We’re just a few weeks out from releasing our first episodes of season five of Mission Forward. Until then, we’re continuing our tour of past guests in an effort to elevate a few of our favorite conversations to welcome new listeners the best way we know how. This week we bring you Ed Young and Liz Neeley in our 2018 conversation live on the Mission Forward stage.
Ed and Liz are two of the smartest and sharpest minds in science, communications, and EDS reporting on COVID earned him a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 2021. Back in 2018, Ed had just written a story in The Atlantic titled, "I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories Here’s What I’ve Learned, and Why I Did It." The lessons he and Liz articulate in this conversation continue to be relevant as we continue to crest this pandemic wave. We hope you enjoy this conversation and learn as much from it as we did.
Since starting the Mission Forward conversation series in 2014, we’ve had the opportunity to interview some amazing folks: Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, MacArthur Genius grantees, media entrepreneurs, and philanthropists. One of our favorite conversations to date has been with Ed Yong and Liz Neeley. It took place in 2018, shortly after Ed wrote a story in the Atlantic titled: “I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories Here’s What I’ve Learned, and Why I Did It.”
As an acclaimed author and science writer, Ed was a big deal then, but he’s had quite a run these last few years. This past September, his story on the COVID-19 pandemic, “How Did it Come to This?” took the cover spot of The Atlantic magazine, and since that time, he’s published several other articles on COVID 19 including his most recent: “America Is About to Choose How Bad the Pandemic Will Get.”
Given how much we value Ed Yong — and how straightforward he can make even the most complex science story — we decided to resurface this great conversation from a few years back, about building equity and breaking bias in storytelling.
In that 2018 story about gender imbalance in his reporting, Ed found that only 24 percent of his last 23 articles quoted sources that were women. And of those stories, 35 percent featured no female voices at all. As Ed shared in his article:
“I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem. I assumed that my passive concern would be enough. Passive concern never is.”
Yong’s heartbreakingly honest revelation, and several others like it, spurred our desire to dig in on ways that writers, marketers, and communications directors can build equity and break bias in their storytelling, and his story has stuck with us for many years.
But it wasn’t just Ed who we spoke with back **in 2018. We were joined by his partner, the brilliant Liz Neeley, founder and principal of Liminal Creations, where she focuses her time and talent on science communication. Liz served as Executive Director of The Story Collider through August of this year, shepherding real and deeply personal stories of science and living through on-stage events and their eponymous (and extraordinarily popular) podcast. Together, they had a lot to say on the topic of equity in storytelling.
Liz Neeley and Ed Yong are extraordinary people and exceptional journalists and communicators. We love this conversation and we’re sure that you will, too.
Links & Notes
- Building Equity and Breaking Bias in Storytelling — by Carrie Fox
- What Bias is Hiding in Your Writing? — by Carrie Fox
Carrie Fox: Welcome to Mission Forward, a podcast exploring how big ideas in social change take hold. My name is Carrie Fox and I’m your host. Listen in as we talk with innovative thinkers, makers, and doers in social change; and we explore how foundations, philanthropists and corporate and community leaders are challenging business as usual in order to move missions forward in meaningful and memorable ways.
Carrie Fox: Since starting the Mission Forward conversation series, I have had the opportunity to interview some amazing people. Pulitzer Prize winning writers, MacArthur Genius Award winners, media entrepreneurs, and philanthropists. One of my favorite conversations was with Ed Yong and Liz Neeley. It took place in 2018, shortly after Ed wrote a story in the Atlantic titled I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories. Here’s what I’ve learned, and why I did it.
Carrie Fox: It was a big deal then, but he’s had quite a run these last few years. This past September, his story on the coronavirus pandemic, How did it come to this, took the cover spot on magazine. And since that time, he’s published several other articles on COVID-19, including his most recent, America Is About to Choose How Bad the Pandemic Will Get. Given how much I value Ed Yong, how straightforward he can make even the most complex science story, we decided to resurface this great conversation from a few years back about building equity and breaking bias in storytelling.
Carrie Fox: We’re joined in the conversation with Ed’s partner, Liz Neeley, who works at the intersection of science and communication. Liz and Ed are extraordinary people and exceptional journalists and communicators. I loved this conversation and I know you will too. So let’s get to it.
Carrie Fox: I’d like to tell you a story from a book called whistling Vivaldi, which is by an author named Claude Steele. It’s a story about a young man who many years ago was going to the University of Chicago and he was one of only a few at the time African-American men who was going to the University of Chicago. He would walk every morning from his apartment near campus, through Chicago’s Hyde Park, to get to his classes on campus. And he realized after the first few days that as he would walk through the park and walk down the sidewalk, individuals who were walking towards him would move off of the sidewalk and walk on the other side of the street. And it only took him about three days to realize this was happening day after day and that didn’t feel very good for him.
Carrie Fox: So he decided to forgo this beautiful walk through Hyde Park and take the long way to class. So he took an extra 20 minutes every day, but he knew he could get there without that feeling of I’m frightening people. Months went by and he decided one day it was beautiful out. He didn’t care. He was whistling. He was going to walk to school the way he wanted to walk to school. And he was whistling Vivaldi. He was whistling Vivaldi’s four seasons and he realized almost immediately that the people who had for so long been crossing the street and walking on the other side were smiling and laughing and saying hello. And in just that minute, all he had changed was that he was whistling classical music. He had completely diffused the negative stereotype that he knew he was associated with.
Carrie Fox: I think about that story a lot. I think about that story every day when we think about the work that we do in the communities that we are a part of, whether that be the campus communities that we are a part of, the faith communities, the communities where we get our stories, the communities where we think about who’s sharing with us the news that we’re reading. Are we sharing and creating stories that are reinforcing negative stereotypes, or are we creating and sharing stories that diffuse and break those stereotypes?
Carrie Fox: And that’s something that at Mission Partners we think about every day. We realize that as a communications agency supporting great nonprofit and foundation organizations who have incredible missions and working with incredible people, that it is our responsibility to make sure that we are looking at our work through an equity lens, as we say. Thinking about the words that we use, what they mean, not just to us, but to the communities that we’re ultimately speaking to and speaking on behalf of.
Carrie Fox: So when we decided we wanted this spring reception to focus on that topic on building equity in communities and breaking stereotypes and the role that storytelling can have in breaking stereotypes, we thought about who would be the best person to have that conversation with. And of course naturally we thought about Ed. Many of you, I know, read our weekly What We’re Reading newsletter and know that we featured Ed’s story many months ago. I’m incredibly thankful to have him here and that he signed up Liz without her knowledge. Equally happy to have Liz here and especially happy after I really got to see what you are doing and how incredibly cutting edge I think it is and critical it is in the bigger picture.
Carrie Fox: I want to tell you a little bit about Ed and Liz before we start. I will say first that Ed has written some of the most beautiful science writing I have ever read. And if you are not familiar with his book, I hope that you pick it up. It’s called I Contain Multitudes, and I’m sure you’re going to talk a little bit about that tonight. Ed has been writing about the field of science for more than a decade, and there is something that you said not too long ago that I’d like to share with these folks and I hope that I get it right. It makes the perfect connection between science writing and the story that I just told.
Carrie Fox: "Everything I can see, every animal, every bug is profoundly influenced by things I cannot see. If we don’t understand them, the microbes that are in us, we don’t understand ourselves. We are like looking at our biology through a keyhole. Through writing I contain multitudes. I wanted to throw the door wide open. I wanted to expose people to a grander view of life that comes with understanding the microbial world. When you do, even the most familiar mundane things become newly amazing and wondrous."
Carrie Fox: Wow. So from the tiniest little microbe, how we think about and understand and connect with the world around us. And Liz, who’s a marine biologist by training, but for the past decade has been helping scientists around the world tell more compelling stories. And she’s my favorite kind of storyteller too, if I’m fully honest, because she focuses on the emotion and the humanity in science and making sure that that is what comes through, because I think for those of you who are in the room who are storytellers, it’s easy to actually forget sometimes that there are humans behind the stories that we’re telling and perhaps fitting to have this conversation tonight, the night after the Henrietta Lack’s portrait was unveiled down at the National Portrait Gallery, thinking about the mother behind all of the science and the woman behind the science, right? That there was so much humanity that was lost for so long.
Carrie Fox: I must be equal in my giving quotes here. So I’m also going to read from something that you said. "From our earliest days on this earth, human beings weren’t just aware of threats from predators, but from other human beings. A big part of our brains are still engaged in questions like, what are your intentions? What are your motivations in behaving the way you’re behaving? Are you attempting to harm me? It’s ingrained in us. We are constantly constructing narratives in our mind because that’s how we make sense of the world. Stereotypes, threats, bias, it’s ingrained in us. But there’s something that can be done about it and it starts with humanity."
Carrie Fox: So that’s where we’re going to start tonight. I’d like first just to turn it to you each, and I know each of you wanted to be here for a different reason. And so I wanted just to give you that moment to say why. Why was this such an important conversation for you to be part of tonight?
Ed Yong: Thanks for having me. Thank you all for coming. That quote that you read out, which is from my book, is about microbes. The book is about the partnerships between the microbes that live within us and humans and all other animals and it’s about how fundamentally microbes have long been viewed as agents of disease, as things that we needed to avoid. And now we’re sort of embracing the fuller picture of them as parts of our lives that provide benefits and are an important part of our identity. And that idea of revealing stories that have been unseen and neglected for a long time is a large part of why I wrote the book, and it’s a large part of why I’m interested in science. I think it often reveals to us things that we didn’t know already, things that are slightly subversive or sort of below the threshold of our perception.
Ed Yong: When I wrote the book, an incredible woman named Angela Garbers wrote a review of it for the stranger where she said a lot of what he’s saying in this book about microbes could equally apply to people from marginalized communities. And I think those are really a stew point that actually made me think about the book in a very different light than I had been when I was writing it. But that is something that matters to me too and it’s part of the same drawer that drives me to write about the wonders and discoveries in the world around us that we don’t have a full picture of the world and in gaining that fuller picture, our lives and our view of the world are immeasurably improved.
Ed Yong: I’m here tonight because that drive informs a lot of the work that I’m currently doing at the Atlantic. So we can talk about that a little bit more and some of the steps I’ve taken, but I sit at an intersection of two fields, the media and science, where women, where people of color, where people with disabilities, where immigrants, like people from all kinds of marginalized groups often are voiceless; where they have struggled to find representation, where they have struggled to be heard and to be treated as equals. And I think it therefore feels like there’s a tremendous responsibility to write some of those historical imbalances. And I think as someone who works as a journalist writing for the Atlantic, one of the finest publications in this country, I think I have a lot of power as a gatekeeper. And I’ve been thinking very hard recently about how best to exercise that power to further the goals that are important to me.
Carrie Fox: Thank you.
Liz Neeley: And I’m someone who works in a community that prizes objectivity. In science, people talk all the time about, "Oh, it’s just the data speaking for itself and this is a pure meritocracy." And these are highly unscientific claims. And so, I really like to take aim directly at this issue of objectivity and what it means. Ed says he likes to be a voice for the voiceless, and I think that’s wonderful. It’s also, people are not voiceless. They are being actively silenced. And there is all sorts of gatekeeping that happens to control who gets to take a stage, who gets to tell what kinds of stories and how we patrol professional boundaries of legitimate expertise or relevant information, or who is worthy of being a keynote speaker.
Liz Neeley: What I do is I think about who does science belong to? We live in a time where we talk about how medicine and engineering and scientific knowledge about climate change is shaping all of our lives more than it ever has. And inside the ivory tower, I hear a lot of colleagues saying, why doesn’t the public trust us? Why don’t they listen to what we say? And so, I think there’s a lot of work to be done in figuring out how we position the value of scientific knowledge, how we contextualize it. It’s a profoundly human undertaking and it is the product of the cultures that we are actively creating.
Liz Neeley: And so, part of what I’m doing at Story Collider is to humanize not just why should we care about this specific kind of technical knowledge, but who do we kinship our alliance with? Who do we trust? Who do we feel inspires and represents us? And can we do a better job of accurately representing the current state of who does science and what it’s actually like to do that, and then share that with everyone else.
Carrie Fox: Okay. Ed, you tell fascinating stories, but a few years ago you realized that there was something going on inside your stories, maybe something missing inside some of your stories. Tell us what that discovery was and what that discovery did to you or did for you.
Ed Yong: It actually began with one of my colleagues who’s an amazing journalist, Adrienne LaFrance. She works at the Atlantic too. She did two consecutive analyses in, I’m going to forget the years now. I think it was maybe 2014, 15, but two recent years, where she analyzed the ratio of women to men whom she was quoting in her stories. She got a very bright computer scientist to help her do this. I mean, the first year she found that she was quoting about three men for every woman. So about 25% of her sources in his stories were women. The year later, she repeated the analysis and found exactly the same results. And so published two pieces, the second one in the Atlantic about these results and what it means.
Ed Yong: Adrienne’s perspective was that as journalists, as people who act as gatekeepers, who have a very real say in whose voices are represented in the work that the rest of us get to hear, she is effectively part of this giant system that undervalues women’s voices. She covers areas such as technology at the time where women were underrepresented. And that in her own work, as evidenced by the analysis she did, she was contributing to the under-representation. I was inspired by that. I wanted to look at the equivalent ratio in my own work. This was a time when I was starting to think much harder about issues of gender equality. I would have billed myself as a feminist at the time. I would have thought that if I’d done that analysis, it probably wouldn’t have been 50/50, but it would, like I didn’t expect it to be bad. And it turns out it was.
Ed Yong: This was about two years ago. I did not get a computer scientist to help me. I just did a little spreadsheet and just tabulated the number of male or female sources from all my stories of that year. So this was about February, 2017, and I came up with the exact same ratio that Adrienne did. And it turns out that that is the same ratio that just exists in the media in general when people do analysis of female representation in the media. It almost invariably ends up being roughly the same, so three to one, 25% women. And I thought, well, darn, this is not good, and I wanted to do something about it.
Ed Yong: What I did was to make an active effort in the work that I do to try and include more women, and crucially I also kept tabs of that. So that spreadsheet continued for the rest of 2017, and I still keep it up to date now. So every story I write, I write down the number of men and women who I quote. At the start, I also wrote down the number of men and women who I contacted for a quote, and I’ll get to that in a bit, and some other small pieces of data. So it didn’t take a huge amount, but the great thing about the spreadsheet was that it allowed me to keep myself honest, to keep an ongoing tab of how well I was doing towards the goal that I wanted to achieve.
Ed Yong: It took about four months to get to a point where I was quoting men and women equally. And that has remained roughly at that level ever since. It varies, it goes up and down a bit from month to month, it certainly isn’t like 50/50 for every single story, but in aggregate I quote as many women as I do men now. A few points in this. Firstly, the spreadsheet is crucial. The reason why the spreadsheet was important was before that point, it was very easy for me to bullshit myself that everything was fine. You would like write a story. I would write a story, I would quote my three women and go, "Well, look, isn’t that great?" And then you forget all the number of times that I wasn’t doing that. So, keeping an accurate and real-time set of data was vital.
Ed Yong: Also this took effort. It didn’t take that much effort. For those of you who aren’t in journalism and aren’t familiar with how this works, I usually write about four news stories a week. Typically a lot of those will be based on a paper or a new discovery or some talk I spoke at a conference. They’ll usually be like one or two scientists who are behind that work. And then I will reach out to several people who are not involved to get their independent comment. So, every story will typically have anywhere between two to five voices in it. So there’s plenty of room for finding other people beyond the ones who you typically quote, and achieving equality here is really a simple act of trying to find sources to contact, and then spending just a bit more time doing that until I get an equal number.
Ed Yong: It’s often said that women are more reticent to put themselves forward when asked for their views from journalists. A lot of people say that they’ve tried reaching out to female sources and sort of being turned down or being passed over to male colleagues or whatever. There is some truth to this, but it’s not a huge effect. So typically I found that I would need to contact about 1.3 women to get a quote from a woman and about 1.6 men to get a quote from a man.
Ed Yong: There are probably several reasons for this. One of them is that in fields of science where men outnumber women anyway, the women who are in those fields may just have more to do. Like they may get more invitations to do talks, they may have all kinds of other responsibilities that are weighing on them that their male colleagues do not have. It may also be that, and I found this from time to time, that women are more likely to say, "No, I do not have expertise on this very particular thing that you’re asking me about. Let me refer you to one of my male colleagues." Whereas men are more likely to go, "I’m awake. So of course I can…" But there is definitely a difference, but it’s not a huge difference. And again, having the spreadsheet allows me to track those numbers and to adjust to that.
Ed Yong: So that’s where we are now. I am reasonably happy with that. I think the spreadsheet allows me to keep myself honest. I’m trying to extend this to other marginalized groups. So currently about 25% of the people I quote are people of color which is okay. I would love that to be higher. It can be difficult because everything I’ve said about women in science applies even more so to people of color in science. And there are just some fields where there just aren’t very many. But it takes a little bit of extra effort, not that much extra, and I think it’s well worth it. And we can talk about all the reasons for why that is.
Carrie Fox: All right. I want to go back to something you said earlier, Liz, and that’s around who gets asked to do the keynote, who gets the invitation. And it’s all connected, right? We realized that there is a system where there are inherently more men inside these fields, and so they are of course getting the first dibs on these invitations. But there’s a bigger issue happening underneath this, and I’d love for you to talk a little more about what’s behind that.
Liz Neeley: Yeah. As Ed was describing, looking for starting with gender equity in his pieces, I think it’s becoming more and more common now in our circles, and science in particular, we joke about manels. Like don’t say yes to being part of an all male panel. But I personally think you have to be intersectional or nothing. You have to think about multiple realms. We all carry many different identities. So one thing that I look at is every time I’m invited to do a panel discussion, for example, is it all white people? And especially, is it a panel about diversity in science that’s all white women?
Liz Neeley: I think we need to be able to build up the capacity to first cue into those things before you’re standing on stage, and then thinking like, "Uh-uh, we’ve gone wrong here." How do we have the language to talk about this freely and forthrightly both within our teams? And I think the data really helps. And then there’s many dimensions of identity that are not immediately apparent to an outside observer. And so at Story Collider, we have live shows and we have podcasts. We have expectations of our teams in every city. We want gender equity or better in favor of females. We also make sure to think about beyond the gender binary to all sorts of different identities. And then we know that people need to be able to tell us about themselves.
Liz Neeley: So we’ve thought about incentives. At story Collider, when people take our stage, we offer a modest honoraria for the time and talent and courage it takes to do something like this. And as part of that, we’ve built in collecting self-identified demographic data. So I can tell you about what percentage of our storytellers are female. It’s about 60%, and this is the same on stage and on our podcast. Right now we’re having right around 40% self-identified people of color. We also collect questions about religion and having children and socioeconomics and all of those things because we know that collectively understanding that is important to us. And most importantly, we don’t ask those people to always get up on stage and talk about, what is it like to be a woman in science? What is it like to be a woman of color trying to do…
Liz Neeley: We think about not just representation of who is telling the stories, but ownership of the stories and framing of it. Do we have disabled people who are talking about just the cool science that they’re doing rather than how do you navigate campus in a wheelchair or something like that? So I do think about these things and I also pay keen attention to the dynamics of what happens in a room. I’m lucky at this point in my life, getting older holding microphones, that I can interrupt dynamics when they start to go bad. You see people talking over someone else or taking up more time than is their fair share.
Liz Neeley: And so when I think collectively as nonprofit leaders, what are the ways in which we are telling stories? There’s many of them, sometimes those stories themselves are products that we put out into the world. And sometimes it is by the composition of the events that we are participating in as well as hosting ourselves.
Carrie Fox: You used two really important words that I want you both to comment on, language and identity. I think sometimes, especially people in this room, they are very awake to the fact that we need to be thinking about the words that we are using and what they mean and how they will land with other people. And are we using the right words and are we identifying people the way they want to be identified? Hard at challenging questions that I think in many cases we don’t necessarily know the answers to. But we also realize we need to start someplace. So, I’d love to ask you how you go through that process, how you think about when you are communicating about different communities that you might be covering, or you’re thinking about the work that you do, communities that are showing up in the work and the stories that you’re telling. How you test it with the community, how you think about the words that you’re using, what that lens is that you’re using before you go out and publish stories about identifying people a certain way.
Ed Yong: I will say that as a journalist, the vast majority of my work involves me being spectacularly ignorant about something, and then in a very short amount of time, trying to be acceptably ignorant about something.
Carrie Fox: Usefully.
Ed Yong: Right, exactly. You’re right, yeah. And I think in terms of what you said about language and the way language can be used to shape different identities, part butter that is not being harmfully ignorant. Now, I feel like what I was talking about earlier in terms of trying to diversify my sources has huge benefits in this regard. It’s not just about making sure that the columns of my spreadsheet balance out. I think they help to greatly improve the quality of the journalism. I’ll give you some examples. There is a huge amount of work at the moment in a field called paleogenomics, which is basically looking at the DNA of old bones and fossils to understand the history of the individuals to whom those bones belonged.
Ed Yong: Paleogenomics tells us a huge amount of human history. It shows a sort of rare contribution of things like Neanderthals to our current DNA. It shows how people are spread around the world, like when they got to different parts of the world. And paleogenomics is a field that is largely dominated by a small handful of labs that are run by white men. There has been a lot of discussion, a lot of movement to get people from indigenous communities not only represented in this work, but represented within the science itself. So whenever I cover stories in this field now, I do try and reach out to researchers who have expertise in this area and who either have a long track record of engaging with communities who are involved in that work, or who are part of those communities themselves ideally.
Ed Yong: There’s a lot of work on paleogenomics in native American history. So whenever I cover those, there are native American geneticists who I try and reach out to for their comment. And that, again, I think diversity is its own reward, but journalistically, what that gives me is a better sense of, for example, what terminology in these studies that I’m writing about is considered colonialist to someone with an indigenous background. And that helps me. It helps me craft the words that I write and the words that I use. And the same goes for a lot of different other areas of life, mental health. I think a lot about who gets to be part of the stories that I am telling.
Ed Yong: Liz and I work in very different fields, but a lot of what we’ll have to say tonight, I think, has this shared commonality of who is a scientist and through the work that both of us do, though they’re very different, how do we shape who gets to be seen as a scientist? And I think I have a tremendous role in that and in thinking about bringing more people who aren’t usually part of the stories and narratives in. I don’t only make myself feel good, but I also give them a chance to shape the discourse of what science is.
Liz Neeley: Yeah. I wanted to pick up on this idea of how do you talk about language? How do you make decisions? How do you check that you’re doing the right thing? For me, one of the really important things was attacking this idea that only bad people are racist. That it’s somehow evil and I’m a good person so I can’t possibly have used language that harm someone or I misgendered someone. So we started unpacking that. And you can help your team and your community learn about things like implicit bias and sort of get to the heart of, I know you’re a good person, I know your intentions are great.
Liz Neeley: I saw an example of this recently, it’s a clever way of using your Slack bots if you use Slack, where every time someone use problematic language like crazy as an adjective, it would pop up and say, we don’t do that here. And it’s about setting the culture and tone, and it’s not about this hurts my feelings or you’re policing me. It is our culture as a group has decided this kind of language has harmful effects and we don’t do that here.
Liz Neeley: I think for us too, it’s not actually that hard because we believe that stories belong to the storytellers. And that means that our storytellers will tell us, what pronouns do they want us to use? How do we describe them? They get to give us photographs. They get to give us bios. We do a minimal amount of putting words into their mouth or describing them publicly. I mean, like you think about what this means. It does slow you down. It adds in many layers of sort of editorial feedback and waiting for people to make sure they’re happy with things.
Liz Neeley: For us too, we also make it abundantly clear that our storytellers can choose to pull out of a show at any point. It doesn’t matter if it’s day of or 20 minutes before they go on stage. They don’t owe anyone their story. It’s a gift that they are sharing. And if later they decide they don’t want that publicized, we won’t do it or we’ll pull it from the podcast if it’s already been published. And I think this goes to editorial control and who do stories belong to. And I don’t know exactly the kind of work that all of you work on, but I know early in my science career, I worked very briefly in Hawaii and the project was amazing. It was teaching little kids how to do fish counts as we did reef transects, and then teaching them how to use recording equipment to interview their grandparents, their kupuna, their elders, to hear stories about traditional fisheries management.
Liz Neeley: And a lot of scientists are like, "Oh my God, that’s amazing data. We have to get our hands on that." Those stories were not for Western scientists. You need to think about ownership and permission and because stories are powerful and not every story is for every person. So I think what does my board structure look like, not just who do I put on stage or who do I put on my podcast.
Liz Neeley: Who am I inviting to talk? Is it the same seven women who get asked to be on every panel? And they’re trying to make tenure. We also have screeners, so outsiders who listen to episodes we think we might want to play to give us additional set of ears because we know, and this goes back to the data, no matter how sensitive we are, no matter how good our intentions are, we all have blind spots and we need to proactively collectively act to address them.
Ed Yong: And just to add one more thing on that. I think if you approach it with this mindset, I think one benefit of that is that the more people trust you, the more they’re likely to give you feedback when you don’t do things correctly. Like as an example, the first piece I wrote this year was about a scientist named Ben Barres who died recently. Ben was an incredible transgender scientist who did amazing neuroscience and spoke a lot about the issues facing marginalized communities. The piece that I wrote about him was just sort of an obituary of his work.
Ed Yong: I originally gave his first name when he was still a woman and one of our friends just emailed me and said, "This is a thing called deadnaming which is hugely frowned upon by a lot of transactivists because it sort of, it always ties the person into the identity that they once had or the one that they picked themselves." It’s a valuable thing to know. I didn’t know about that, but I think if you try and cultivate a reputation of someone who not only cares about this, but is open to being called out for stuff like that in kind of a healthy way, then I think, again, it can only help you reduce the amount of ignorance that I was talking about.
Liz Neeley: I also wanted to mention this idea of diversify your sources of input. Who are you following on Twitter? Who are you just listening to and not trying to jump in or invite anybody. Like how many different perspectives are you actively seeking out so that you are more fluent and conversant in topics like this when they do come up. And I wonder, when we have panel discussions like this, what are the kinds of concrete things we can all go home and do that are going to improve our own practice? And thinking about storytelling not only as a product we’re pushing out into the world, but also as something we’re consuming and that we should be actively engaged in seeking out stories I think is something very useful for all of us all the time.
Liz Neeley: This idea of being open to being challenged, which I think is so important and so easy to set aside to not focus on that, but at the beginning of this year, we launched an equity advisory board specifically because we realized that yes, we are women owned and we are women led. But there is not as much diversity on our team as we want ultimately there to be on our team. And so we convened a group of individuals who are designed to challenge us, who are the people that we present our work to before ultimately it goes to our clients or before it’s an ad campaign that goes live, and they’re the ones who are there to break it down and find the missing pieces and find the stories that are not being represented appropriately. And then we go back to the drawing board. And it’s been a relatively… it was a relatively easy thing to set up, but transformational for how we think about the work that we’re doing and the role that we play in that work.
Liz Neeley: I also wonder when we think about setting up advisory boards or asking people for their time, how many of us are also budgeting for the expertise and paying for perspectives and not just appreciating it and asking again, right? That’s part of I think our calculus as well of you tell me what your values are, show me your budget and we’ll know.
Ed Yong: I feel like, my perspective is slightly different in this because obviously as a journalist I can’t pay my sources, but I am cognizant of the fact that I am taking up their time and this goes back to what you were saying earlier about trying to, I don’t know, diversify the diversity you have. So, if I’m writing a story about a particular field and I find women or people of color to contact, the next time I write a story about that field, I’m going to try and find other women and other people of color, well, for several reasons. I think if you only go back to the same people as your diversity people, it puts an unfair burden of responsibility on them.
Ed Yong: It means that you soak up a lot of their time. But it also is slightly antithetical to this idea of pursuing diversity as a way of broadening your own work and the opinions that you’re receiving. If you’re only going to two or three people from any particular community all the time, it kind of defeats the purpose. And it also sort of puts a weird moral onus on them to be the spokespeople for an entire group. Yeah, right. You are like my voice for women in science. I’ve seen that happen a lot. Both of us know people who have been very vocal about issues of equality and diversity, who spend a disproportionate amount of their time talking about these issues. Anytime you manage to achieve a modicum of diversity in any area, that’s great, but that should only ever be a platform for trying even harder in that same area or in many others.
Speaker 4: I have a question that kind of builds on that, which is, how do you set your personal goal on diversity, or how do you measure whether you’re doing well and making progress towards diversity given a particular population or a subject matter? When you’re talking about gender, is it the representation within a field or the representation in the overall society? How do you go about making those kinds of metric sorts of decisions?
Ed Yong: So for me for genders, since you picked that one, it’s easy because I want 50/50. I don’t want to set the target as whatever it is within a given field of science because I feel that I don’t think it’s the role of journalism to just reflect society. I think that’s a naive view of what we do. We all reporting on the world around us, but in that reporting, we are also creating the world. We are manifesting the reality that we also describe. So I think that it’s important for journalists to think about the world that we are creating. And I want to create one in which we have equity. It is harder to think about what the right threshold is for other areas. Gender is an easy one to think about to start off with. But I think we can all make a start. I said that I want… I’m currently quoting about 25% people of color in my pieces. I would love that to be higher. I think if the trajectory stays the same or increases, that feels like a good thing to reach for.
Liz Neeley: And I think for us, we are often thinking about demographic trends broadly. Like what does the US look like right now? And specifically, because it’s science, we want to challenge the idea that the default mode is white and male, and cis and hetero, right? So for us, we’re looking against because so many people are in that one category. So it’s not that there’s a checklist. We’re not checking boxes. We’re looking for the best stories and you’re in the same situation, right? There’s no trade off of like, "Oh, our quality is a little lower, but we’re hitting our diversity goals." That’s nonsense. That just doesn’t happen for us.
Speaker 5: I’m thinking about if you’re an advocate and you are advocating for a marginalized population, you don’t look like them, whatever the them is. How do you do that effectively through storytelling if you can’t find a way to include, find the 50/50 or find the 45% to kind of raise that voice. I do that on behalf of looking right.
Liz Neeley: Well, yeah. I mean, I think there’s a lot of different ways to tackle this challenge. And sometimes we know that we are not necessarily the best messengers. Sometimes we are deputized by people to tell their stories. They want us to use our platforms or our privilege or whatever it might be on their behalf. But I would be working with them in advance to understand what they want me to say. And I think it’s even more powerful when you’re not telling other people’s stories, you’re telling stories about experiences you had together because you’re embedded in that community and you’ve been working side-by-side and you have that.
Liz Neeley: At Story Collider, we focus on true personal stories about science. And I know that that takes some of the pressure off because we’re not messaging and we’re not talking on behalf of other people. It’s always more powerful when it’s firsthand. And so, maybe that’s part of it is figuring out how your own story becomes it. You do this work and it’s indisputably intertwined with the communities that you care about. And so you’re not only telling their stories, it becomes shared.
Ed Yong: I agree. I think because of the nature of journalism, and I’m not sure I’ve got a good answer to this, but I think that one can always use one’s position and power to give people from the communities you’re targeting more of a voice themselves rather than acting as a spokesperson for them. So that’s sort of what I do when I try and find people to quote. I’m trying to give other people a voice or an opportunity to be heard. But this doesn’t have to just be through reported pieces. It can be through all kinds of other areas. You mentioned Henrietta Lacks earlier. Rebecca Skloot is an amazing science journalist who wrote this book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I’m sure many of you have read.
Ed Yong: Rebecca has a policy where whenever she does public speaking events, if people ask her to in event, she’ll always request that they also bring members of the Lacks’s family along as well so that it’s always a joint panel where Rebecca is telling that story, but people who are from that family are also with her on stage. I think that’s one great example of using your position of power to give people who would not always have a voice a voice.
Liz Neeley: Yeah. I’m still thinking about it because it’s a great question. I wonder what it means when… When I do science storytelling type stuff, sometimes people are in the role of being a spokesperson and it’s like, "Oh, but are they good on camera?" Which sometimes there’s all sorts of expectations about what that means in terms of the language that they use and are they assertive and are they code switching properly? So what if, instead of thinking like, oh, who can we get who performs to the standards of what we expect? And instead of us holding the camera and us editing the piece, you just give the camera to your community members and allow them to take the lead in creating these stories. And that I think sometimes is the solution to these kinds of problems because it’s not just how can I do this myself on their behalf, but how can we also build in equity and power sharing and co-creation into everything.
Liz Neeley: Carrie, for years we worked on issues related to foster care and young people aging out of foster care. And one of the very first things we did was to create a youth council of young people who had aged out and they became our spokespeople. They were paid, they were members of the staff, and they were the ones who told their stories in their words. They were not our stories to tell, especially given that some of them had very personal encounters that it was not our place to figure out a better way to say that. Their way was the best way to say that. And it was an incredibly powerful group of individuals that every year changed. So there was always a rotating set of young people who traveled with us and went to Capitol Hill and told their stories, but it was a way to ensure that the power of those stories was in their hands.
Speaker 6: And I think in the first question you might’ve touched on this a little bit, but I’m wondering if you can speak a little bit more to when you were going down the path of trying to find more women’s voices, should we assume, incorrectly or perhaps surprisingly expectedly, that there were women’s voices at the leadership and expertise level that you wanted, or did you actually unexpectedly find that you were taken down a different field, maybe more junior or a little bit more divergent, but that something good and glorious came from that as well?
Ed Yong: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I would say a little bit of both. No one here has asked this question type, but sometimes when I talk about this, people go, "But shouldn’t you be looking for the most qualified people? Shouldn’t you only care about the quality of the sources?" Which is kind of a ridiculous question for many reasons, but I feel like in science especially, there’s usually no shortage of other people who I could find. And usually when I try and find women to comment on a particular issue, there are plenty around, I just don’t know who they are and they don’t turn up in the first two pages of a Google search because that often reflects to the people who have spoken most about an issue before, who are often men, white men in particular, for all the issues, at least systemic biases that we’ve talked about before.
Ed Yong: So, doing a little bit of extra digging, it often is easy to find women in senior positions who can comment in an issue. I have never ended up publishing a piece thinking, "Oh crap. Well, I used terrible sources here. They didn’t know what they were talking about, but thank God my spreadsheet looks great." Almost all the time it’s like, "This person is incredibly knowledgeable about this topic and I had no idea that they existed, and this is my beat." So, how was that possible? I think that sort of speaks to a lot of the biases that we’ve been talking about.
Ed Yong: Sometimes when those senior figures aren’t available, I will turn to more junior people and there are plenty of them in science. For people who don’t know, typical scientific career trajectory involves being a graduate student for several years and then a post-doc maybe for a couple of positions for many, many, many more years. And then you become a professor of various ranks. Post-docs are great. They are a massively untapped resource of people who’ve been knee-deep in a particular field for maybe a decade. If they’re not experts, who is? And talking to them often gives you not just diversity in terms of the metrics we thought about, but diversity in ideology and in thought and just in ideas.
Ed Yong: It’s sometimes said that science progresses one funeral at a time as people who’ve dominated conversations for decades die or retire. And I think sometimes if you go towards more junior people, you get more interesting perspectives or certainly fewer chest thumping perspectives.
Speaker 7: I’m sort of curious to hear a little bit about what sort of reaction you’re getting from your respective organizations, both leadership and colleagues. Are they adopting sort of your approach to the work that you do, which would… Great multiplier effect is one of the things you’ve been talking about in organization. Are they just shrugging their shoulders or perhaps pushing back at that?
Liz Neeley: I mean, I’m fortunate. As the executive director of Story Collider, I was able to shape my board to grow it and have overseen the expansion of our team from about five people to 27 people. So, I certainly think my fingerprint is on that. And so you might expect that they support it and champion it too. But we also are, we have legitimacy from the institutions who work with us. Universities and science societies are primary clientele for the Story Collider. I have a new position at Yale. I’m a lecturer. I’m invited to collaborate with the National Academies. And in science, which is a strongly hierarchical field, we care about those things.
Liz Neeley: We also care about data. And so, one of the things that we’ve done is focused on publishing results and specifically asking questions about what does it mean for undergraduate students, for example, to listen to Story Collider episodes. Does it influence their grades in class? Yes. Does it influence their self professed interest in science? Yes. Does it give them a sense that this might be a career path for them? Yes. Those are stated explicit goals of so many institutions within the sciences that they are struggling and failing with that for us to be able to say, this is our approach, this is how it’s manifesting, here’s the data and the publications to prove it. We may receive criticism. Sometimes people don’t take us seriously because they don’t like the emotional side of what we do. But then I throw the citations at them about why that emotion is so effective. So I’ve been fortunate, but this is our mission. This is part of what we do. And it’s not for everyone.
Ed Yong: I’ve only had support in the Atlantic for this. But I also didn’t ask permission to do it. My view was, I’m just going to do it for a few years and then talk about it. And so my editor, who is a white man, is very, very supportive about all of this and has been right from the start. And actually he was the one who encouraged me to write the piece describing the whole process. And his boss is Adrienne who started the whole thing in the first place. So that’s handy. So that was relatively easy. Now, I did sort of prepare for the usual amount of blowback when I actually wrote that piece and I was surprised at how little I got. Like there was some that was not numb, but in the main, the response was hugely positive, both from scientists, from readers and from other journalists.
Ed Yong: Women who I’ve contacted as sources before said they were really pleased that I was doing this. Other journalists I know centered around their newsrooms. Adrienne and I both got requests to do radio interviews about this. I have traveled to a couple of places to talk about this and challenges and expectations and stuff. So, I think the response has been really positive and actually the thing that I care about most, and this is both a sad reflection of the world around us but also I think a positive thing is that when you make an effort to quote people from groups that are marginalized, like in my pieces, people notice.
Ed Yong: I’ve had people specifically say, "Thanks for quoting women." Which seems like such a low bar to be trying to hit. But it’s telling that this is the ecosystem we live in, that you can quote a few women scientists and people go, "Wow, that’s fresh." The book that I wrote, about a third of the sources in it are women. And again, people notice that stuff. I’m sure it’s the same for Story Collider too. If you make an effort, these things don’t go unnoticed.
Carrie Fox: We talked much earlier tonight about gratitude, and I’m going to end tonight by just saying thank you and sharing my gratitude for the two of you for what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. The hardest thing to change to me seems to be behavior. And it seems that the two of you are thinking about your own behaviors, but you’re also having an influence on other behaviors, mine included. So, thank you for that and thank you for everyone who joined us tonight and took hours away from your family. I know that that’s always hard but I’m so grateful for all of you being here and part of this too.
Liz Neeley: Can I just say one final thing?
Carrie Fox: Of course.
Liz Neeley: In storytelling, our practice is to go back to where we began and we opened tonight with a story about whistling and the power that that had in that man’s life. I also think it’s crucially important to remember we don’t owe anyone the whistling or the smile or the confirmation. As nonprofit leaders, as people who have many different layers of identity, we owe our best effort, we owe making sense of the complex world around us. And I think that storytelling and thinking really hard about everything we’ve talked about tonight is our way to make it matter and make it last. So thank you.
Carrie Fox: Thank you.
Carrie Fox: Thanks for listening to today’s show. What Ed and Liz’s story and others like them reinforce to me is that as writers, we inherently believe that we are telling our best stories. If asked, we’ll say we conducted multiple interviews and sought out several sources, but the reality of implicit bias is that we bring it to the table without realizing it’s there. I hope this show made you stop and think about your own inherent bias and what you can do to break it.
Carrie Fox: One last thing. We’re still a new podcast over here. And while we know that not all podcast applications and services accept reviews and your stand, we would deeply appreciate your five star reviews and comments. Most important, if these messages resonate with you, please share the show with others and spread the word as we work together to move our mission forward. Thanks and see you next time on Vision Forward. (Singing).
This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.
Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.