Last month, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) named Reuters series ‘Ocean Shock’ the winner of their highest honor, the Nina Mason Pulliman Award for Outstanding Environmental Reporting. The ‘Ocean Shock’ series revealed that rising ocean temperatures has caused currents to shift and is ultimately impacting marine and land life. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Editor in Charge, Data & Computational Journalism Mo Tamman, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how the team reported the story.
Q: How did you get started on the story?
A: I was sailing in the Raritan Bay, just south of the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, when I saw two dolphinfish (also known as Dorado and Mahi Mahi), dart past my boat. It’s a strange fish to see in this area, so I looked at some of the federal recreational fishing surveys, which did show the fish – while rare – were being caught more often in the waters in and around the New York harbor. Now, this is a species that is common in the tropics, and to my mind not a fish that should be found in the northeast. It got me thinking about why this could be happening and what other forms of marine life might be behaving differently.
Q: How did you compile the data and how long did it take you?
A: The primary data we used was the U.S. federal fish trawl survey data, which is a survey that has been tracking the location of various commercial fish species since 1968. This data is primarily used by scientists and regulations to determine the health of a various populations of fish. And from that, officials set quotas and other restrictions to fish catch sizes. Working with some researchers at Rutgers University, we used the data slightly differently: We tracked how the center of a species population shifted over time. There were other sources of fisheries data we used from around the world, including import and export data from the United Nations, Portuguese sardine catch sizes and the survival rate of juvenile sardines to adults, among many others.
Q: Of the major findings of the story, what surprised you the most?
A: It was obvious from the very start of the reporting process that there was a dramatic shift in many fisheries around the world, and it was and is having a dramatic effect on economies and cultures. I was surprised that there had been so little written about fish species’ reaction to climate change. And given that 70 percent of the planet is covered with water, that seemed to be a real opportunity for Reuters. And our findings backed that up –a huge percentage of Atlantic fish species were moving north, or deeper, or both.
Q: What has been the impact from the story?
A: It has been widely acknowledged as a new front on the coverage of climate change and focused attention on how climate change is affecting the dark corners of the planet humans cannot see.
Q: What did the multimedia elements bring to the story?
A: Several multimedia elements helped drive home the findings and narratives laid out in the various stories. We were able to illustrate how different populations of species had moved over the last 50 years or so. In addition, while the stories focused on specific species, the interactive elements allowed readers to explore how other species were moving. There was also a comprehensive visual story that explained how a holistic and clean approach to aquaculture could offer some hope to the huge demands placed on wild fisheries.
Q: What does winning the SEJ award mean to you and the team?
A: When covering science and other technical issues, there are two critical critiquers of your work: The researchers and the journalists who cover those issues. We certainly received tremendous feedback from the scientific community, but it is incredibly gratifying to get the nod-of-approval from the very professionals who cover environmental issues.
Q: Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A: Easy. I’d be a sailor.