Environmental Journalism

Science Writing, Shorebirds and Seahorse Key

Every journalist knows a face-to-face conversation is always better than a telephone interview, that taking the time to see, touch and experience what we’re reporting nets a far better story than mining details on the internet.

That truth is part of the reason for our field trip in UF’s Environmental Journalism courses. This semester, we headed to UF’s Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory to experience the mangrove-lined Gulf coast island and hear about the national news that took place there in spring. One of the largest bird rookeries on the Gulf coast, Seahorse is a nesting ground for thousands of snowy egrets, pelicans, roseate spoonbills and other shorebirds. In May, the birds suddenly abandoned their nests, a story that drew fairly dire coverage in the New York Times, NPR, and many other outlets.

After climbing to the top of Seahorse’s historic lighthouse and hiking along the island’s wild shoreline, students talked with Maria Sgambati, the lab’s education and outreach coordinator, and Kenny McCain, the facilities manager and boat captain. Capt. Kenny has a ZZ-Top beard and a depth of local knowledge and history that comes from being born and raised in Cedar Key and working for a quarter-century as a federal wildlife officer along the islands that make up the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.

In science reporting, “the devil is often in the details,” Sgambati told the students. Most of the stories, she said, made it sound as if 20,000 birds vanished into thin air, downplaying – or never mentioning – that a significant part of the colony relocated to Snake Key next door, built new nests, laid new eggs and reared new young. “It was hard for (reporters) to get across the science behind generating hypothesis and building credibility,” she says. “For instance, if it were a pollution or food-source issue, we would have seen more bird deaths or more gradual departures, or birds going much further away than Snake Key.”

Sgambati thought Tessa Stuart of Audubon magazine did the best job ferreting out different theories for the nest abandonment, which include those as mundane as raccoons or aircraft noise. Researchers may never know for sure what caused the colony to fly away. The most important questions will be answered next spring: Will the birds return to Seahorse Key? Will they return to Snake? Also significant: What will happen to Seahorse’s cottonmouth snakes, which famously depend on fish falling from the birds’ nests for their survival? UF, state and federal scientists have lined up studies of those questions and others.

Meanwhile Capt. Kenny has his money on the raccoons. His stories of wrangling with the masked bandits over his lifetime on these islands had the students laughing over their lunches, and gleaning valuable lessons on the importance of indigenous knowledge – along with those on nuanced writing, and of course, reporting in person, especially when it means spending the day on an undeveloped island in the Gulf of Mexico.

#EJUF alum heads to Politico

Bruce Ritchie in front of the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida May 21, 2009.

Bruce Ritchie, MMC ’93

Congratulations to CJC alumnus Bruce Ritchie, who will join Politico this fall covering energy and environmental issues from Tallahassee. Bruce earned his MMC from UF in 1993 (his thesis, as committee member Kim Walsh-Childers will remember, tracked industry pressure on environmental journalists). In the two decades since, Bruce has built a reputation as one of the most respected environmental reporters in Florida. He’s also been one of the best at surviving tumult in the newspaper industry, founding the environmental news site Floridaenvironments.com and writing for the Florida Current following the Tallahassee Democrat’s elimination of the beat in 2008. Bruce has written extensively about energy, growth, pollution threats to Florida’s groundwater and springs, and the fight over water among Florida, Georgia, and Alabama – the subject of his first book, in the works for University Press of Florida. Students taking CJC’s Environmental Journalism class in fall 2015 will get to meet Bruce in November when he guest lectures. Follow him on Twitter @bruceritchie.

Covering Water in a Changing World

     Applications have opened for CJC’s latest specialized reporting institute, “Covering Water in Changing World,” Nov. 12-13th in Gainesville. The workshop is designed for journalists and broadcasters in small and medium-sized markets who are covering emerging water and climate stories in the Eastern U.S., but any journalist grappling with these issues is welcome to apply. Thanks to a grant from the Robert L. McCormick Foundation, we’re able to cover all expenses for thirty reporters to attend. Please visit http://www.jou.ufl.edu/water for more information about our program, and the application. Feel free to call or email Cynthia Barnett with any additional questions, 352-376-4440 or clbarnett@jou.ufl.edu.