garbage

Photo by Lindsey Hoshaw. Borrowed from Spot.us.

Let’s talk about garbage — namely, freelance journalist Lindsey Hoshaw’s project on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and no, I’m not calling the project garbage), which culminated with the New York Times’ publication of a story she wrote. The project had been receiving a lot of attention in the journalism sphere primarily because it was funded through Spot.us, an innovative platform for community-funded journalism, and because the NYT agreed to run a story that developed as a result of this platform.

The NYT story ran on Monday, Megan Garber of the Columbia Journalism Review gave it a less-than-stellar review on Tuesday, and then the fun began. Read the extensive comments on Garber’s piece to see how strongly some objected to her criticism, with complaints ranging from “You’re wrong. The piece was fine” to “Don’t blame Spot.us; blame the NYT” to the always-relevant “Well, your piece sucks much more than the NYT piece”.

UPDATE (11/13): Hosham has written a classy post reacting to good and negative feedback on her project.

Before I delve into my thoughts on the subject, the requisite disclaimer: My critique of the garbage patch project is exactly that — a critique of THIS particular project, not of Spot.us. I think Spot.us is an intriguing platform with potential and wish it the best of luck. And oh yes, the usual “I’m cool; I’m with it; I love new media” bit so as to avoid having rocks or, worse, accusations of curmudgeonry hurled at me by zealots who take any criticism of anything produced by new media as condemnation of the entire concept and their personal way of life. But then again, you are not one of those people. Right?

My Thoughts on the Project

It’s important to note — and Garber does in her critique of the piece — that the NYT story is only part of the project funded through Spot.us. The promised deliverables on the Spot.us pitch for the project also include an online slideshow and a blog. So when evaluating the success of the project, one must take into account all three components. So, let’s do that.

The Slideshow

The pictures in the slideshow were fantastic, plain and simple. Not much else I can say on that.

The Blog

Garber says in her critique that Hoshaw’s blog was a much better read than her NYT piece, and I agree. Her posts generally left me wanting more and really did a good job of taking you there. However, since we are evaluating the journalistic merit of the project, I do think it’s important to make this next point: For me at least, the blog was a riveting read as a travel blog, but not as a work of journalism about the human connection to the garbage patch. The captivating aspects of the blog posts were the “Here’s what we did today” stuff. If we are to look at the journalism being done in the blog, I would rate it as mediocre at best. Nothing there really digs far beneath the surface or goes beyond just telling us what she experienced that day.

Some examples:

  • At the beginning of the journey, we get a quick introduction to the crew of the ship Hoshaw was on, but overall, we learn very little about the ship and her crew beyond cursory descriptions of their activities on particular days. As a reader following the journey, some basic questions go unanswered: What kind of ship is this (from the posts, you can determine that it’s a research vessel, but we never get any kind of backstory)? Who are these people (beyond their names and titles)? How did they come to be on board this ship? What’s their story? How did the reporter come to be on this ship? Answering those questions would be a basic step in setting the stage for the narrative. Hoshaw has a couple of Q&A posts in which she answers questions from readers, and it’s in those posts that we find more journalism and less travel diary. It’d be nice to have gotten more of those answers without needing questions from the readers.
  • During one stage of the journey, Hoshaw writes that the ship is slated to meet up with some “mystery guests“, piquing our curiosity. When ocean conditions made a face-to-face rendezvous impossible, she writes:

So who were these mystery people? Rumors were floating that maybe the Honolulu mayor was on board or even Jack Johnson since he’s friends with filmographer Mike Prickett who helped organize the trip. But we may never know.

Here’s the problem with that: She had the name of the person who organized the meeting and the name of the film company he runs. A journalist would follow up on those leads. A simple phone call to the guy could have solved the mystery. Yes, it may not have been possible to do right then and there in the middle of the ocean, but she could’ve followed up after she got back. Instead, we’re left with “we may never know”, which begs the question: Did you try to find out?

  • In another post, Hoshaw relates the experience of catching a fish, finding debris in its stomach, and then eating it for dinner. When she expressed misgivings about eating a fish with trash in its gut, the crew quickly assured her it’s ok:

Bill and Moore were quick to reassure me that this fish is no more toxic than other fish I’m likely to eat. Are farmed fish any better seeing as they’re pumped full of antibiotics and kept in close quarters with hundreds of their brethren? Are other wild fish better even though they may also contain mercury or dioxins?

For me, that passage would set off all sorts of sirens and alarms to dig deeper. She posed those questions rhetorically, but as a reader, I would like an answer to them. And how about some background information about data on toxins in fish to put some of those claims into context? That incident is a great catalyst for more in-depth reporting about toxins in fish, but we are left with just the incident, not the follow-up.

All in all, the blog did a great job chronicling Hoshaw’s experiences on the expedition, but from the standpoint of reporting about the human connection to the garbage patch — how this floating debris affect us —  it went barely an inch deep. I explain in this comment below why I feel this is a problem (starting with the third paragraph of the comment).

The NYT Story

To put it bluntly, the piece that ran in the New York Times is pedestrian by most newspapers’ standards, much less the NYT’s. The piece tries to tackle too many aspects of the story within a limited amount of space (it came in just under 900 words). As Garber says in her critique, it reads like it could’ve been written from anywhere. It jumps from a general overview of the garbage patch to its history to a few paragraphs about the researchers on the boat to something about how celebrities are using the patch to promote their causes. None of the topics get much in-depth attention.

If this piece was intended to be an overview, then one must ask, “What’s the point?” As Garber pointed out in her critique, there has already been a good amount of reporting done on the garbage patch, and a lot of information is already available on Wikipedia. In fact, the NYT piece reads a bit like a Wikipedia article, with a few quotes added for a “human” touch and a few sentences thrown in for transition.

Some commentors on Garber’s critique have said that it’s the NYT’s fault for trying to force Hoshaw’s reporting into a format that may not have been friendly for her content. There may be some merit to that, but since I have no insight into the behind-the-scene workings between the NYT editors and Hoshaw and how the piece developed, I won’t comment on that. I will just say this: Good journalists and good writers adapt to whatever format they have to work in. Is reporting via blog posts different from reporting via a 1,000-word narrative in print? Of course! But when you know that you have to work within particular confines, you must adjust how you write to get the most out of it. So when given a 900-word limit, maybe instead of trying to address everything, Hoshaw could have picked one particular topic and drilled deep into it, producing a piece that would add much more unique value rather than becoming another generic overview story.

Update (11/19): In her post about the reactions to the project, Hoshaw wrote this about her NYT story:

I wrote what I believed the Times wanted though they never specified the type of article they expected.

The Project as a Whole

I’ll evaluate this project based on how well it met the goals it set out to accomplish in the original Spot.us pitch. First, the deliverables. I would say the project met this goal since it produced what it said it would: a blog, a slideshow, and an NYT story.

Now, let’s take a look at another part of the pitch, one that goes beyond just line items on a proposal and gets at what the journalist was hoping to accomplish:

I will focus on the human connection to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a vast accumulation of floating garbage located within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. This swirling current keeps marine debris, mainly plastic, floating together in what amounts to an enormous maritime landfill.

Though the media has covered how plastic is affecting marine life—that animals are strangled by soda rings and that fish and birds die with bellies full of indigestible plastic trash—reporters haven’t focused on the garbage/human connection. This is because no one knows how this trash is affecting us—until now.

On this front, I feel like the project fell short. After reading the blog, viewing the slideshow, and reading the NYT story, I really don’t have a better idea of the human connection to the garbage patch aside from what I already know — garbage breaks down in water, toxin gets in water, fish is in water, fish ingests toxins, humans eat fish, toxins get into humans, bad. Looking at the pitch, I would’ve been expecting much more on how the garbage came to be in the ocean, how long it would stay in the water, and much much more information on how serious a problem this is for human health.

Then, let’s look at the “How Will This Reporting Help?” section of the pitch:

This report will educate the public about marine debris. It will bring new light to ocean pollution and provide one of the first reports about how toxic chemical are entering our food chain. Many scientists believe that ocean pollution will be one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century, this slideshow will be one of the first to show direct footage from the Garbage Patch.

Frankly, I don’t think it shed any new light on the issue. It treads on where many other reports had treaded before, albeit with nice pictures and a good first-person view of the garbage. I really didn’t learn how toxic chemicals are entering our food chain except the most basic idea of garbage breaking down and getting in via fish. Really, all we learned from the project on that front was: “Today we caught some fish. We cut them open and found garbage in them. Scientists think this toxin could filter into fish tissue and on through the food chain, but the crew tells me the fish is as safe to eat as any other seafood.”

So all in all, here’s my take on the project: It produced the deliverables it promised, but it didn’t meet the goals it laid out. It showed me marine debris, but didn’t educate me much. It touches on the issue of toxic chemicals entering the food chain, but doesn’t dig deep into it. On a side note, all the buzz about the project did make me look up “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” on Wikipedia, so I did learn more about the patch.

In the end, what we ended up with here was a terrific travel blog with a dash of journalism about the garbage’s effect on humans thrown in. If that’s what the donors on Spot.us thought their $10,000 were going toward, then great (and I’ll scramble over there right now and put up a pitch to fund my next trip to China). However, I think most of them were expecting more journalistic bang for their buck.

I would suggest that maybe Spot.us should explore requiring more detailed deliverables than just “a blog and a slideshow”. From my experience with working with vendors and proposals listing deliverables, you must be specific. Saying “I’ll produce blog posts from the trip” is akin to a Web design firm handing me a proposal that just says “We’ll make you a Web site.” Having more specific deliverables will help both the donors get a return closer to what they were expecting to get when they ponied up the cash and help steer the journalists toward accomplishing the goals they laid out in their pitches and not veer off in other directions where they might produce something good, but it’s not what they were promising.

Thoughts on the CJR Critique and the Critiques of the Critique

For the most part, I think Garber’s criticism of the NYT piece is spot on, and I give her credit for standing her ground in the face of a lot of backlash. However, I will say that the subhead on the critique — “The NYT’s “Pacific garbage patch” story: a Spot.us “deliverable” that doesn’t quite deliver” — does sound like it’s criticizing Spot.us for the quality of the article, even though Garber maintains she is not criticizing Spot.us. Now, as far as whether that subhead is the main cause of the critics’ ire, well, even if that’s the case, good luck getting them to cop up to it. My personal feeling is that some of this backlash is probably an overreaction stemming from over-sensitivity toward any criticism of Spot.us, one of the bright stars in the search for new models of journalism.

The exchange between David Cohn, the founder of Spot.us, and Garber on the comment thread is worth reading, especially the distinction Cohn tries to make that Spot.us is a platform, not a news organization (it’s a way to fund journalism, not an organization responsible for producing it). While I definitely see Cohn’s point (and have tried to stay away from implying the project was produced by Spot.us throughout this post), I do have to ask this: If the NYT piece had been a sterling example of journalism and drew all-around rave reviews, would the “This isn’t Spot.us editorial” trumpet be blown as loudly as it has been on the comment thread on Garber’s critique? Or would it be, “Congrats to Spot.us for the prize-winning piece”? I’m thinking the latter. If you don’t want to be blamed for a mediocre piece, then please be sure to disavow credit for a great piece as well.

One Additional Thought

Perhaps the problem here is that the donors funded the wrong thing to reach the goal. Instead of a trip to the garbage patch, perhaps what they really should have been funding was an investigation into the human connection with the patch. By that I mean perhaps chronicling the expedition isn’t the best, or primary, vehicle for reporting on this issue. Maybe instead of paying for someone to go take pictures of the patch, that $10,000 should go to paying for a reporter to sit in a room somewhere, sift through reams of research data on the subject, visit fisheries, interview scientists, doctors, policy makers … It’s not as exciting as a trip to the garbage patch and certainly lacks that “once-in-a-lifetime” appeal, but it may be the better route toward actually getting good journalism on the subject.

OK, Two Additional Thoughts (Update, 11/13)

In my discussion with Spot.us founder David Cohn in the comment thread below, I said that the degree to which the project focused (or did not focus) on the human connection — a key point in the original pitch — is not a matter of opinion but rather something quantifiable. So, I quantified it.

I went through the NYT story and all the blog posts from the first one on the trip to the one marking the end of the trip, highlighted the passages that dealt with the human connection — or as the pitch said, “how this trash is affecting us” — and compared the word count for those passages to the overall word count for everything written from this project. Here’s what I found: In the NYT article, 109 out of the 886 words (12.3 percent) dealt with the human connection. In the blog posts, that count was 463 out of 10,340 words (4.5 percent). Combined, 572 out of 11,226 words (5.1 percent) in the written deliverables for this project deal with what was supposed to be the focus of the project. If you want, you can see the passages I counted as dealing with the human connection in the NYT article and the blog (highlighted).

If you want those numbers visualized (click to zoom in):

blog_chartnyt_chart

combined_chart

Umm … Make That Three Additional Thoughts (Update, 11/13)

Another angle to consider on this project: The more I think about it, the more I can’t help but think how much this project ended up resembling something an old-media company would do in terms of how it produced the content: We want a story about X. Others have written about it or are writing about it, but let’s send our reporter out to X to send back reports and pictures.

In the new world of collaborative journalism, it seems like the better route to go about procuring the deliverables in this project might be something like this:

  • Seek out research teams that are already planning to go to the garbage patch, get some of their members to blog about the journey and send back photos. For instance, the SEAPLEX expedition (whose chief scientist, Miriam Goldstein, has comments in the thread below and a blog post discussing the science in the NYT piece), has photos and videos from its August expedition to the patch. I’m sure there are others doing similar things. Partner with them to get that first-person-perspective content. I would guess the cost for doing that would be considerably less than sending someone out there.
  • Link to previous media coverage of the patch rather than have your journalist write the same overview story. Get scientists studying the issue to weigh in via blogs and other online discussions.
  • Spot.us would raise money to fund a journalist to examine the research data about the patch, interview people, and pull together an explainer that can either be a comprehensive overview that goes beyond what the previous media coverage has done or specifically focuses on a single aspect, such as the patch’s effect on humans, and goes deep into it. The journalist’s responsibility could also include arranging the partnerships and finding and curating the existing content mentioned in the previous two points. The bottom line is: The journalist would be paid to produce content that does not yet exist and cannot be produced without significant time and money, rather than to duplicate content that already exists or can be had for free or significantly lower cost than sending the reporter on an expedition.