Nicole Mortillaro's Winding Journey into Science Journalism
An unrelenting passion for science and science journalism fueled Nicole Mortillaro’s “long and winding” journey to becoming a senior science reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Mortillaro told a crowd of mostly journalism students at a Nov. 14 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture.
“I’m very passionate about the things I love. I have almost a childlike enthusiasm,” Mortilllaro said. “I think that’s what helped me secure a permanent position at CBC.”
Mortillaro’s talk, held at her alma mater, Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), was part of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award lecture series. The series arranges for winners of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award to visit university campuses for public lectures and workshops with journalism students. The event was co-sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and TMU.
Mortilllaro, the author of 13 books, won a 2021 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award for a CBC “Quirks and Quarks” audio special entitled “Black in Science,” about discrimination and mistreatment of Black people by the scientific and medical community, which she hosted and co-produced with CBC colleague Amanda Buckiewicz. The program also won a Silver Medal in Science and Technology at the New York Festivals Radio Awards.
Although Mortillaro decided definitively that she wanted to be a journalist at age 15, taking every English class she could in high school, the path ahead was neither straight nor smooth. In college, although she loved to write, what she describes as her immaturity prevented her from succeeding right away, and she was put on academic suspension.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Mortillaro said, citing two reasons.
Because she had to reapply, she focused her efforts, fighting hard to get back in to the program. Also, although she had started out in the magazine track of the program, that option was open only to new applicants, so she had to switch to what turned out to be a better choice for her — the newspaper track.
It was a television program playing in the school's newsroom, however, that made Mortillaro realize she wanted to meld her lifelong love of astronomy and science with writing to be a science journalist. Mortillaro had previously decided she wanted to be a copy editor. However, listening to Ivan Semeniuk on Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet” made her abruptly change her plans.
“Right then and there, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to become a science journalist. I wanted to tell people about the world around us.”
Given permission to start a science beat for the university newspaper, Mortilllaro did her first interview with Semeniuk. Her second was with her heroine from the world of astronomy, Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian female astronaut.
“Here I was meeting one of my idols,” Mortillaro said.
After graduating, Mortillaro did odd jobs and worked as a copy editor, but she was laid off during a maternity leave. Then she became an editor at Scholastic Canada. She enjoyed the work and published her first two books — about weather, for kids — but in an environment in which a book could take more than a year to appear, she found herself craving the faster pace of news reporting.
Pushing past fears that she would be out of her league, Mortillaro joined the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, volunteering to write for their website.
“I knew that if I wanted to be a science reporter, I had to write,” she said. “Why not write about something that I loved?”
That decision resulted in being a turning point. Mortillaro landed a job at Global News covering science, environment, and weather — weather being another “obsession, particularly severe weather,” she said. When Global News killed its science beat, Mortillaro moved to CBC.
Mortillaro said she was petrified of doing television, which was part of her job at CBC, but her passion for covering science overrode her fear of being on camera. Allowed to go to Missouri to cover the 2017 Great American Eclipse, she was obligated to do television and streaming segments.
“It was a terrifying experience for me, but it was also amazing,” she said.
Mortillaro discovered that being out in the field, which video of course required, was exhilarating, and she has since been producing TV and radio in addition to print. She counseled the journalism students in her lecture audience to become competent on all platforms, as is now often required by news organizations.
So deeply committed to science journalism, Mortillaro takes in stride the abuse journalists, and particularly science reporters, attract in this era of misinformation and disinformation. She receives streams of hate and profanity from readers and viewers who, for instance, deny climate change. She has received death threats.
“The emails, the attacks on social media telling me I should never have been born, I ignore that. I know what I’m doing,” she said. “We as journalists need to present facts and contradict the mis- and disinformation. That’s our role, to present facts despite the pushback from those who refuse to believe in science.”
Mortillaro recommended that journalists emphasize the message that science is constantly evolving. The rapid evolution of understanding surrounding COVID-19 caused frustration among members of the public, she said, who pointed to conflicting studies as evidence of incompetence, rather than understanding that epidemiologists and other scientists were “trying to learn as much as they could as fast as they could” about a brand-new topic.
Another crucial responsibility of journalists, she said, is to include diverse voices.
Mortillaro, who is half Italian and half Guyanese, grew up with her Italian father not quite understanding that the bullying she endured was directed at her because of her race.
“I was picked on. I was told I was weird. I grew up being teased about my hair,” Mortillaro said. “Only recently have I realized that those experiences weren’t just kids being mean or adults being rude.”
Subjected to more overt racism and bias over the years, Mortillaro said the discrimination continues. Even in recent years she has been approached by police and accused of stealing in a grocery store simply because she is Black.
“Every time it happens to me, I shake and I’m so angry with the way I’m being perceived by people who don't even know me,” she said.
Hosting and co-producing “Black in Science” was enlightening in a personally brutal way. Some of the information presented in the special about so-called science that supposedly proved people of color were inferior and subjected them to inhuman treatments and experimentation was “absolutely jaw-dropping to me.”
“When I worked on the that special, I got angry for the way we’ve been treated,” she said. Her beloved science, which “was supposed to be free of bias historically, hasn’t been.”
Speaking about journalism’s need to subvert the pernicious effects of longstanding discrimination, Mortillaro said, “We need to do better. All of us. We need to bring historically marginalized voices to the forefront because they’ve been ignored.”
Despite the many challenges Mortillaro faces as a journalist, she said she is in a job “that I absolutely love. I consider myself fortunate. I truly love educating the public, whether it’s about the first picture of a black hole, or Jeremy Hansen being named as the first Canadian astronaut to go around the moon, or climate change.”
To Mortillaro, her job is its own reward, but she found out earlier in November about another valuable prize. An asteroid was named after her.
“I can’t tell you how moved I was,” she said.