How can ocean conservation get more news coverage?

A conversation with Lindsay Abrams of Salon

NGOs and journalists don’t have to act like oil and water, despite what individuals in each industry say when they get a chance to air their gripes. As my organization, Upwell, prepares to shut its doors, I wanted to make an effort to bridge the gap between the ocean conservation community and the news media. I reached out to a few journalist friends of Upwell to get their perspective on what makes a great ocean story, how ocean scientists and advocates can better work with them, and what drives engagement from their audiences.

Today I share the first of those conversations, with Lindsay Abrams of Salon.

Lindsay has a pretty broadly defined sustainability beat at Salon. In just the new year, she’s covered ocean topics like the long-term effects of the BP oil spill, Arctic drilling, ocean warming, mass extinction in our oceans, and more. As far as climate and sustainability reporters go, she’s one of the few giving the ocean its fair shake amongst other environmental topics.

A little background on why I approached Lindsay: For three years I have been leading campaigns for the nonprofit Upwell (“The ocean is our client.”) By playing in online conversations for years and doing in depth conversational analysis, we’ve learned what drives attention to conservation issues. Time and again we find that news coverage is the primary driver of attention to lesser known ocean conservation issues. While topics like shark conservation and plastic pollution frequently garner attention in the absence of news coverage, more unfamiliar topics like ocean acidification or deep sea trawling need attention from journalists and bloggers in order to spark conversation.

People aren’t talking about ocean acidification of their own volition, at least not in droves. Not yet. People do start talking about it when they have something to share, and that “something” is most often a news article or a blog post from an established media platform. This doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions (for instance, people-powered mobilisation, or attention motivated by pop culture influence), but it is the prevailing trend that we see in our Big Listening work. (For more on how people talk about ocean acidification, check out our recently released State of the Online Conversation report.)

I’m using the term “media” inclusively, to capture all shades of grey in today’s increasingly complex media landscape. Attention is driven not just by legacy media like the New York Times and the Washington Post, but also the media platforms that were born of the Internet like Quartz, Medium, Buzzfeed and Vox.

Despite this correlation between media coverage and attention, media relations and PR professionals in ocean nonprofits and scientific institutions struggle to craft the perfect pitch and share their content in a way that makes it likely to get covered by journalists and bloggers. My hope is that this interview will help people on both sides to do their jobs and raise attention to critical ocean conservation issues.

Ray: Why do you cover ocean issues?

Lindsay: I am tasked at Salon with running our sustainability section which, as I’ve interpreted it, covers a wide range of environmental and climate issues. I’m not providing comprehensive coverage of the oceans, but when there is a big report or a big study that I know people are going to be interested in, it usually falls in my wheelhouse. When I came in, seafood and overfishing was one of the things that I was initially interested in and one of the things I initially started writing about, so it has been particularly on my radar.

Ray: And why is that?

Lindsay: I think when I started writing about the environment and sustainability I didn’t have a lot of background in the field so I was coming at it from more of a consumer perspective. This is one of the things that had just caught my attention — knowing which fish to eat and the kind of issues tied up in that. I figured that would be a good first thing to start unpacking because I came at it with some sort of knowledge already.

Ray: How would you say that sustainability around overfishing and sustainable seafood hit your radar to begin with?

Lindsay: I think just as a consumer, as somebody who is conscious about what I’m eating and where I’m buying my food. I was a vegetarian and then I wanted to go back to eating fish, so I was reading a lot of Paul Greenberg and Mark Bittman and downloaded the Monterey Bay Aquarium seafood guide app and was trying to sort of figure out my way. And that was one area where I thought there could be more coverage or more understanding of what the issues were.

The oceans are hard. They can be this very big, very far away thing.

Ray: When you get a pitch on like ocean conservation issues, what makes a good pitch and what makes a bad pitch to you?

Lindsay: The oceans are hard. I think you pointed out they can be this very big, very far away thing. I tried to write a piece just this morning about what the White House is doing about illegal fishing and seafood labeling and it’s hard to turn that into a story. You know a lot of what we do are more like one time hits — people see a headline that grabs them and learn about a small aspect of this problem instead of a more comprehensive overview of what’s going on. I was noticing, just going back through the coverage I’ve done of the oceans that a lot of the stories we do tend to be a little bit dire. They talk about, you know, this coming catastrophe, how bad acidification is getting, how much plastic there is in the ocean. They tend to draw that connection between what humans are doing and what impact it’s having.

A lot of the stories we do tend to be a little bit dire.

I’ve also noticed that if there’s something of a mystery — you know, these dolphins or sea lions are dying and nobody is sure why but here are some reasons why it may have happened — those tend to be things that I’m interested in covering.

Ray: Do you ever find yourself being excited about an optimistic story or a kind of uplifting story or do you find that harder to write about?

Lindsay: It depends. I think if there were to be a big report that comes out saying “this is really improving,” I would be eager to cover that. I know there was a report that came out about fish that it used to not be okay to eat, and now it is because they’ve recovered, and it kind of had that direct impact on consumers. I was pretty excited about that. I think on the whole, and I think this is a problem with writing about the environment in general — it’s easier to jump onto the more pessimistic stories, especially because there are so many problems out there.

I think this is a problem with writing about the environment in general — it’s easier to jump onto the more pessimistic stories.

Ray: And so if there was going to be a positive story that would grab your attention, something that you would want to write about, is it possible to say what some of the ingredients of that story would be? Is it relating it to our lived experience? Is there some sort of kind of grounding idea or symbolism? What is the thing that might get you to write about something that is more uplifting?

Lindsay: I think it would have to be something that concretely happened. You know, instead of “this group is starting this new effort to fix this and it’s really great” you have “this group has been doing this for a few years and this is what has improved, this is how much better this area of the ocean has gotten and how much stronger this population of fish has become.” Something a little bit more concrete where you can point to something specific that’s gone well.

I should back that up and say, on environmental issues in general, if a group is doing something really creative or smart, some kind of social media campaign or they created a video or a new tracking website that’s a cool way of looking at a problem or a cool way of showing how to fix it, that is something I might be more inclined to cover as well. I think the drier policy things are harder to have people connect with. Sometimes, you know, it’s just kind of luck of the draw, what I’m able to write about.

Ray: Logistically in your job, this, do you have some sort of quota? Is there a certain number of kind of ocean or climate stories that you should be covering or do you have free reign to determine what you want to write about and how often? How much is your coverage driven by your own topical interests?

Lindsay: Pretty much completely. I have free reign. Sometimes something catches my attention, you know, some things I’ll find really interesting but I can’t find a way to really translate that into something that will work as a post and I might skip it. Once in a while an editor will send me a piece that looks like it’s going to be very popular, a lot of people will read and we’ll put a priority on covering that. My only quota is just to be posting a lot.

There aren’t specific numbers, but I am posting two to three times a day so I need to prioritize things that are quicker to write about. If they have solid numbers or a really strong point to the story, that’s something I’m more likely to jump onto just as a matter of time. I’ve done some longer pieces that have taken weeks, and it’s been really helpful to have people who have made themselves available and different groups and experts who are willing to talk about it, but on a day to day basis, I need stories where a lot of the information is already there, and it isn’t going to take too much more legwork on my part.

Ray: Do you see a divide in environmental reporting between “ocean stories” and “land stories,” and do you see a difference in terms of reader engagement?

Lindsay: That’s interesting. I think people do tend to not cover ocean issues as much as land, but it does seem to me like people connect with them, especially if there’s a marine mammal, or even fishing and you’re connecting that back to what people have on their plates. I’ve noticed that the plastic pollution story is a really big one and that tends to connect with people a lot. I have found that ocean acidification is harder to talk about and write about. It’s kind of this thing that comes along with climate change but it’s something that people talk about a lot less and it’s difficult to explain and to show the significance of it.

Lindsay Abrams wrote about ocean acidification last November. The term “ocean acidification” wasn’t in the headline.

Ray: How do you tend to talk about ocean acidification? Do you use metaphors or stories? How can we make it less difficult to talk about?

Lindsay: I’m not sure about metaphors. I’ve found that the easiest way to talk about it is in terms of what it’s affecting — so coral reefs or the dissolving shells of sea snails, that sort of thing. I know when I write about it I try to make that connection between the CO2 we’re pumping into the atmosphere also going into the oceans. But I don’t think I have some sort of metaphor I could share with you unfortunately.

Ray: Do you have any difficulty with the term? Do you find that people misinterpret it at all?

Lindsay: I’ve noticed that I don’t put it in headlines. I wrote recently about a report that came out with a map of how acidic the oceans were becoming and I think I just called it Look what we’ve done to the world’s oceans, so more of a grabby headline, and then talked about ocean acidification later.

Ray: How much do you feel that a headline affects the reach of your stories? I ask this less to understand how people could pitch to you, but more because so many organizations are putting out their own blog posts and their own content without really giving much thought to headlines and I’d love to get your perspective on that.

You can’t overstate how important the headline is.

Lindsay: I mean I think you can’t overstate how important the headline is. We get a lot of our shares from Facebook and from Twitter and so that’s the first thing people are seeing and what they’re clicking on. Having a grabby image is really important also, which can be hard with oceans, you know not just another shot of water. But — as I told you before about how some of those more dire stories tend to catch on — just going through the things I’ve written about the ocean they tend to be “this is a disaster” and “we’re creating this disaster” or “we’re killing off this species of fish.” It has to, I don’t want to say exaggerate, but definitely emphasize the point of what I’m writing about that’s going to resonate with people so that people are going to want to share.

I think, even more than clickbait, it’s more of that sharing idea. So you want to say, “Wow, the ocean is covered in more plastic than we thought,” and tell everybody about that. I’ve noticed a lot of my headlines, for ocean issues especially, tend to be a little bit more conversational, and I think maybe that’s because the oceans are a hard issue to talk about. It’s about making the effort to connect this to people and show them right away why they should care about it. Whether it’s “we’ve done something and that’s why you should care” or “this is affecting your food and that’s why you should care.” Something like that.

Ray: You mentioned that a good image is super helpful. What kinds of images are helpful to you and can the inclusion of an image help a pitch if it’s the right kind of image? I’ve noticed that if you’re talking about impacts on a specific species, often when I look at those kinds of articles there’s some kind of stock imagery of that species and not necessarily a picture of it in the study or a diagram of how it’s affected.

Lindsay: Yeah, a lot of times the pictures in studies are a little too technical. You know, you can unfortunately go to a stock image website and find a better picture of that animal. Maybe it’s not exactly what’s happening in the study — you know, instead of a dead sea lion this is just a picture of a sea lion sleeping — but it’s one that’s framed better, it’s better quality. Once in a while what looks like a microscope picture or something lower quality will go with an article, and sometimes it can work because it can show that you’re writing about this study and this is what the scientists saw, but for the most part I think stock images just tend to be brighter and clearer and easier to use. If there’s a really good graph or chart that you can look at and tell right away what it’s showing, it’s very easy to interpret, those are also helpful.

Ray: What are the questions you have for ocean communicators, or the ocean topics that you might be interested in?

Lindsay: I think I’m interested in knowing from experts what the main issues that they’re paying the most attention to are. I think that can differ sometimes — what journalists are jumping on and writing about and what is actually at the forefront of people’s attention who really know what the issues are what they want to tackle first.

Ray: About two years ago we polled our list of Tide Report subscribers to find out what issues they thought people should be talking about more online and ocean acidification was at the top of the list. [Note: since completing this interview, we’ve polled our readers again, and the results were nearly identical.] I found this really interesting because a lot of people outside of our community want to talk about plastic because they’re really passionate about it, and it’s really visual. Ocean acidification was still a very nascent conversation and that drove our decision to sort of invest resources into campaigning on it this past year. I’m interested in trends and I wonder whether it will track the same way as other big environmental conversations? Will it eventually hit the big time?

This is what Team Ocean thinks deserves more attention. (from our January 2015 Tide Report poll)

Lindsay: Yeah I do think that there are issues people know. People hear about plastic and right away they know this is a problem, they know how they’re supposed to feel about it and you see that resonating with readers right away. So I guess, for me, when I see a report about plastic I’m going to write about that first because I know it will resonate. It would be helpful to have stories about acidification — I guess more stories to build that coverage and different creative ways of approaching the topic — because it is hard to jump right into it and write about it, especially in a quick post when you’re writing a bunch of posts in a day.

Ray: What kind of ocean acidification stories do we need more of?

Lindsay: I guess you know, more information about trends, and about what the impact of ocean acidification is. When we’re talking about coral reefs and those sort of things that’s a point where I can say, okay, this is something people want to read more about.

Ray: If you were at a cocktail party and were talking to somebody who doesn’t know a thing about ocean acidification, what’s your couple of sentences spiel about it?

Lindsay: Boy, I’m going to be afraid that I’m going to say something wrong to you.

Ray: No don’t worry about it, I know you’re not a scientist!

Lindsay: I do a lot of double checking when I write about these things.

Ray: That’s why I asked, it’s cocktail party version. You know, you’re two drinks in, how do you talk about it? I mean you probably wouldn’t talk about it at a cocktail party but if you did…

Lindsay: I’ve been known to talk about some strange things. I guess I would say, this is the consequence of the C02 going into the atmosphere that a lot of people aren’t talking about and maybe aren’t aware of and that it’s already changed the composition of the ocean to the point where coral reefs are being harmed, shellfish are sort of dissolving and it’s something that’s being seen.

How does ocean acidification make you feel?

Ray: How does ocean acidification make you feel?

Lindsay: How does it make me feel as a person? As a journalist?

Ray: Hopefully that’s the same thing, but maybe if it’s not, you could tell me both.

Lindsay: It’s definitely something that worries me. It definitely feels like a big kind of intangible issue and it’s difficult to know what to do about it. It’s definitely something that is difficult to talk about, you know even when you ask me to give my pitch on what it is, I’m afraid of getting wrong, you know it’s a very complex issue. You know, I call the scientists, ask them a lot of dumb questions, that’s kind of my role.

Ray: They are not dumb questions, they are the right questions. Ultimately most scientists can’t do what you do — you both play important roles.

Lindsay: I like to think there’s some sort of partnership there.

Ray: What we’ve seen in our research is that the more scientific literature there is, the more news articles, the more conversation. It’s a super linear process.

You know there’s certainly a link between ocean acidification and climate change, but as a topic climate change obviously has its pros and cons because it’s been historically politicized and polarized. I wonder, do you find that using climate as an entry point to talk about acidification is necessary or useful to you or do you think that people, that that’s not really necessary at all?

The fact that climate change is politicized is one of the reasons why people keep reading about it, so we don’t really shy away from that.

Lindsay: For me that’s definitely what I have done, and for Salon, you know we’re very heavy on politics. We have a lot of readers who come to us for politics and so the fact that climate change is politicized is one of the reasons why people keep reading about it, so we don’t really shy away from that. I mean I’m mostly joking here but if there were to be a conservative politician who were to come out and say something terrible about ocean acidification or deny that it’s happening, that would make for a really strong story for us.

And I think you know, climate change is something almost every single day I am writing about whereas ocean acidification is far less frequent so when I do write about it, making the connection the climate change is just a way to tie it into things that I think my readers know more about.

Ray: Do you consider yourself a conservationist?

Lindsay: Yeah I would say so. I’m more of a blogger than an unbiased reporter, so I am definitely advocating for action and for attention to be paid to these issues when I’m writing about them. That’s not a secret or anything.

Ray: In terms of advocating for action, how important is it to you when you’re writing a story to have some sort of pathway to action for readers?

Lindsay: I would say it’s less about having a pathway to action than it is about getting readers to connect to the story, whether that’s, translating it into putting political pressure on politicians to do something or just to understand how their own actions are affecting something. I don’t do the sort of “look here to find out more from this organization or to make a donation or write a letter to your congress person” but if a story is too abstract people aren’t going to connect to it. They need to see a connection to themselves. So my foremost goal is that people are going to want to read the story.

If a story is too abstract people aren’t going to connect to it. They need to see a connection to themselves. So my foremost goal is that people are going to want to read the story.

Ray: Is there anything that you want to tell the world of communicators and conservationists that would make your job easier or that would help them in their work?

Lindsay: I mean a lot of what you’re doing, just knowing what I write about… even just like while we were on the phone I got inundated with so many PR pitches in my email, a lot of times I’m not even going to click on them just because there’s too much and so if somebody starting by knowing what I write about and knowing what I’d be likely to take a second glance at or be interested in, I’m much more likely to respond because I feel like this is somebody who understands where I’m coming from and isn’t wasting my time.

I also really appreciate when people give me a heads up about something that is going to be coming up. You know, I appreciate one follow up but if somebody, I don’t even really have an office phone but if someone tracks down my cell phone number or is kind of harassing me, it’s hard because I’m covering so many topics and I have to process so much so quickly. I feel bad that I can’t respond to everything but it’s just impossible with the pace that I have to be working at.

Ray: Well I guess that’s a super good segue for me to say thank you for your time.

Lindsay: Thank you for listening to me ramble, it’s nice to be on the other side for a change.

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