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January 07, 2006


The lovely, talented, and under-appreciated Grrlscientist links to a story about fishing practices taking their toll on seabird populations.

The story concerns a study of the endangered marbled murrelet, a Pacific coast seabird formerly notable for its habit of nesting on the branches of ancient conifers in threatened old-growth forests. UC Berkeley researchers found that feathers from late-20th-century murrelets in the Monterey, California area contained a higher percentage of carbon than murrelet feathers collected in the same area from 1895-1911, which were higher in nitrogen than modern feathers. Murrelets a century ago were able to catch sardines, anchovies, squid and rockfish much more readily, providing a nitrogen-rich diet. Populations of all four types of murrelet prey have collapesed in Monterey due to overfishing.

Grrlscientist notes:

the effects of overfishing on seabirds has been published by three different research groups within recent months and, even though they all used different methologies, they all came to the same conclusions. Don't you find this troubling?

I do, and not just for the reason you might think. The thing that gets me is that at the Earth Island Journal, we scooped the larger story by two years.

This isn't the only time this kind of thing has happened. Joe Eaton wrote a piece for our Winter 2004 issue on the alarming die-off of vultures on the Indian subcontinent, some weeks before the New York Times and BBC picked up on the story. Similarly, my story on Bush's undermining of the work of scientists, published in April 2003, predated mainstream media coverage of the issue by about a year, which coverage didn't really get rolling until Chris Mooney released his excellent book on the issue this past September.

The Earth Island Journal has very few resources – two full-time staff, only one of whom is charged with editorial responsibilities, 48 pages four times a year, and no budget to pay writers – and we're still able to break stories long before the New York Times gets to them.

Why is that? Some of it might be editorial instincts, though two of the above stories walked into my office fully realized. It's not a particular skill for undercover-type investigative work: Both Norman Holy and Joe Eaton are fine writers and researchers – especially Joe – but they essentially compiled information that was publicly available for the bulk of each article. A reporter for the Times could have done the same, and might well have been able to use the Times' clout to extract even more information from well-placed sources.

I recognize that the mainstream media is reluctant to report on science-related stories until scientists release the results of a study, as happened last week. This stems in part from a misguided desire to act as mere reporters of news rather than investigators, and in part from management's reluctance to spend money for investigations that may turn out to be metaphorical dry wells.

But we don't have any money to spend, and we still get stories like the ones above. The Times has thousands of times the resources we do. They should be doing thousands of times better a job than we are on stories like these.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 7, 2006 01:26 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Yes, they should. There's a lot of institutional laziness over there, and it's not just in terms of being reluctant to do the legwork; there's also an annoying tendency to prefer "easy" stories that write themselves -- an obvious "good" side and its rival "bad" side, a clear picture of the problem, a clear resolution, etc.

Stories that don't fit the mold -- ones that require some explanation to make sense of the complexities for uninformed readers, ones that don't have nice tidy endings, ones where there's a lot of different sides and no one is clearly "right" or "wrong" -- scare them, and they either avoid them, or dumb them down so that they can be made to fit. Unfortunately, it seems that most environmental issues fall into this category, as do a lot of ones dealing with things like humanitarian relief and cultural clash...

The corporate media needs a new approach to these sorts of topics, but either they're too lazy to develop them, or feel that their interests are being well enough met as it is, with their stories of cops and robbers, troubled socialites, sporting events, unhappy rich people, and lucky lottery winners. Oh, and cute pets. Can't forget the cute pets.

Posted by: Rana at January 7, 2006 02:17 PM
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(But you know all this already, don't you.)

Posted by: Rana at January 7, 2006 02:18 PM
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They should be doing thousands of times better a job than we are on stories like these.

And thousands more stories, too. I feel a bit overwhelmed right now, on the heels of having watched on tv a Japanese fishing vessel use water cannons on Greenpeace, and then go on to harpoon a whale, with declarations to kill at least 3 species of whale this year.

In addition, here in Toronto--that's right, I said Toronto, as in Canada--I walked passed an ad that shocked and sickened me. Against a background of ocean water, white block letters screamed out 'SAVE THE TUNA', only the 2nd word was fictively pasted over by a sheet of paper to read 'on', as in 'Save on Tuna'. At the bottom, the Mr. Sub ad read that tuna melts are on sale this month.

I know this doesn't address you question about environmental journalism, but I had to get this off my chest somewhere. I am outraged, but I know that a company like Mr. Sub doesn't give a shit about what environmentalists might think, under the logic that any publicity is good publicity.

Posted by: SneakySnu at January 8, 2006 06:21 AM
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Still others of the thousand untold MSM environmental stories relate the ongoing surprisingly public discussion on trying to balance economic growth with environmental protection in China. Unlike the US, China is incredibly proactive in at least discussing and acknowledging that they have horrible problems that are only going to get much worse if they don't begin to fix them. Our media ignores these stories completely, most probably because the proposed solutions there, while really useful here, would damage the great wealth of the energy, petrochemical and agri-biz corporations. That might also be the reason so other pro-environment stories get run--ya think???

Posted by: spyder at January 8, 2006 12:49 PM
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China definitely seems the place to watch on these matters, considering their immediate need to reconcile population growth/ industrialization with eco-sustainability (as E.O. Wilson illustrates in his excellent The Future of Life).

Spyder, in what specific ways is China being proactive on these matters? Most of what I've read implies that China is a wild juggernaut sprinting towards hydrological and ecological collapse.

(I'm not trying to invoke a food-fight - this is an honest question).

Posted by: Jamie at January 8, 2006 01:06 PM
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Sadly, this is nothing new. For example, I wrote Tsunamis and Mangroves: The Shrimp Connection months before the public press mentioned it, and I relied solely on publically-available information gathered within 24 hours or so (and I still have a LOT of relevant background information that never appeared in that story, nor anywhere else, for that matter). As usual, I was unable to sell my story to anyone, so I published it on my blog instead and was paid .. diddly squat. However, a colleague of mine followed up on my story a few months later by writing an entire book chapter about this same topic. She was paid $2000.

Posted by: GrrlScientist at January 8, 2006 03:19 PM
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Why do you break stories before MSM?

Oh, I think you KNOW why ...

Posted by: Roxanne at January 8, 2006 05:31 PM
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Media can't report this stuff that quickly - they have to wait until the corporations and conservative think tanks have noticed and had time to come up with some oppositional talking points so the media can present both sides of the issue.

Posted by: craig at January 8, 2006 07:20 PM
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