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July 07 2011

18:11

“Why’s this so good?” No. 2: McPhee takes on the Mississippi

When the Mississippi River recently surged down through the middle of the country, a lot of people I follow on Twitter took the opportunity to point to John McPhee’s marvelous 1987 article “Atchafalaya.”I took their advice and revisited the piece.

After 24 years, the story is still valuable simply as a guide to the risks faced by people who live along the Mississippi. But it would be ridiculous to think of McPhee’s articles as nothing more than service journalism. Over the past four decades, McPhee has plunged into a series of obsessions – with plate tectonics, athletes, shad fishing, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the entire state of Alaska. At its best, McPhee’s work feels like a journalistic version of an Iron Man competition. He pushes long-form journalism to the extremes, to encompass the world in staggering detail. And “Atchafalaya” is particularly staggering, because its subject is nothing less than the endless, spectacular, and sometimes absurd struggle of modern civilization to control the natural world.

As I reread “Atchafalaya,” I tried to reverse engineer it to figure out why it’s so good. At its core is a journey McPhee took down the Mississippi in a towboat, accompanying some of the members of the Army Corps of Engineers. For most journalists, that would be more than enough material enough for an excellent article. For McPhee, it is only the start. The river, after all, was not just what he could see in 1987. It was also the product of history – the geological history of the region, and then the human history overlaid on it – history that includes politics, warfare and centuries of engineering. McPhee mastered this vast backstory, but he was not yet done. He also became intimately acquainted with the colossal system of levees and weirs that line the Mississippi: a grand construction that is both longer and wider than the Great Wall of China.

I get the sense that McPhee spends every waking hour gathering observations, stories and plain facts that he stores away for articles he may not write for decades to come. In “Atchafalaya” he smoothly slips away from his journey down the Mississippi to recall earlier experiences – flying over the river, running lines with a Cajun crawfisherman.

Once McPhee assembled this mountain range of raw material, he mined it to build a 28,000-word article. McPhee builds articles like few other journalists can. He scrupulously avoids all stock tricks. His paragraphs encompass worlds. He writes from a dictionary full of strange words: revetments, whaleback, distributaries. They’re not obscure words McPhee chose to make the reader feel undereducated, but the precise language required to describe something most people know little about. It takes time to submerge into this language – this is not a story to shave away one iPhone screen at a time.

If there’s any weakness in “Atchafalaya,” it’s McPhee’s portraits of people. We meet engineers and pilots along the river. McPhee records plenty of exquisite details about their backgrounds. And yet I couldn’t recall any of them as individuals later on. They all talked about the great river, but interchangeably. McPhee knows how to write a great profile (I’m thinking of “Levels of the Game,” a book-length account of a U.S. Open tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner). So I can only assume that he has made a strategic choice in “Atchafalaya” to let the people in the story blur into a wall of humanity massed against the river.

Still, this remains a great piece of writing. By that I don’t mean that it’s an exemplar of what all journalism should be. It is McPhee excelling at being McPhee. It’s impossible to steal tricks from a piece like “Atchafalaya,” because you just end up sounding like a bad imitation of someone else. Instead, it sends me flying back to my own work, re-energized to dig as deeply as I can into the subject at hand, and to craft out of it something distinctively my own.

Carl Zimmer’s science writing has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Time and Scientific American, among other publications. He lectures at Yale University and has 10 books to his name, the latest of which is “A Planet of Viruses.” He is on Twitter at @carlzimmer.

[For more from this new collaboration with Longreads, check out the first post in the series, written by Alexis Madrigal. And stay tuned for more inspiration and insight from fabulous writers in the coming weeks.]

February 10 2011

19:00

On an embargo-driven beat, science reporters aim to build for context

The events that science journalists publish about most frequently are themselves acts of publishing: the appearance of research papers in peer-reviewed journals. Most journals embargo papers before publication, granting reporters access to unpublished work in exchange for an agreement not to report until the embargo is lifted. Embargoes give reporters time to study new research and seek out commentary from authoritative voices; they also allow journals to exercise power over reporters and to guard their control over the flow of scientific information. Reporters who break embargoes risk losing access to information about new findings, emerging technologies, and exciting discoveries — along with the chance to process and vet those findings to determine whether excitement is warranted.

John Rennie, the former editor-in-chief of Scientific American, is hardly alone in his frustration with the fickle and ever-shifting embargo practices of scientific journals. In a January 26 column in the Guardian, Rennie argues that embargoes encourage superficial and premature reporting on new science. “Out of fear of being scooped,” he writes, news outlets rush their coverage, “publish[ing] stories on the same research papers at the moment the embargo ends. In that stampede of coverage, opportunities for distinctive reporting are few.” As a kind of thought experiment, Rennie suggests that science journalism could answer with self-imposed embargoes, in which news outlets would agree not to report on new journal papers until six months after publication.

As Rennie admits, that isn’t going to happen. Instead, he encourages journalists to experiment with new ways of enriching reporting between embargoes, shooting the gaps with coverage that offers nuance and a broadened perspective from which to judge the significance of new findings.

Consciously looking for context

Having seen John Rennie speak about the problems of embargo-driven journalism at the ScienceOnline 2011 conference last month, British science writer Ed Yong cast about for a way to add context to his coverage of stem cell research, a beat he covers frequently for Wired, Discover, and New Scientist, among other venues. As Paul Raeburn reports at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Yong crafted a timeline to document the field’s major stories from the last few years. Using a free web-based timeline creator he found at Dipity.com, Yong assembled articles from major journals and coverage from science news outlets into an annotated history of the discoveries that have shaped the field. Yong calls his timeline a tool for “looking at the stories that lead up to new discoveries, rather than focusing on every new paper in isolation.” Posted at Yong’s Discover-hosted blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, the timeline is a rich and engaging piece of analysis. It also serves Yong as a resource for further reporting, giving him a baseline from which to judge the significance of emerging science before it comes out from behind its embargoes.

Yong’s tool offers another example of the future-of-context ideas we write about often here at the Lab — like explainer pages and building background into stories, issues that apply across all beats and topics. Similarly, Yong turns a tried and true model of information visualization — the timeline — into a tool for putting any given story in stem cell research into its proper light. And rather neatly, he does it with time as the axis — for time, after all, is precisely what embargoes are all about. It’s just one example, but it’s a conscious attempt to break out of the imposed news cycle of embargo-driven reporting.

The Ingelfinger Rule

In fact, science journalists are squeezed at both ends of the journals’ publishing cycles. In addition to levying embargoes, many journals also observe the so-called Ingelfinger Rule, refusing to publish research that has been reported or commented on elsewhere. Named for former New England Journal of Medicine editor Franz Ingelfinger, the rule was formulated to keep untested health-science findings from making their way into public sphere before being submitted to the peer-review process — what some call “science by press conference.” But the rule more obviously helps journals protect their revenue sources — and it is for this reason that it has been widely adopted by most science publishers, even those who operate in fields with no public-health ramifications. (The cost of those journals — $27,465 for a year’s subscription to The Journal of Comparative Neurology! — has even the most resource-rich libraries up in arms.)

Ivan Oransky agrees that Yong’s tool is a simple and effective answer to the challenge presented by the journals’ squeeze tactics, calling it “terrific” and “scalable.” Oransky, who is executive editor of Reuters Health and an MD on the faculty at the NYU School of Medicine, runs the blog Embargo Watch, where he covers the uses and misuses of embargo practices in careful detail (and which John Rennie praised in his remarks at the ScienceOnline meeting). And he echoes Rennie’s call for finding ways to do science reporting outside the restrictions imposed by journals. “Journals serve a purpose,” Oransky told me in an email, “by applying the imperfect but valuable filter of peer review. We’d all like to get away from such heavy reliance on them.” With embargoes and the Ingelfinger Rule, he argues, journals exercise a “chilling effect on communication between scientists — many publicly funded — and journalists,” frustrating reporters who try “to move science reporting upstream to cover science before it’s in one of the journals.”

In science journalism’s crowded ecosystem, the double-barreled threat of embargo and the Ingelfinger Rule can have a deranging effect, pressuring serious news outlets to compete for scoops with online aggregators and casual bloggers. And as scientists themselves join the fray in blogs or through the social media, the veneer of decorum and collegiality imposed by embargoes is becoming increasingly illusory. On its own, an analytic tool like Ed Yong’s won’t break the deranging control that journals exercise over science coverage. But in striving to report on the practice of science as well as published results, Yong’s combination of web-based publishing tools and knowledgable reporting makes for a node on a promising timeline.

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