Antarctica Research Stalls After U.S. Government Shutdown

Adelie Penguins. Photo_ Colin Mitchell

Federally funded researchers and scientists have breathed a sigh of relief as the U.S. government ended its shutdown last week. But after a fifteen day hiatus, not everyone is in the clear, and for scientists working further afield the repercussions may continue to be felt.

For Point Blue Conservation Science, a California based conservation science non-profit, the shutdown has threatened to cancel their annual research trip to Antarctica’s Ross Sea, where they have been studying Adélie Penguins since 1972.

Grant Ballard, the Director of Point Blue’s Climate Change and Informatics group, said he is hopeful the trip will go ahead, but so far there has been little news.

“Basically all they’re saying is they’re hoping to restore as much of the science as possible,” he said. “Because our program wasn't scheduled to start until November, I’m hoping that we won't be impacted mostly because we don't require a lot of logistical support.”

Each year Ballard travels to the Ross Sea with a team of researchers to investigate how Adélie Penguins cope with large changes to their environment, such as those brought about by climate change.

Dubbed by David G. Ainley, the renowned penguin expert, as the “bellwether of climate change,” Adélie penguins serve as a tool for monitoring the varying impacts of global warming on the Antarctic environment. Because of their population size, wide distribution and dependence on sea ice, Ballard said they are arguably one of the the best Antarctic species to study. “They sort of serve as sentinels of the Antarctic ocean environment,” he said.

Due to the availability of long-term data, Ballard and his team have been able to study the causes behind penguin population trends, and in the short-term, Adélies are winning.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Adélie penguin colonies began expanding rapidly across the Ross Sea. It seemed that the smallest colonies were growing quickly, while the largest remained somewhat stable. According to Ballard, this led researchers to believe that the colony had perhaps reached its ecological limit.

“That raised the hypothetical question: what is the maximum population size of any animal, especially one in a pristine ecosystem?,” Ballard said. “And we had years of data, completely intact, so we thought we’d be able to get some insight into how these things work.”

“But recently, the largest colonies started once again growing really fast.”

One of the possible reasons behind this relates to the Antarctic environment, or more specifically: the sea ice. Globally, the amount of sea ice is changing, and in both the Arctic and Antarctic peninsula, it is quickly vanishing. But in the Ross Sea, the winter season—during which time the ice expands in size—has been getting longer, meaning good news for the ice-loving Adélie penguins.

“The season is incredibly dynamic and in the last 30 years has increased by 89 days, so it’s potentially a three month longer ice growing season than it was in the 1980s,” Ballard said. “That’s the exact opposite of what's happening in the Arctic and the Antarctic peninsula.”

Should Point Blue’s Antarctic research be cancelled this year, it will be the first break in an otherwise perfect dataset—one that is not easy to fill in the gaps.

“It would basically make everything more complicated in terms of analysis and reporting,” said Ballard. “And inevitably something weird will happen that you can't explain, so you then just have to speculate.”

After 17 years of studying Adélie penguins in the Ross Sea, Ballard has not been disillusioned by the cold, remoteness or difficulty of living—for a few months of the year—on the world’s seventh continent.

“Antarctica is mind-blowingly beautiful,” he said. “Most people would actually love it if they had the chance to be there.”

Round Up: Guild Freelancers Spring Training Day

Last Saturday I attended the Guild Freelancer's 2013 Spring Training for Journalists at San Francisco State University (SFSU). This is my first US based journalism event and considering the low cost, I was very impressed. It featured speakers such as Carrie Ching, Kim Komenich and Seth Rosenfeld and included workshops on everything from advanced FOIA to iphone photography.

The downside of the day (for me at least) was that several of the workshops I wanted to attend ran during the same time slot meaning I had to pick one or the other. But this is the nature of larger events and understandably clashes are to be expected. I was also disappointed with the internship seminar as most of the participants were SFSU students and it felt very geared towards that audience. Similarly, it focused on how to find an internship rather than offering advice on how to make the most of internships and then translate that experience to help find an entry level job.

However, I still found the day interesting as much of it focused on multimedia and allowed me to better understand where US publications stand in terms of multimedia and online news development in comparison to Australian ones. Currently, I'm focusing on improving my multimedia skills so viewing something like Carrie Ching's production, In Jennifer's Room, opened my eyes to what I suppose is the direction journalism is headed. And personally, I am really excited.

Here are a few gems of advice that I took away from the day:

- Be technologically fearless. Don't let technology get in the way because you know more than you think you do.

Kim Komenich's lecture entitled 'Multimedia on the cheap' was exactly that: how to be a poorly paid journalist and still delve into the world of multimedia without fancy gear. Aside from this he encouraged the audience to use the journalistic skills they already possess and pursue multimedia stories no matter how basic they are.

- Seek intimacy in interviews. Have people introduce themselves three times: beginning, middle, end. 

Mike Kepka is a photographer and multimedia producer for the San Francisco Chronicle. His series 'the City Exposed' focuses on interesting characters in San Francisco and it is essentially these characters that makes SF so unique. Kepka deconstructed one of his multimedia pieces, The Trumpet Kid, and discussed everything from interviewing techniques to those all important shots that will save your butt while filming and editing. Aside  from the tips above, he also mentioned that what you think is the best quote, often has to be cut out first. For someone who finds it difficult to aggressively self edit, this is a piece of advice that should be taken and applied to every feature article/multimedia piece/news story/radio segment.

- Bad audio sucks. 

Every multimedia presentation reiterated this point: even in multimedia pieces audio drives the piece. Without quality audio, you have nothing. I always thought good video drove a piece but as I learnt, especially in Carrie Ching's talk, that if you have great audio, you can work with the rest. Some key tips were: always check your levels, if worst comes to worst do the interview in a car and never let the interviewee hold the microphone.

- Be adaptable. Be flexible. Be resilient. 

Carol Pogash was the keynote speaker and much of her talk centered on being flexible and adaptable - advice which is more important than ever. She has no background in journalism yet has worked as a TV anchor, news reporter, author, feature writer, editor and more. So while she is a jack of all trades, she is also a master of many and therein lies the difference. Pogash explained just how obsessed she is with her work and how this has meant she makes very few mistakes (only one in her career) and is now known for her quality reporting. While Pogash comes from an era when getting a journo job meant annoying an editor long enough to get an internship gig and eventually landing yourself a job borne from it, she is no stranger to the tough job market of today and therein lies the 'nut graph' of her advice: be adaptable.

- Passion is critical.

Just weeks ago the website, Career Cast deemed newspaper reporter the worst job in 2013. So if journalism is poorly paid, has little job stability, very few job openings and greater demands on journalists - why stick with it? I ask myself this question a lot and often the best answer I come up with is: because this is where my passion lies. This was also reiterated by journalists throughout the day and it was somewhat comforting to know that despite all the changes, cuts and instability - they are still passionate about what they do.

Non- profit Journalism

Today, Fairfax announced nearly 2000 staff cuts to be made over the next three years. In light of my recent graduation and paired with the uncertainty of what I will be doing for the next few months/years, I should be enrolling in an accounting course right now.

But I've been reading quite a lot about non-profit journalism and the potential it has to 'fill the gap' left my mainstream media. While this is not a big trend in Australia when compared to the U.S., it is starting to gain leverage with universities at the forefront. While there are issues regarding the sustainability of such a model, given the problems facing mainstream media organisations this is perhaps a good, if not the best, viable option for the future.

Here's a selection of non- profit News Orgs-

ProPublica- Interesting and engaging investigative journalism.

The Common Language Project- One of my favourites; thoughtful and provoking global reporting  on issues, countries and people largely forgotten by the rest of the world.

ReMapping Debate- I only came across this recently, however it is some of the most interesting coverage of US domestic politics/policies that I've read.

New Matilda- An old favourite, while lacking the reporting standards of non- profits such as ProPublica, New Matilda is a great outlet for an alternative source of news and analysis.

The Global Mail- 'Our audience is our only agenda' says it all.

The Conversation- Although I read The Conversation regularly for in depth background on issues, it verges on the more academic than journalistic side. Nevertheless, its usually an incisive read.


Fairness, Accuracy and Impartiality

Last week, I interviewed Australian photojournalist, John Rodsted about the 'Legacy of War' and the use of landmines and cluster bombs in warfare. As someone who has worked in post- conflict countries such as Bosnia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Lebanon, John had an stories to share about the damage landmines and cluster bombs do to civilians, even after the fighting has stopped. John's photography led to his involvement in the 'International Campaign to Ban Landmines' which succeeded in creating a Treaty to ban the manufacture, trade, stock pile and use of landmines in conflict and eventually won John and the group a Nobel Peace Prize. John and the ICBL's work should be commended as landmines and cluster bombs are a horrific way of waging a war that only serves to cripple a country trying to recover from conflict. But another interesting debate has arisen from this. Is a journalist's job to report things as they are or, through their work, should they try and change things?

An article was recently featured on TIME's Lightbox blog about the photojournalism non-for-profit, the NURU Project and this issue in particular. The article raised questions about the role of a photojournalist or journalist, for that matter and whether getting involved compromises journalistic values i.e. objectivity. While I don't really subscribe to the idea of objective reporting, I do believe in fairness, accuracy and impartiality and think these are imperative in an age of distrust in the media. While I don't think things are ever reported simply 'as they are' I understand the greater implications this question has for journalistic integrity in a professional and a personal sense.

Personally, I think wanting to be a journalist (in some instances at least) brings with it an inherent desire to not just say, 'the tree is red' but find out how and more importantly why or why not. And therein lies the power of journalism to change things. It may not be in a direct way, but I think there is the hope that if someone sees, reads or hears something that is interesting, confronting or challenging and they react in some way, then journalism has changed things, even on a small scale.

This is what I strive for, even now as a volunteer/student journalist and something I hope I  keep striving for because otherwise, I won't be questioning my role as a journalist, but my reasons for wanting to pursue it in the first place.

You can listen to the Panorama segment; 'After the war, the legacy of landmines,' here.

"I'm not just Robert, HIV positive"

Last month, I interviewed a student at Melbourne University, living with HIV. It was for the Melbourne University Health Initiative (MUHI) newsletter and my column about students on campus living with illnesses and disabilities. I was so nervous for this interview given the sensitive nature of the topic. So I read everything about HIV, about people living with HIV and followed a HIV media guide like a bible (the link can be found here).

But when the time came it went really well. The student was kind, funny, friendly and completely honest with me. And although I nit-picked the article a million times and nagged family and friends to read it and critique it, over and over, I am finally happy with the end result.

And you can read the published version here.

It made me think about the privilege journalists have in digging into people's lives, listening to their stories and having the ability to take these and share them with the world. But with this privilege comes great responsibility and I felt the weight of this while writing the HIV article. I hope I have given justice to this individual's story and portrayed him fairly and accurately.