In 2010, Berkeley-based science journalist Erik Vance and his wife were discussing the possibility of moving abroad for her work. “We could move anywhere in the world with my job,” he said, imagining that maybe they’d go to Europe together. Then, she was offered a position in Mexico City. At the time Erik spoke no Spanish, but he agreed to see if he could make the move work.
And make it work he did. Erik’s career has flourished in Mexico, and he and his wife are now in year three of what was going to be a two-year adventure. Here, he shares his experience reporting science stories from abroad.
What was your reaction when your wife said “Mexico City”?
I was not thrilled. I thought it was a dangerous place. I knew it for pollution, sprawl, and violence. And she said, “Let’s go down there for ten days, and we’ll try it out. If you don’t want to do it, we won’t do it.” On day six I said, “Let’s move here. This is amazing.” It’s gotten such a bad reputation in the press. But, the culture, the food, the people – it’s amazing.
Did you have a sense of what the move would mean for your career?
I was worried. I didn’t know anyone who had ever done this before. I didn’t know if it would work. I was worried that I would end up sitting around.
How did you get started?
Well, the thing about Mexico—and a lot of countries—is their science is heavily under-covered. There are people here that have been doing amazing work for thirty years, who, if they lived in the US would have had multiple features written about them. But they’ve never been written about. The second day I was here, I went to a dinner party and found a story that was later accepted by National Geographic.
Did you plan to cover mostly Mexican science, or were you planning to cover US stories, too?
I decided to split my time 50/50, and I don’t know if it’s 50/50 or not. Right now, it feels a little 80/20, but I try to keep my feet in both worlds. I can only do so much in Mexico, and I do like to do American stories as well.
The story that most exemplifies that is a story I did in Oaxaca on wind turbines. There’s a conflict between wind turbine companies and indigenous communities in Oaxaca, and it’s sort of a twist on the normal green story, with wind companies sort of taking advantage of indigenous people. And that story went on the cover of the Christian Science Monitor‘s weekly edition.
I did a couple of stories for Scientific American that could fit in that category. One of them was coral restoration, repairing parts of reefs with coral. There’s a group in Mexico that’s doing this on a shoestring. Really impressive people doing cutting edge work with almost no support. Any journalist living in the place would find that story, but you wouldn’t find it from overseas. Another story was on scorpion venom. That’s a story I could have found in the US because it was a product that was going through the FDA trials, and it was passing. But I wouldn’t have been able to get the Mexican side of it. And that’s often what happens with these stories. They’re Mexican stories, but you talk to a bunch of Americans. Here, I get to get the Mexican researchers and the Mexican perspective on it.
Is language an issue for you?
Absolutely. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse in that it’s hard. My Spanish is barely good enough when people enunciate. If I work in a rural community, where people have strong accents, I can’t understand a word of it. I’ve been working hard, but I will never the kind of fluent that can understand some of the accents down here. The blessing is that it’s possible. I wouldn’t expect anyone to hire me on staff. For every story I pitch, it’s my own job to get a translator or to be able to report it myself with my own limited Spanish skills, and I like it that way. Scientists mostly speak English here, but to get the full story I have to get creative.
Do you need a US angle to pitch stories to US markets?
Often, yes. You have to really know the landscape of magazines out there and what they want. Some just want to have foreign material. But, yes, usually you have to have a US angle. I’m looking at a story today, in fact, dealing with earthquakes that is sort of missing a US angle, and I’m having to go through that process. I’m not sure if it’s going to work.
But at the same time, I think as time goes on, research is research. New discoveries happen, and it doesn’t matter where they happen. They’re furthering our scientific knowledge, and they’re just interesting. There are a lot of stories that are like that, that you don’t need an angle for.
Have you found a community of journalists?
There’s a very strong community of journalists here, and it’s a very supportive community. No matter where you live, as a science journalist, it’s important to be in touch with other journalists—people who do food writing and war coverage and travel writing. That was something that I didn’t have enough of before I came here. I wasn’t talking to enough normal journalists. So, I spend a lot of time with general interest journalists. There is a community of Mexican science journalists, as well. It’s young. It’s not as strong a community as you’d see in San Francisco or Washington, DC, but it’s growing. I think the biggest challenge right now is for them to find outlets that can support good science journalism. I think Mexico is going through a process right now where it’s trying to figure out what the market is, and I think it’s a matter of general interest Mexican outlets realizing that they want science. A lot of magazines here are getting more serious about science, doing real science and not fluffy stuff. It’s changing, but there’s still way too many weird religious overlaps with science or UFOs and stuff like that. I think Mexico’s ready for real science journalism. I think people are hungry for it. A lot of people here read Scientific American, which is sad.
What have you done to stay in touch with your US networks?
I go to AAAS. I went to NASW this year. I try to make it a point to go to more science writer gatherings than I would have if I was living in Berkeley, where I had a community around me. It’s important to keep a network around you in a foreign country, but it’s also important to go back and remind yourself of the US network.
It’s hard. It sounds glamorous, but it’s hard. I’ve had a few stories where I just felt completely over my head, and I derived some solace from the fact that other journalists feel the same way.
It’s hard. It’s confusing. You’ll get stuff wrong. You’ll miss cultural cues. You’ll look like a jerk because you’re some white guy in a poor community. All these things happen. So, you just have to stick it out and tell yourself, “I’ll do better tomorrow” because you’re going to mess up, and it’s going to be really awkward at times. And we should be doing it. You should be out of your comfort zone. It turns out that’s what journalism is.
You sound like you want some competition.
No one person can cover a country’s science endeavors. Probably no ten people, no matter how good they are, can do it. And I am kind of the least likely person to be covering Mexican science and totally under-qualified. I expect the next generation of science writers in Mexico to be way better than me. I’m hoping that someday there is a fleet of journalists from outside covering research here and a fleet of Mexicans covering work and sharing it with a wider audience in the US and Europe. And the same goes for every emerging market on the planet.
Photos courtesy of Erik Vance.