Writing environment: uncomfortable journalism

My cousin's cat Simba helping me with an article titled 'Swedish scientist: we are all green sinners'

My cousin’s cat Simba helping me with an article titled ‘Swedish scientist: we are all green sinners’

I plan to make this a series. Here’s a first part about my short writing career, mostly the whats.

Recently we got an email from Edinburgh uni, our alma mater, inquiring about our life post-graduation. Specifically, quote, “[they] are asking everyone what [we] will be doing on 13 January 2014 so that the information is comparable”. I know exactly where I’ll be at the time, yet this very official email still freaked me out. As if I haven’t been asking myself for the past 5 months ‘what am I doing?’.

Following our graduation back in July all of us, the EcoPosters, have entered a new stage in our lives. Sara has already written about her experiences of starting a PhD (after each part I feel more and more like she’s reading my mind, even though our situations are very different). I hope others will also follow soon because it is interesting to see where the same degree has taken us all so far.  

As for myself… Let’s start with this. I’ve been following discussions on Twitter by all these sciency types (mainly ecologists, but also various science writers), and recently I noticed a new buzzword emerge – alt-ac, meaning alternative academic careers. The whole discussion has evolved from this simple yet daunting fact that only a fraction of PhD students get traditional research positions and continue in academia. Many others have thus to find a place somewhere else. There was even an article in NY Times about this.

Well, I am not a PhD student (yet, at least). And I’m supposedly only taking a year off from studies and plan to continue with it come next fall. But I thought it would be appropriate to bring up alt-ac since, for the time being, that’s exactly what I’m doing – I’m on a different path than what my ecology degree had prepared me for, i.e. further studies, academia, science.

(That is not to say that Edinburgh’s programme was only good for that. If that was the case, I would be studying somewhere something right now and not trying jobs outside science. I guess, it’s more about the fact that there were particular expectations from my teachers, friends and family. Myself too!)

Orangutan and her baby. B. Galdikas Oak Grove at Kaunas Botanical Garden.

Orangutan and her baby. B. Galdikas Oak Grove at Kaunas Botanical Garden.

I believe what I’m doing right now should be referred to as journalism. Funnily, I still think of myself as a science person and I always try to highlight that, even though I did sort of run away from it.

You see, journalists are not very respected in Lithuania (that’s where I’m from and where I live at the moment), even if you’re just writing about environment, while science writing as such barely exists at all. But I really wanted to try this: to see what it’s like and whether I could do it and be good at it.

Since coming back home I’ve met and talked to a lot of new people and their reactions to my situation have been incredibly varied. Of course, there’s a group who can’t understand what I’m doing back in Lithuania in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum there are others pushing me to get a graduate degree here instead of going abroad again. Many people question why I did ecology at all if I’m writing now, and only a few thought that this whole thing made sense. (Based on my ramblings, you’re right to ask if I myself am on the latter team)

It appears that not many can actually appreciate how big it is to have a background in science and actually understand what you and – more importantly – your interviewees are talking about. But it is huge! I believe that it’s hard to appropriately report on ecological and environmental issues if you don’t have the relevant knowledge. Surely, you can learn along the way and pick things up (and many people do!), but if you’re tired of scandals and dirt of the mainstream media is the environment section, at this day and age, really the best place to retire to?

(And yes, someone did actually tell me this while talking about why they’re working in this area)

If you read environment news in any of the big online publications (such as mine is in Lithuania), you’ll know that it’s not all serious science and policy. There’s quite a lot of fluff there too, simply because no one wants to read one sob story after another, no matter how important and relevant they are. So then you write about weird or cute or spectacular or gross nature. And violation of animal rights. That one always sells.

So what do I actually do?

I do a lot of research of foreign media, translating interesting and relevant pieces and adapting them to Lithuanian audience. When some EU or global study comes out, I scour the interwebs for original reports trying to find and include at least some data on Lithuania. I send emails out trying to get permissions to use the pictures of newly discovered species or floor tiles made of snail poop. And how inspirational can be a simple perusal of Facebook and Twitter!  

I also do lots of reporting from events and conferences. I wrote on bat spotting (listening?), insect macrophotography (that’s how I got the Feature Image of our last post about spiders), visit to a large animal hospital, Borneo and orangutan volunteering experience, covered a talk on climate change by a Middle Ages historian, a Vegan Day event, an urban forum on city and water connections, and national eco-ideas competition for school children to name just a few…

Not very many opinion pieces though, I would like to do more of those. (That doesn’t seem to go under reporter’s job description, though)

IMG_0094

Me with the forestry people.

One of the most interesting experiences happened about a month ago when I went with a group of real journalists on a fieldtrip to the forests of Kėdainiai (central Lithuania). Basically Environment ministry and Forestry Commission organized the event to show off a bit. But it was really cool – I not only learnt more about Lithuanian oak woodlands and their restoration but also got to chat with and observe environment reporters and forestry people.

Really it was from that trip that all my thoughts about importance of relevant knowledge came. On one hand, many of the other guys’ questions seemed silly and obvious to me. But at the same time they had to be asked, because people asking the questions first and foremost represent the readers – and they usually know very little. This is something I still need to wrap my head around but it’s something that lies at the core of science and environment writing – making difficult concepts easy for lay people.

So I’m learning something new everyday, I’m saying ‘Yes’ to many things that put me in uncomfortable situations, suggesting article ideas that I just know will take forever to produce… But I’m nearly at 100 articles to my name, more than third of which are originals. Not a bad tally, if I say so myself.

But to be completely honest, I make an awful journalist.

You know why? Because most situations make me uncomfortable! That’s just how I am. I imagine journalists being all up in your face, having no shame, asking the most ridiculous questions because people are interested in that sort of thing. 

I’m a good writer (and probably better in English than Lithuanian, surprisingly), I ask good questions when I have time to prepare, but I dread every time I have to call ‘an expert’ and ask why leaves change colour in the fall. Cringe. Any tips of how to get over that?

I love when I get to talk face to face to people though, whether they are my interviewees or organisers of the events I’m covering. I might be making this up, but it seems that every time I tell my story (ecologist, just trying my hand at writing) their faces light up, they start to open up more, understand where my questions are coming from, “she’s one of us, she’s one of us”. It feels good. There are many reasons for this: it might be that Lithuanians in general are wary of journalists or maybe it’s just the scientists not wanting to talk about their work. Helping them with outreach is another reason why I got myself into this. Will try to cover this in more detail in later parts.

To sum up, this alternative path I’m on is a real balancing act – it’s often a frustrating experience but at the same time it’s invigorating and revelatory. It’s working out so far, we’ll see where it takes me.

In second part I’ll talk more about the topics and the writing itself. Stay tuned! UPDATE: Part 2

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5 responses to “Writing environment: uncomfortable journalism

  1. Pingback: Writing environment: the Basic things | EcoPost·

  2. Pingback: Writing environment: changing times | EcoPost·

  3. Kristina, I’m keeping an eye on your articles for some time and you are doing a great job! I’m getting so happy every time I see the range of topics you choose – this is what Lithuanian media needs! More broad perspective, more hot scientific topics covered, just go on! :) I understand your situation, but trust me, there is a huge merit that you have this scientific background and you can ask more sophisticated questions than universal journalists. Myself I’m trying to get this background now, because it definitely enables you to write more organic, interesting and, honestly, to produce a better quality content.

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    • Renata, thank you so much! Such a lovely comment to start my day with. All the best to you too! Ačiū :)

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  4. Talking from first hand experience (in LT), it seems like journalists often tend to get everything backwards, or they emphasise the wrong thing, simply because they have no idea what their subject is talking about. So I suppose it makes sense that people would be more open to talk to someone who most likely will not twist their words and misinterpret the elementary things.

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