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Oceans and the Media

Press coverage of oceans issues is getting better, but there's plenty more room for improvement.

The oceans news beat can be a lonely one for a reporter. While publications seem to have endless column space for Iraq, the president, and the latest celebrity spawn, stories on oceans are few and far between. Though major oceans-related events like 2004's Asian tsunami and last year's Hurricane Katrina have shifted focus back onto the sea's movements, cover stories on oceans remain rare.

Just ask Christina Reed. Reed is a freelance science writer for Scientific American, New Scientist, and other magazines. She is currently writing two books, History of Marine Science and History of Earth Science, which will form part of the 20th Century History of Science series published by Facts on File and due out in 2007. She recently wrote the script for the Discovery Science Channel's Greatest Discoveries in Biology, which aired in January 2005, and in 2003 she was a contestant in The Learning Channel's "Escape from Experiment Island" reality television show.

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In 2003, Reed worked as the science coordinator for Aliens of the Deep, venturing 1,000 meters underwater to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with director James Cameron, and helping document extreme life at hydrothermal vents, a potential birthplace for the origin of life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe. Aliens of the Deep is now playing in 3D IMAX theaters around the country.

Reed recently spoke to Mother Jones by phone from Colorado about how the media covers the oceans.

Mother Jones: Are oceans stories considered big news for media outlets?

Christina Reed: Frequently when newsmagazines cover ocean stories, they do so in a special oceans issue, such as this one. I think these special issues are an excellent way of reaching out not only to the regular core readers of the newsmagazine and informing them of the latest ocean issues, but also to new readers. But, however much I like to read these special issues, I think the oceans are important enough to cover on a regular basis. As a freelance writer I pitch story ideas to a number of different editors. The most frustrating rejection an editor can give me is to say, "The idea is good, but the magazine or paper recently had an ocean story," as though there is a quota on ocean stories. It's a strange idea, because if I was a straight news reporter rather than a science reporter, I'd never hear: "That's a great story about crime, but we already covered crime yesterday."

MJ: So you think there ought to be more coverage of oceans issues?

CR: There has been more attention and coverage in the last few years and the quality of ocean stories has improved significantly. In general, science and environmental stories are one of the most popular sections for readers. People love the oceans — it's a subject people care about. The fact that the oceans are in trouble comes to many people as a surprise. They think such a large part of our planet is invulnerable to human use. I think more and more stories are making it clear that our actions have direct impact on the oceans.

But ocean stories are in competition with a whole host of other fascinating science stories. I think any lack of coverage is a result of editors having different priorities as to what science stories to choose. Ocean stories will come out on top when there is an obvious news angle, or disaster, such as the 2004 Southeast Asia earthquake and tsunami and the hurricanes last year. But it would be better if the public had a better idea of what the ocean's role is in these devastating stories before they happen, and perhaps such devastation could be mitigated.

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