Science Communicators Gather at GW for Day of Networking, Skill-building

GW faculty discuss key topics like COVID-19 and harassment of journalists at D.C. Science Writers Association’s Professional Development Day.

August 1, 2022

Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz speaks to crowd.

GW’s Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz delivered the keynote address about health disparities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic at the D.C. Science Writers Association’s annual Professional Development Day. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

The George Washington University hosted more than 70 local science reporters, freelance journalists, press information officers, editors and radio/video producers on campus for the D.C. Science Writers Association’s (DCSWA) annual Professional Development Day. The career development event, which is dedicated to networking and skill-building for DCSWA members, was held on July 23 at the Milken Institute School of Public Health. 

This year’s agenda included a plenary session at which Milken Institute SPH faculty member, Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz, delivered the keynote address about health disparities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The GW campus is always a great place for us to host this event given our shared commitment to communicating science to the public,” said Richard Sima, DCSWA president. “We learned so much from Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz about how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the health inequities experienced by Latinos. His talk also highlighted why we as science communicators need to cover health disparities and social inequities in our work so that we do our part to address them.” 

An associate professor of prevention and community health, Rodriguez-Diaz described the disparate impact of the pandemic on Latino communities in his presentation, “We are not in this together: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latino communities.” In 2020, Rodriguez-Diaz and colleagues published the first nationwide analysis of COVID-19 cases and deaths among Latinos. Their study found that structural factors such as crowded housing and high-risk jobs in industries like meatpacking were among the major reasons Latinos were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. 

“It was a pleasure to be able to share my research with this group, because reporters play such an important role in disseminating scientific findings to the public,” Rodriguez-Diaz said. “In this age of mis- and disinformation, it’s critical that researchers like myself take the time to meet and engage with science journalists and other communicators. Together we can help demystify science and provide important information to the public that is evidence-based.”

The afternoon agenda included five breakout sessions covering diverse topics of interest to science communicators. The session, “Science podcasting: From idea to episode,” included panelists from NPR’s Short Wave, Story Collider, National Geographic, and the National Air and Space Museum. Panelists participating in a session on creating science videos for different audiences came from Science, National Geographic, PBS and the American Chemical Society. Representatives from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Cancer Institute and Chemical & Engineering News talked about how to make twitter threads work for organizations. 

faculty member panel

School of Media and Public Affairs faculty members participated in a panel as part of the D.C. Science Writers Association’s annual Professional Development Day. (Photo: Kathleen Garrigan)

Three faculty members from GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs participated in a panel on how science communicators can deal with hate and harassment. Rebekah Tromble, an associate professor in SMPA and director of GW’s Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics, talked about how isolating harassment can be for victims and different ways journalists can mitigate harm to their personal and professional lives. Tromble, with support from the National Science Foundation, is currently leading a multidisciplinary team to develop a rapid response system aimed at addressing and mitigating online harassment of journalists and other experts. 

“One piece of advice I would give journalists, academics and other public figures who may become victims of harassment is to build a ‘support pod’ right now,” Tromble said. “Before you’re hit with that first wave of hateful comments and attention, find a handful of people—family, friends, coworkers—who you trust. Explain why there’s a chance you’ll face harassment and let them know how they might help when the time comes—from help with monitoring potential threats to offering a listening ear.”

Silvio Waisbord, director and professor of SMPA, and Lisa Palmer, a National Geographic Visiting Professor of Science Communication at SMPA, also provided advice and insights to the group as part of the panel. Waisbord and Palmer previously conducted a series of in-depth interviews with science journalists to understand how harassment was affecting them. In an opinion article they co-authored for the digital magazine Undark titled, “Trolling is taking a toll on science journalism,” Waisbord and Palmer wrote about how harassed journalists frequently feel unsafe, burned out and silenced, and how most newsrooms are not doing enough to protect and shield them. 

“Harassment is on the rise against science communicators, and this panel provided many great ideas and perspectives on how best to deal with it,” said Sima, who moderated the panel. “The panelists shared moving stories of their personal experiences with harassment and what the research shows are the widespread consequences of these kinds of attacks. More importantly, the panel made a strong case for why there needs to be more support from institutions to fight harassment.”