STAT on Tuesday opened applications for a new early-career science journalism fellowship named in memory of acclaimed reporter Sharon Begley, who was beloved by the legions of younger journalists she mentored in her four-decade career. The annual nine-month fellowship, offered jointly with MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program, aims to help improve the diversity of science journalism.
Those selected for the Sharon Begley-STAT Science Reporting Fellowship will work as reporters out of STAT’s Boston headquarters, and will receive additional training through the KSJ program. The fellowship is designed for people who are in the first five years of their career and who are from racial and ethnic communities underrepresented in the field.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — whose science arm has the mission of curing, preventing, or managing all disease by the end of the century — has provided $225,000 for the program’s first two years, and STAT is seeking additional funding to sustain the program.
Begley died in January at 64 from complications of lung cancer after a career reporting for Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and — for the last five years — STAT.
“Our hope for this fellowship is that it helps to bring people into science journalism whose voices have not been heard in great numbers in our profession,” said Gideon Gil, a managing editor at STAT, who edited Begley. “Sharon really worked toward making this a more inclusive profession, in her own path as one of the early women in science journalism — she was a model for that — and as a mentor, and I think this pays tribute to her to carry on that work.”
One Begley Fellow will be selected in the program’s first year and will start in September, while two will be picked for the second. The fellows’ salary will be $75,000, and MIT will offer health benefits. Applications for the first year will be accepted through June 30.
When Begley joined STAT as it was being started, her renown immediately bestowed the fledgling publication with a certain credibility, and her coverage of genetics, cancer, and neuroscience helped build its reputation for rigorous, insightful, and entertaining biomedical stories.
While Begley’s work was widely respected in the world of the sciences, inside newsrooms, she was just as cherished for her collegial spirit, wisdom, and lighting-quick, if quiet, wit. When colleagues would come to her with questions — a quite frequent occurrence — she would drop what she was doing and grant them her full attention, be it a top editor or an intern.
Some of her most impactful work at STAT shone a light on disparities in biomedical research and the real-life impact those inequities were having. She highlighted how a lack of funding for sickle cell disease, a condition that disproportionately affects Black people, had set back the very realistic hopes for a cure, and how the health care system neglected the needs of people with the disease.
In a story about the reference genome’s reliance on people of European descent, she wrote that it “falls short in ways that have become embarrassing, misleading, and, in the worst cases, emblematic of the white European dominance of science — shortcomings that are threatening the dream of genetically based personalized medicine.”
Officials at the KSJ program and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative both said they wanted to get involved with the new fellowship because they supported its mission of improving the diversity of the next generation of science journalists. But they also saw it as a way to pay tribute to Begley.
“We’re grateful to be able to help her legacy live on in some of these areas where she was most passionate,” said Leah Duran, the initiative’s science communications manager.
Ned Groth, Begley’s husband, said her role as a mentor was both a natural extension of who she was — “a generous person who would help anybody who would ask for it” — and a reflection of a desire to make things better for other reporters.
Begley joined Newsweek in 1977, the same decade that the venerated publication had been sued by female staff in a landmark gender discrimination case.
Begley, then and throughout her career, largely let her work speak for itself, but her talent shone so brightly and so quickly that she rapidly became a star, despite the macho milieu of the place. Still, she knew what people who were made to feel like outsiders in newsrooms experienced.
“She wanted to show other people how to do it,” Groth said.
The field of science journalism — including STAT — is grappling with its own lack of diversity, reflecting the reckoning that is occurring widely in journalism, in the sciences, and beyond, touching every type of industry and institution.
The need to diversify news staffs is not just seen as something that should be done in terms of opportunities and equity — but also because it will result in better journalism. Journalists of color have perspectives that many white journalists don’t in terms of health disparities and the historical legacy of and ongoing examples of medical and research institutions mistreating people of color. Such lived experience can inform their reporting, expand story ideas, and help build trust with readers from all racial and ethnic groups. As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, race and ethnicity are inextricably linked to issues of science and medicine.
“People from different communities and representing different backgrounds recognize undercovered stories, recognize areas that need to be explored, and seek ways to tell those stories in ways that are relevant and engaging,” said Deborah Blum, the director of the KSJ program at MIT and a veteran science journalist.
Editors in niche or technical fields like science reporting have often blamed a dearth of qualified applicants of color for their newsrooms’ lack of diversity. But that perspective has ignored what newsrooms themselves can do to attract, develop, and retain journalists of color.
Martin Reynolds, a co-executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and former editor-in-chief of the Oakland Tribune, has called for newsrooms to build their own farm teams.
“Instead of relying on an external pipeline, you are creating your internal pipeline,” he said.
Several news organizations have started fellowships for early-career journalists of color as a way to create additional opportunities and help them get their feet in the door. But that’s also come with criticisms that if newsrooms really cared about diversifying their staffs, they would simply hire more people of color full time, not just for stints.
Reynolds said news organizations should do all of the above: Fellowships are great, but they need to be accompanied by full-time hiring as well as efforts to create institutional cultures that will make journalists of color feel comfortable and supported — seeing their newsrooms as a place where they can build their careers. After all, some journalists of color who do get hired encounter new barriers after joining a staff, and leave.
“There’s a real opportunity to create a culture where people from different backgrounds and ages can come together to support the next generation and help people do better and move up,” Reynolds said.
Gil said the Begley fellowship would leave participants ready to advance in the field.
“We fully hope and expect that the people who come into this program will at the end of it be prepared for careers as science journalists, either at STAT or at other organizations,” he said. “We’re not creating a program where at the end of it we say goodbye.”