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The eagles have landed!

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

Something else awesome has been happening in South Bend, Indiana, this week besides the wake and funeral of Notre Dame legend Theodore Hesburgh. And while that something hasn’t had electric signs highlighting where to park, it’s a first-time-in-a-century event.

In short, the eagles have landed!

Drive a few miles north of Notre Dame’s golden dome, turn left off Route 933 and then park by the big barns at St. Patrick’s County Park. In addition to enjoying the excitement of snow shoeing and tubing, you can see the first bald eagle nest in St. Joseph County in over 100 years.

I was privileged to visit the site earlier this week as part of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources’ workshop, “Talking Science, Telling Stories: Natural Resource Journalism in the Great Lakes.” Hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative, the workshop brought together researchers, journalists, field workers and others to explore some of the cutting edge science and conservation challenges presented in and around the Great Lakes region.

St. Patrick’s County Park is host to the Environmental Change Initiative’s Linked Environmental Experimental Ecosystem Facility, or LEEF. The facility pumps groundwater up into a kidney-shaped pond, from which it flows into a stream and wetland. The system can also be configured in different ways to bypass different parts in that chain.

The aim will let researchers design experiments and test hypotheses under controlled conditions. For example, how long does it take DNA to degrade in a freshwater system? Or, what are the impacts of something upstream on downstream habitats?

Using land at the county park provides space that is close to campus but not otherwise readily available in the midst of classroom buildings, a basilica, library and expansive football stadium. The county park location also provides opportunities for public outreach. Those opportunities include teacher programs, field trips and public outreach days. In short, everyone can have a chance to see science in action.

“We wanted an environmentally friendly facility,” park director Evie Kirkwood told us.

The site was so environmentally friendly that it attracted the county’s first bald eagle nest in 100 years. Built from LOTS of twigs and sticks, the nest measures six feet across. After all, bald eagles are big—especially when they spread their wings!

As exciting as the new eagle’s nest is, it adds a few wrinkles to LEEF’s plans. Federal law restricts activities for up to 650 feet from an active nesting site. More stringent limits apply closer in.

If the eagles stay at the nest and make it permanent, the limits will continue to apply. If the birds leave, that would mean fewer restrictions on the new research facility and other park activities. Yet their departure would also deprive visitors of the chance to see bald eagles up close—or at least as close as allowed under federal law.

“The next few weeks will be critical,” said Kirkwood, adding that she was “surprised” more birders hadn’t come out to the park yet to view the bald eagles.


5 Things I Really Don’t Need To Know

An item on Yahoo! Shine today tempts readers with the headline “5 Things You Need to Know About Prince George’s New Nanny.” The article is reprinted from The Bump.

Who do the editors think they’re kidding?

I really don’t need to know anything about Prince George’s new nanny. Nor do more than 99.9 percent of the people likely to see the headline. We won’t be meeting and interacting with her. We’re not likely to consider hiring her after she leaves the British royalty’s employment. And we’re certainly not considering kidnapping the little baby—in which case Maria’s Tae-Kwon Do and stunt driving could foil our attempt.

Even readers who are considering hiring a nanny right now probably aren’t looking for those skills. They want someone who will engage and stimulate their children while caring for them safely. They want someone who will be reliable and trustworthy when it comes to showing up on time and following parents’ instructions. And they’d like someone who can be flexible—adjusting to the children’s needs and the demands that parents’ jobs can place on them from time to time.

In short, the editors’ headline is nothing more than a grab for attention. It may get some gullible folks to read the article. But then they’d find there’s nothing there they need to know.

Headlines about x things you need to know are nothing new. They provide an easy format for both the writer and reader. And they tempt readers to follow up. “Hmmm, what are those 5 things I need to know?” they might ask.

But then the body of the article is supposed to have information that people really do need to know. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some excellent examples.

5 Things you can do to lower your child’s lead level” offers five practical steps parents can take. If I had young children and lived in an area where lead poisoning was a possibility, I’d get started on those steps right away.

5 Things You Need to Know about Tuberculosis (TB)” does cover basic facts in a helpful Q&A format. With one-third of the world’s people being infected with the bacteria that cause the disease, this really is information we all should know. “Almost 2 million deaths worldwide occur each year from TB,” reports the CDC. TB is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, and it affects people around the world—including thousands in the United States.

When headlines don’t deliver on their promise about “things you need to know,” that’s a problem. The editors of Yahoo! Shine and The Bump might not care about their credibility. But readers are then likely to be skeptical about whether other news articles really will offer news points they need to know.

I probably wouldn’t have been in a snit if the headline had read, “5 Fascinating Facts about Prince George’s New Nanny.” I might or might not find all of them fascinating. But at least I’d have been fairly told that I was basically going to read trivia.

And yes, I realize Yahoo! Shine and The Bump are not noted for being pinnacles of journalism. But the more often hype like this gets used, the worse it is for both writers and readers.

“People To Shoot”

“Okay, now look like you’re telling each other some big news.”

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

“Is it okay if we really talk?”

Yesterday morning I did a short photo shoot with a couple of friends’ daughters for a science article I’m working on. An expert I’d interviewed talked about networks for spreading news among junior high school students, so I’m thinking it would be great if the final article includes an image of real junior high students sharing news. Hence, my request and gratitude to the two good sports who helped me out, as well as their moms who gave permission in advance.

The client for this particular article asks writers to identify a couple of images that would help illustrate the article, and the target audience is indeed students. After the girls left, I uploaded the images to my computer and tinkered a bit. I cleaned up one or two bits or red eye, adjusted brightness, and made sure the images were sharp. Then I selected the best, wrote captions, and finalized a memo describing how one of these and images from other sources would help illustrate different points of my article.

Even when a client doesn’t require that, thinking visually can help shape my writing. For starters, it makes me focus on the particular outlet. How might my article appear to that outlet’s target reader? Even though I write with my own voice, each piece needs to be a good fit for its outlet. And it must be accessible to those particular target readers.

Focusing on possible images makes the subject come alive for me. The more real and the more interesting I find it, the better I can understand it and convey its importance through my writing.

Thinking visually also helps me focus on what I want to say. The photo captions for my own images and those from other sources need to be short and accurate. They also need to convey how the image relates to the subject of the article. This makes me focus: Why is this photo relevant? What does it say? How does that relate to my topic? After I write the captions, I go back and review my article. Does it clearly make the points that the photo captions say? If not, I need to polish my writing more.

Taking some of my own images for articles has also created some fun memories. Back when my kids were younger, they and their friends would pose for different photo shoots. We did one for a meteor-watching party and another for a piece on how to do a time release image of star tracks. Afterward, we all celebrated with a dessert.

Yet another project illustrated points for a book on teens’ legal rights. My younger daughter volunteered to help line up friends for different shots. She even obligingly came up with a list, titled “People To Shoot.” For a few boys, she even included a note to avoid days they caddied: “Wednesdays are not good for them.”

This raises a whole other question about how words can have multiple meanings and how to avoid having something said in one context misconstrued in another. But that’s a whole other article. And I’m thinking a close-up of a camera would be just the shot to illustrate it.

A Very Public Apology

My last post castigated Biology Online for the actions of an employee who was totally wrong in making a slur against a woman who declined a project. This morning, I was glad to learn that Biology Online has done the right thing. It has apologized to Danielle Lee by email. It has posted a very public apology on its website. And it has fired the employee who made the slur.

Sexist remarks and slurs are serious. They insult the women at whom they are directed. They create a hostile work environment–even when that work environment is spread out among a network of freelancers and remote employees.

In a broader sense, sexist remarks and slurs hinder the general advancement of women among the ranks of professionals. People don’t often talk about the “glass ceiling” these days–the idea that professions may let most women rise only so high, but no higher. And as Elaine Wherry recently pointed out in a Wall Street Journal blog, people are often more subtle now.

Consequently, when slurs do surface, they cannot be tolerated. Otherwise, they reinforce the unseen barriers.

Biology Online’s response was the proper one from a legal perspective. It was also the right thing to do. I’d like to hope they’d have done the right thing even if the case hadn’t become very public. And we should all hope incidents like this don’t happen again.

Totally Wrong

Thanks to Wired for carrying this blog post:

It is NEVER appropriate for anyone in a professional position to call another professional a whore. That editor should be disciplined by his employer. And a very public apology–and perhaps even compensation–is due to the science journalist.

Low Lake Levels Raise Concerns

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

If you know me, you know I love the beach. I enjoyed playing at Long Island’s Jones Beach in the summer. My husband and I honeymooned by the Pacific Ocean. We’ve taken numerous beach vacations over the years we’ve been married. And even though I live in the Midwest now, I regularly head up to Lake Erie’s beaches to walk, to read, to picnic, or just to look out over the water.

So, you can see why press releases and webinar notices about low water levels in the Great Lakes caught my attention.

Ideally, journalists want to write stories about topics they care about. First, one needs to get enough information to see if there’s a story plus a fresh angle that others aren’t addressing. Then comes the job of pitching that story in a way that gets editors to see why readers should care about it too. So, here’s a bit of what I found out, and then I invite you to read my article in Midwest Energy News.

This past winter, Lake Michigan and Huron reached record-low water levels, says NOAA. Lake Superior is also lower than its long-term average. Lakes Erie and Ontario are near average levels.

Basically, more water is evaporating or otherwise going out of the upper Great Lakes than is coming in from precipitation and other inputs. And climate change is a big factor.

Climate change increases the likelihood for extreme weather events, such as last summer’s drought. Even slight overall warming reduces ice cover, which allows more evaporation to take place. And shallower waters can heat up faster.

To see the data for yourself, check out NOAA’s Great Lakes Interactive Dashboard.

And yes, lower water levels in the upper Great Lakes cause problems. Shore areas face threats from invasive species, and shifting shorelines alter nearshore habitats. Tourism suffers. And shipping costs rise.

Power plants face problems too, as I learned while researching my latest article for Midwest Energy News:

Low Great Lakes levels raise concerns for Midwest power plants

Low water levels in the Great Lakes pose potential operating and efficiency problems for Midwest power plants.

It’s one of several ways power plants are increasingly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather, an issue recently highlighted in a Department of Energy report. . . .  Read more.

The bottom line: Climate’s consequences matter today—not just in some far-off future. Let’s not be left high and dry.

I Should Use Shorter Sentences

As a science writer, I often interview scientists. Experts in different fields know what the most important issues are. They understand the details. And they’re often on the front lines of research. They know what’s news.

Expert quotes add depth and insight to my writing. Expert quotes add credibility and authority.

Beyond that, expert quotes add dialogue.

Yup, you read that right. Good nonfiction should be as easy to read as fiction. That’s especially true when you’re writing for kids or the general public. The principle even applies to readers who are generally familiar with a subject. The more readable an article or book is, the more likely someone is to keep reading.

Often I’m lucky enough to talk with experts who provide lots of quotable comments. Yet sometimes getting a quotable comment is a struggle. The expert keeps reverting to jargon. Or, the expert’s comments are so qualified or convoluted, it would take ten times as many words to put them in context.  Articles’ word limits make such situations even more frustrating.

Nonetheless, scientists may be experts in their fields, but that doesn’t mean they’ve had media training or are polished public speakers. Plus, they’re doing me a favor by providing the interview.

It’s up to me, then, to keep pressing until I get something clear and quotable. It’s my job to ask clarifying questions. It’s my job to get the expert to talk to me like a 12-year-old kid, or an average mom, or the average guy on the street.

After all, I’m the writer. I’m supposed to be the expert on knowing what the article needs and how to get it.

And I need to remember that my interview subject is human. In most cases, he or she is not a pro at giving interviews. Nor has he or she usually prepared answers to my questions in advance.

I got a strong reminder about this when I was interviewed last summer for a journalism project of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.  MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station was hosting a conference of journalists and scientists on communicating about climate change. Videotaped interviews asked us to talk about the challenges, barriers, and common ground between journalists and scientists.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

The edited videos are now up on MSU’s website. The short videos provide a good introduction to issues that journalists and scientists face in dealing with each other.

Yet my own clips also underscored that I need to do more of what I want experts to do for me. In particular, I need to use shorter sentences.

No, I hadn’t known the particular interview questions in advance. So yes, I was speaking off the cuff. Yet many people I talk with are in the same situation.

Just as scientists keep experimenting and researching, I need to keep experimenting and expanding my interview techniques. Seeing my own interview clips gives me some guidance on where I can improve.