But such put-you-there depictions—the kind of from-her-senses-to-ours reporting that was, ostensibly, the purpose of Hoshaw’s journey—are rare in the piece. Much more common is reporting of the more could-be-done-from-anywhere variety: reporting, in other words, that could have been done over the phone or via email, and that therefore didn’t require participation in a month-long voyage to and through the garbage patch. The piece is heavy on expert testimony of varying strains—contributions from oceanographers and research foundations, etc.—that put the garbage patch in context. Which is, on the one hand, illuminating and helpful (the piece’s stated goal, after all, being to “educate the public about marine debris”), but on the other…disappointing.
“Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash” is less a compelling new take on a widely reported story…and more a dryly summative one. A “newspaper article” in the most caricatured sense. As Times science editor Laura Chang told me in an e-mail, emphasizing that the publication of the story was contingent on whether “the material met our standards”: “Both the article and photos went through our normal editing process. Aside from financing her travel, Spot.Us had nothing to do with the actual editorial content.”
The article, to be fair, does accomplish the basic goals Hoshaw articulated in her pitch to potential Spot.us funders back in July:
How Will This Reporting Help?
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.
Deliverable: Online photo slideshow and an article that is under consideration by the NY Times. I will also provide separate photos, blog posts and a debriefing for the Spot.Us community that will be made available via Creative Commons. Time frame: The reporting will take three weeks (on site); background reporting is ongoing from June-August. Hours: This story will take 150+ hours.
But, then, “deliverables” and “compelling journalism” aren’t instantly compatible; educating people and telling a good story aren’t necessarily the same thing. Though ideally, of course, the two goals are realized in combination—seamlessly—in a particular journalistic narrative, when one has only 900 words to tell a story, choices must be made.
As the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit put it: “This piece is illustration of the ferment in news delivery – a story in a traditional, big paper by a freelancer reliant in part on grants to do the reporting. The article is not particularly long or sweeping. One suspects Hoshaw will be writing more on the expedition.”
The ‘more’ in question comes into play in the Times article’s supplementary components: the slideshow featuring pictures of the trash in the patch—including disintegrated, toxic plastic shards, which “look like confetti in the water”—and, more significantly, the personal blog Hoshaw kept during her month at sea. I followed the blog as Hoshaw updated it in, pretty much, real time—she connected to the Web via satellite phone—and found it at once educational and enthralling. And now that Hoshaw has returned from her trip, the blog offers a new focus on contextualizing her on-the-sea reporting (November 3: “The Garbage Patch Starts Here”). It’s good stuff. It’s what the Spot.us funders paid for. It would have been nice if the Times article—the principal “deliverable” in the Spot.us pitch—had resembled it more.