An Interview with Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild was ready to leave science journalism. Then she won a AAAS Kavli Gold award for a series on the quest to identify hundreds of unidentified dead who pass through the mortuaries of a province in South Africa. The award helped renew some of her faith in the field, but she is still moving forward with the knowledge that she might soon pack her bags. 

Here, Showcase talks to her about her experiences and learns what it takes to stay afloat in a difficult field. 

Tell me about your decision to leave journalism. What had been weighing you down and what finally pushed you to make that decision?

Sarah Wild

It was a couple of things. 2017 was a difficult year: The journalism industry in my home country, South Africa, basically imploded. While there had been work in 2016, suddenly there was no money to pay for science. We don’t have specialist publications for science, and I refused to take comms work because I consider it to be ethically compromising. That meant that freelancing locally became an exercise in rejection.

I had been trying to break into the international market, and had some steady, reputable publications that I wrote for. But that too was fraught because often international publications have very little interest in African science. “Yes, but why should we care?” was the constant refrain. And then I had a really bad editing experience with a publication that I had previously admired. The editor was rude and demoralizing, and it destroyed my confidence in my ability to string a sentence together. 

That sounds like an extremely rough year. Did anything or anyone help you along the way?

Support from colleagues really did make a difference. Freelancing is a lonely job. You don’t spend time in an office, or have a ready-made professional support network. It was only in the wake of 2017 that I realized how necessary colleagues are, to share experience, to discuss ideas. I’m part of an international group of science writing freelancers. It was through them that I realized sometimes editors and writers didn’t see eye to eye, and that my bad edit had also involved a bad, disrespectful editor. 

My visual collaborator on the piece that won the Kavli, Kristen van Schie, was also instrumental in creating journalism that was worthy of the Kavli. I’ll be sharing the prize money with her.

Yes, let’s talk about the Kavli. Were you surprised to learn that you had won? Did it help restore some confidence in yourself?

I was en route to San Francisco from Johannesburg for the World Conference of Science Journalists. After an 18-hour flight, I’d landed at Dulles and had 45 minutes to disembark, get through customs, security, and get to another terminal. While I was running — yes, running — my emails downloaded, and I collapsed into my plane seat, sweaty and thinking my lungs would explode.

I looked at my email, and there was the subject line: “You have won a 2017 Kavli award.” I started crying. The very clean-cut suit-wearing man next to me had disapproved of my undignified tumble into my seat. He was horrified at the tears.

After months of rejection, and an editor in New York telling me that I was worse than useless, the Kavli gave me the crutch to lift myself up again. The Kavli helped me remember that I could write, and I could use those skills to tell stories that mattered. That was why I became a journalist in the first place: I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to tell them beautifully.

How have these two things shaped your decision? Are you still planning on leaving? 

That’s a tough one. I want to tell stories, true stories about people’s lives, and science journalism offers a world of important stories. That is what I have always wanted to do it. But I also have to be realistic. I prefer to freelance internationally these days, rather than trying to eke out an existence locally. It is no longer possible to be a freelance science journalist (who does not do comms work) in South Africa. I am also about to finish my M.Sc. in bioethics, so that I could pivot into a different career if I wanted to. While I’m not ready to pull the plug just yet, I need to be ready for that time if it comes.

The Impostor Syndrome

On a similar note: It’s not uncommon for many science journalists to feel like a fraud. Read an excellent story on this topic at The Open Notebook.

How would you explain your outlook on your career today? How has it changed since you started?

I do feel differently about it, mainly about the need to have strong boundaries. There is certain behavior that I will not tolerate from editors — whether it is repeated non-responsiveness, rudeness, repeated delays in paying. That may cost me work, but I think that if freelancers don’t have strong boundaries, they will find themselves being taken advantage of and being run ragged.

Along the line of boundaries, are you planning any major career / personal changes to help keep you upbeat? 

Make sure the money is worth it. I used to do things for free (whether it was giving public talks, or editing, or professional favors), but it creates unnecessary stress, and I ended up being taken advantage of. So no more of that.

Leave my phone in another room when I am at home and not working. As freelancers, we begin jumping whenever the phone beeps. It means that we never really switch off, and this exacerbates stress.

Remind myself that, as a journalist, I have done some great work, and I will not allow anyone to make me feel as though I am incompetent and useless again.

This is all great advice to other freelancers. What do you think is the most important token?

Find communities. Freelancers need support too, and whether it is online or finding other journalists in your own city, you need to be able to talk to someone about your difficulties, triumphs, and story ideas. The isolation is as poisonous as too much work or too little.