Oceans and the Media

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

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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.

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.

MJ: What are some major issues that are not being written about or are being covered inaccurately?

CR: More stories could be done on coastal erosion and pollution. It’s not just oil spills we have to worry about, but also plastic, fertilizer, pharmaceutical drugs, and cut fishing lines. There was an expedition last year to the southwest Pacific, and researchers in the submersible Pisces V were in danger from fishing lines that had wrapped around this volcano they were studying. Not only do they have to worry about the hazards of diving on a volcano, but now the pilot had navigate around dangerous cobwebs that could snag the sub.

Many of the stories that you’re covering here in Mother Jones are ones that need better reporting, so it’s great that you’re focusing on them. The cry of overfishing, for example, is one that’s been heard since before the 1900s, basically ever since refrigeration allowed fish to be marketed inland. But it’s a difficult issue to address because so many cultures and populations are dependent on fishing. So it is important to consider the Malthusian aspects of how fishing industries become more and more at risk to overfishing the stock. Typically, scientists look at the increase in population and customer demand, the increase in competition amongst fishing vessels and then the rise in technology that allows for increased fish catch along with non-targeted catches or bycatch to happen.

Frequently, when environmental issues including those in the ocean come up, there is this hand-wringing from the industry perspective of how humans could possibly manage otherwise. I think the best reporting addresses the technological and research improvements to the industry that allow for fishing to continue at a sustainable level. Marine protected areas are a prime example of what works.

MJ: Oceans can be an abstract thing to many people who don’t see them every day. How can the media make those issues immediate and important to those readers?

CR: The ocean is this huge blue mystery to so many people. I was in Colorado in January and while I was at lunch, I fell into conversation with my waiter. I ended up explaining to him plate tectonics and how some very exciting research was being done on the bottom of the ocean studying these amazing chimney structures that had their own chemosynthetic community of life thriving, without the need of sunlight. He was surprised. He had lived in Colorado all his life and didn’t think too much about the ocean. I said he should keep in mind all the rivers that run from the mountains here eventually make their way to the ocean. Trying to keep the ocean clean starts miles and miles away from the beach.

I think the ocean fascinates much of the public. There is so much being done at sea that impacts our lives everyday. Most of the imported goods around the world come off of shipping containers, including the oil and gas we use. Even if you don’t eat seafood, you have a stake in the fishing industry. Indeed, people don’t directly consume a third of the world’s landed fish catch, the catch that fishermen keep or sell. Instead, this catch is used as fertilizer or fed as fish-meal to pets, hogs, chickens and fish raised in fish farms. So a good understanding of what is being caught is important to every member of society. This is where media coverage can help.

MJ: Which journalists and newspapers are doing a good job of writing about oceans?

CR: The New York Times is an example of a large newspaper with a dedicated staff of science writers and editors who have an inherent desire to cover stories about the ocean. Former editor of the Science Times, Cornelia Dean wrote a book on the impact of coastal erosion, Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches. Now that she’s working again as a science writer for the Times she’s been coving a number of ocean stories. Bill Broad, also at the Times is a Pulitzer-prize winning writer whose new book is titled The Universe Below: Discovering The Secrets Of The Deep Sea.

Newspapers in coastal cities will naturally cover ocean stories because they directly impact their readers. The Seattle Times has been carefully reporting on the environmental concerns impacting Puget Sound, and in particular the decline in the salmon population. The Times-Picayune has been covering the issue of the New Orleans levees for years. The media coverage for this story was there, but tragically the warnings were not heeded properly.

At the Los Angeles Times, Ken Weiss is one of the few newspaper reporters in the country whose beat is specifically ocean sciences and not just the environment or science and technology. And at the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin has been keeping tabs on the environment and will frequently write about the oceans.

MJ: What magazines are on top of oceans issues?

CR: I’m proud to write for Scientific American and New Scientist. These magazines are an excellent source for science stories related to the ocean. Scientific American had a special issue on oceans a number of years ago, and they cover the oceans on a regular basis. US News and World Report also just had a special issue. They had an excellent reporter, Tom Hayden, who for a number of years regularly covered ocean stories. He had a cover story in 2003 when the news that the big fish in oceans had declined by 90 percent since World War II. So you have this cadre of great people doing this sort of thing beyond just National Geographic and Smithsonian, which are renowned for their ocean features.

Discover magazine has also done a good job of keeping the public informed about ocean issues. Surprisingly enough, Wired, which is known best as a technology magazine, has also had many feature stories about ocean research. We’re also seeing coverage in magazines that haven’t covered ocean subjects so much in the past. The Economist is a prime example of this. Many of its stories in the science and technology section are now covering the fishing industry and its global economic impacts.

The award for best ocean magazine, if there was one, would have to go to the magazine that is dedicated only to ocean stories, aptly named Oceanus. It’s published by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Lonny Lippsett is the managing editor, and he runs an outstanding publication. They cover everything that has to do with the ocean, coastal erosion, pollution, deep-ocean exploration, marine life both macro and micro, the ocean and atmosphere connection, ocean policy and technologies.

MJ: How can journalists do a better job of reporting on oceans?

CR: I think one of the best ways to find out what’s going on in the ocean is to get your stories straight from the source. With email capabilities on board research expeditions, a number of online publications are put up explicitly for oceanographic explorations. I was the web reporter for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Dive and Discover expedition to the Galapagos Islands in 2001. I reported about who we were and what we were learning as we investigated the tectonic geology of the seafloor around the islands. The website (http://divediscover.whoi.edu) has chronicled nine expeditions since they started in 2000, and they are currently on their way to Antarctica for their tenth. This is going to be an exciting one to follow. Scientists are going to don dry suits and SCUBA equipment to dive in the Southern Ocean and investigate the unique marine ecosystem that feeds Antarctica’s struggling penguin population.

NOAA National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has an excellent website for research expeditions. Most recently they discovered black smoker chimneys at the Galapagos spreading center, a hot spot influenced ridge where some scientists didn’t think high-temperature chimneys were possible.

Interridge has a science writer at sea project that covered the exploration of the Arctic spreading ridge north of Iceland last summer and the discovery of high temperature hydrothermal vent systems up north using an echo-sounder that tracked fish feeding around the hydrothermal plumes.

And there are a number of organizations that provide resources for people interested in ocean issues. I think SeaWeb is one of the best in that category. They work directly with scientists to determine what advocacy approaches are best. This way they are making sure science determines what warrants the most attention.

MJ: What are some of the pitfalls of covering oceans issues?

CR: There is a feeling that some stories such as climate change have been dragged around so often as to have been covered six ways to Saturn and back. The problem is if you report a story with a negative doomsday approach then you can bet that after repetitive viewings, it will be as ignored as the strange person on the street carrying a sign that reads, “The end is near.” The better approach is to make the story personal. To share how the exploration into this amazing environment is providing new answers to our questions everyday. The ocean is a mysterious place, only 10 percent explored, and 90 percent of the volcanism on the planet happens underwater. Imagine only exploring about 10 percent of the volcanoes on land and thinking we know all about volcanoes. Or taking a satellite snapshot of a planet like Jupiter and claiming to know all about Jupiter. A research scientist recently told me that even the satellites we use to image planets provide a more synaptic view than what we have below the surface of the ocean. There is still so much we don’t know. I think a major pitfall would be to think we understand it perfectly. The ocean is an amazing and wonderful mystery we need to continue to explore.


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We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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