical use of artificial intelligence in the newsroom.

The session served as a cautionary tale on venturing too boldly into the use of AI, such as ChatGPT, while acknowledging that the technology is not going to disappear and is likely to be competitive with certain modes of journalism in the future.

The unregulated system of bots and ChatGPT in which there is almost no control over what information has been fed into systems and their inherent biases mean they should not be used to generate material. Holland said he has used AI for non-journalism prompts, to search terms, and sift large amounts of data and information. Even then, he recommended human verification and analysis.

Still, Holland advised that just as with computers, AI is emerging increasingly in journalism.  “Any job that requires you to sit and read or talk, in 10 years will go away,” he said. “Any job that doesn’t require you to get up, go out and interview someone, doesn’t require you to interact with someone, that job will go away.”

There are things humans can do that artificial intelligence cannot do, Holland said. “Stories that require descriptions, emotional content and interviews. There will still be a place for well-produced journalism, but a computer can do lazy journalism,” he said.

“Humans tell a story that make you want to know more—that is something AI has not figured out yet.”

During lunch, GW researchers met with science writers to discuss their current projects and research as part of the event’s “Lunch with a GW Researcher” programming. Elizabeth Chacko, professor of geography and international affairs in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, talked about her work examining the mobility of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, while Imani Cheers, associate professor of media and public affairs in the School of Media and Public Affairs, discussed digital storytelling on issues impacting and involving people of the African Diaspora. Mary Coughlin, an associate professor of museum studies in the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and an expert on plastics, explained the challenges of conserving museum collections. Chung Hyuk Park, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, talked about embarking on a new project that explores how an animal-robot assisted framework can provide support in the home. Park introduced attendees to his new robotic dog, nicknamed Artie.

Artie the robot dog in action. 

Gaige Kerr, a senior research scientist in the public health school, also joined for the lunch and discussed his use of satellite data to assess the inequality of air quality distribution.

Kerr recently published a study in which satellite instruments showed minority communities exposed to greater burden of air pollutants from cars and trucks. He said the writers had lots of questions about other sources of pollutants that were less investigated, such as leaf blowers, lawn mowers, construction equipment and crematoria which are now being used more frequently.

Kerr also learned from them, he said, that “having a catchy title that doesn’t oversell results, a concise abstract that clearly explains the problem investigated and what was found in concise language appeals to reporters.”