Civic science journalism: How journalists and scientists are collaborating to serve communities and restore trust in their fields

May 7, 2024

By Elizabeth Christopherson and Stefanie Murray

When it rains hard, people living in parts of Lafayette Parish and downtown Lafayette, Louisiana, brace themselves. 

As water pounds the earth and the Vermillion River rises, it floods. And it can flood badly, pouring water into the first floors of homes and businesses all across the Parish, an area with flat topography and widespread development. 

Flooding risk is growing here, and it’s likely to get worse. Even smaller-scale storms are more likely to cause flooding. As a result, Lafayette residents need a way to receive real-time information about hazards, road closures, and other vital safety information when high-risk storms occur. That’s exactly what journalists at The Current, a nonprofit newsroom in Lafayette, set out to do last year. 

The Current’s team is used to reporting on the science behind flood risk for their local community. But they took it one step further in 2023, setting up a deeper, civic science journalism collaboration with scientists at the Louisiana Watershed Flood Center, a research division of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Journalists can have a key role in civic science efforts, acting as a conduit to better connect science and society by bringing community perspectives to scientists, and scientists’ discoveries back to the community. 

Christiaan Mader, Executive Editor at The Current, originally thought the partnership with the Flood Center would be structured as a traditional reporting series on growing flood risks, with scientists contributing quotes as sources. But discussions about the information needs of the local community inspired something far more useful: an email-based news alert system that would provide actionable information around flooding to community residents. It was The Current’s first civic science journalism collaboration. 

“A key lesson [we learned] is to let science lead the product, not the other way around,” Mader said. “With a project-oriented collaboration, it’s tempting to stay fixated on a specific deliverable. But we found that the ongoing collaboration made space for insights to reshape how we thought about what we were building.” 

Emad Habib, Director at the Watershed Flood Center, valued the collaborative aspect with journalists, who are experienced communicating important messages to the public. It altered his approach toward delivering information to communities. 

“Scientists, we communicate the way we communicate,” Habib said. “It made me think differently. … It opened my mind—what’s the use case for the end user? If it’s going to be public, it’s a different use case.” In other words, how can science address the needs of the community, and how can journalism ensure community members are better able to share their insights, concerns, and questions with scientists?

Building trust, communication, and shared learning between society and science has never been more important. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust in science has declined since the pandemic. Increasing community connections to science and ensuring scientists are considering the experiences of people most impacted by issues—from flooding in Louisiana to the use of artificial intelligence in all aspects of our lives—is key to more informed communities, better science, and building trust in scientific institutions. 

At the same time, Americans’ trust in news continues to decline, though it remains strong for local news. This presents a perfect opportunity for scientists and local journalists to collaborate on and investigate scientific issues that affect communities most using a civic science lens. 

Growing support for civic science journalism 

Those are the opportunities we were looking for when the Center for Cooperative Media and the Rita Allen Foundation set out to study the impact of civic science journalism collaborations. The partnership between The Current and Watershed Flood Center was one of 12 projects we supported in 2023 with $15,000 grants to support novel collaborations across the United States. The projects tested recommendations from the Center’s previous research on cross-field collaborations between journalists and civil society organizations, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

To build on this work, the Rita Allen Foundation is also supporting a Civic Science Fellow at the Center for Cooperative Media, Catherine Devine, who will synthesize early learnings from these grants and draw inspiration from others in the field to help catalyze more successful civic science journalism collaborations over the next 18 months. Past Civic Science Fellows have focused on different aspects of journalism and media, and that will continue across the 2024–25 cohort, with placements at organizations such as Climate Central and the Science Communication Lab as well. 

These efforts are situated within larger movements for supporting civic science and local journalism that are gaining momentum and investment, including the Civic Science Fellows program and the funder coalition Press Forward, which has dedicated $500 million to expand civic journalism in local communities over the next several years.  

Building on early success

In addition to the collaboration in Lafayette, the initial 2023 grants presented other successful examples of collaboration. For example, the partnership between Cicero Independiente and MuckRock, two nonprofit news organizations, tested the air quality in the Cicero neighborhood of Chicago by working with residents. The organizations issued a call for volunteers at the beginning of their reporting, inviting community members to be part of the air monitoring process by having free air-quality sensors installed outside their home or business. This kind of scientific monitoring directly meets the needs of the community, which has struggled with adverse health effects from air pollution due to nearby industrial development. Cicero Independiente and MuckRoc later shared results by inviting community members to a gallery walk at a local church, where they also handed out free N95 masks.

“It made the work more accessible,” said Irene Romulo, Cicero Independiente’s Development and Community Engagement Director. “It’s been a really good opportunity to implement engagement strategies in a way we hadn’t before.”

The collaborative reporting was published in both English and Spanish, as Cicero is a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. The results are deeply tailored to providing valuable scientific information for a specific community. The project won the 2024 Victor K. McElheny Award from the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, recognizing outstanding local and regional journalism related to science. 

These initial pilots demonstrate how civic science journalism collaborations open doors for experimenting with new methods of partnership and engagement to inform dialogue and solve truly difficult and important challenges. They also show that small grants can be effective in testing outcomes in collaborative experiments and providing space for aligning values and expectations between partners, as well as clearly defining responsibilities among journalists and scientists—important steps underlined by many pilot participants. Some projects warrant greater investment and will need more time. Larger systems of support can enable both types of investment and will be crucial to achieving further impact. 

Our goal is to build out networks that foster civic science journalism collaborations—to foster connections among journalists, scientists and civic organizations to work together. Nurturing these connections to encourage early collaboration is crucial. Look for resources on civic science and collaborative journalism on the Civic Science Fellows and Center for Cooperative Media websites, and look for future opportunities and insights in the Civic Science Series newsletter. Together, we are working to co-create civic science journalism as an approach key to the health—and the future—of civic life, diverse communities, and the benefits of science.

Elizabeth Christopherson is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. Stefanie Murray is Director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Both are among the Civic Science Fellows program partners.