SeventyFour/SHUTTERSTOCK
SeventyFour/SHUTTERSTOCK

There’s a well-established need for improved cultural competency in the healthcare profession. Most of this discussion has focused on the need to produce more doctors, nurses, researchers and other professionals from diverse backgrounds. But the need for cultural competency extends beyond labs and clinics—and into newsrooms across America.

If COVID taught us anything, it’s that the perception and consumption of health information vary widely between people in different communities, and those differences can have an enormous impact on public health. However, health and medical journalism, like journalism in general, has long suffered from a diversity problem.

That, in part, motivated the well-regarded health news outlet STAT to partner with Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT to launch a new fellowship program for health and science journalists from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in news reporting. They recently announced the first recipient of the new Sharon Begley-STAT Science Reporting Fellowship.

“We recognized that our reporting and editing staffs were not diverse and that has hurt our ability to identify important stories and to build trust within communities of color,” said Gideon Gil, managing editor of STAT. “We weren’t doing a very good job covering topics relevant to all of our readers.”

The nine-month fellowship is intended for early-career U.S. journalists from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in the profession. It aims to prepare them for careers in science and health journalism, combining a paid reporting position at STAT with an educational component through MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. CZI is providing $225,000 to support the first two years of the program. STAT intends to continue raising funds to continue the fellowship beyond that term. Next year, STAT intends to bring on two fellows under the program.

“Having reporters of color being able to tell these stories has the power to drive narratives and discussions in ways that are important to their communities,” said Leah Duran, communications manager for science at CZI. “We’re not only contributing to the talent pool for better journalism, but it’s really important for building trust in communities with health disparities.”

The program’s first fellow is Isabella Cueto, a Cuban-American journalist who has recently covered the COVID pandemic, among other topics. The fellowship was named for the late STAT writer Sharon Begley, whose work included coverage of health disparities related to racial and ethnic differences.

STAT, which is part of Boston Globe Media, has been covering health and medicine since its launch in 2015. The publication’s articles and other media provide a deeper-than-usual dive into science and medicine, while still remaining accessible to lay readers. But as a result of its not-so-diverse newsroom, Gideon said, the publication was less prepared to recognize and cover health stories, many of which are literally matters of life and death, that affect tens of millions of people from minority communities.

“For just about any disease area you look at, the burden on Black and Latino Americans is disproportionately greater, often by a factor of two or more,” Gideon said. “COVID brought this to the forefront, but it exists for heart disease, diabetes, various types of cancer—for virtually all the major killers, the death rates are higher for minority groups. This hasn’t gotten the attention it needs in terms of what can be done about it.”

For decades, studies have shown that journalism remains one of the least diverse professions in the country. When STAT posts a job opening, said Gideon, they’re looking for experienced writers, not entry-level candidates. Building a newsroom staff that more accurately mirrors the public it serves is going to take programs that not only get young writers into academic journalism programs but into newsrooms as well, where they can develop the relationships that are key to just about any career.

At Inside Philanthropy, we’ve written about a number of programs that address diversity among science and health professionals—some focusing on healthcare providers, others on academic researchers. There are really two goals in any of this work: One is to ensure that people in science and healthcare can better serve people from diverse communities. But another goal is to improve the science itself—or in STAT’s case, the journalism: Diverse scientists, healthcare professionals, and even writers can identify and understand science and health questions and stories relevant to specific populations that people outside those communities will miss.

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