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Natural Awakenings Rhode Island

Science Journalism at Metcalf Institute

Dec 30, 2019 10:07AM

Building Bridges of Understanding

by Wendy Fachon


How can science reporting and environmental journalism foster more informed public conversations about environmental issues? 

Since 1997, Metcalf Institute at URI has sought to expand accurate environmental news coverage by providing innovative training and resources for journalists, researchers and other science communicators to engage the public in conversations about science and the environment. Metcalf Institute is part of the University of Rhode Island College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS). With a community of approximately 100 faculty members and 2,200 students, CELS is a leader in the environmental and life sciences, environmental economics and management, marine policy and informal environmental education.

Sunshine Menezes, executive director of Metcalf Institute, describes environmental communication as “an ecosystem of scientists, engineers, journalists, nonprofits, government agencies and citizens.” She emphasizes the importance of giving people access to research information that is both accessible and understandable, and of facilitating dialogue about science that is inclusive and equitable in order to engage all people in these important conversations about environmental challenges and solutions.

 Metcalf Institute explains: “We live in a time of contradictions. We are surrounded by conflicting information yet attracted to perspectives that confirm our own views. We have achieved astounding scientific understanding yet struggle to implement policies that reflect scientific and socioeconomic realities. We live in a multicultural society, yet we often view one another through one-dimensional, rather than intersectional, lenses.”

In 2018, Metcalf Institute launched the first InclusiveSciComm Symposium, as a gathering place for people that are interested in science communications. Journalists, scholars, educators and funders, working across many disciplines and sectors involving science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM), discuss practical approaches for advancing an inclusive approach to science communication and public engagement with science. The symposium provides opportunities to learn, share research results, ask questions, discuss issues and share ideas.

While dialogue is meaningful and life changing, the added engagement of public audiences helps to make issues personally relevant. For example, CELS’s Watershed Watch program recruits and trains volunteers to conduct local water sampling tests and report their findings. Such experiences lead to even more inclusive and informed conversations.

Within environmental journalism there can be lots of conflicting information. One challenge is to help people to discern facts from spin. Another challenge is overcoming the barriers of politics. Dialogue can help sort through the information and build bridges of understanding by focusing on shared values. Menezes comments, “Most of us want the same things, such as equal access to clean water and air. Agreement changes the nature of the conversation. The conversation is about substance and what we value.” 

To this end, Metcalf Institute conducts science training for journalists and communication training for scientists, and it facilitates public dialogue. The intersection of science, policy and public engagement is as important as it has ever been. Menezes states what has been on many people’s minds, “Journalism is an important aspect of the public conversation, and if we lose our news watch dogs, we will find ourselves in trouble.” 

Location: University of Rhode Island, College of the Environment and Life Sciences, 1 Greenhouse Road, Kingston. For more information, visit MetcalfInstitute.org. To view videos from the 2019 InclusiveSciComm Symposium, visit InclusiveSciComm.org/videos. 

Wendy Fachon is a regular contributor to the magazine and host of the Story Walking Radio Hour on the Dream Visions 7 Radio Network. Learn more at StoryWalking.com.

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