Friday, March 13, 2015

Islands of Complexity

By Conor King Devitt

What can I really do here?
A weird question, I know, especially given the lucky circumstances. After all, I’ve been gifted a free trip – no expense unpaid, no hidden fees, no additional strings attached. Just the one requirement – I will report and write, tell a story and describe the issues, using all of the values and skills I built and learned here.
The Murrow College selected me as one of the 2015 Backpack Journalism Scholars, both an honor and an opportunity. I am one of a few fortunate students who gets to soar across the world and test my skills in a location starkly different from the rolling hills, crackerjack cafes and red brick academic castles of Pullman, Washington. 
My assigned destination is a historical, literary and biological favorite: Darwin’s Galapagos Islands, the geographic home court for the modern theory of evolution. Thanks to the college and all its benefactors, I will get to see species of plants and animals only associated with this isolated archipelago. Thanks to the college, I will get to meet some of the hardy people working on the front lines to preserve these rare pieces of global history. Thanks to the college, I will get to embark on one more globetrotting adventure before I graduate.    
I’m excited for the challenge, the travel, the opportunity to prove myself. But as I complete pre-trip research, my mind has become increasingly haunted by this thought:
What can I really do? What can I really say?
The Galapagos conservation effort involves intricate global cooperation between governments and interest groups, science and money, lab examination and fieldwork. Hundreds of diverse, hardworking and nameless souls shoulder the weight of protecting the incalculable importance of the islands, contributing their time in science, money, advocacy, government and other fields I can’t even claim to know.  
These are the people whose jobs aren’t explained, whose missions are too specified to be articulated to the unknowing and uninvolved. Sure, the larger personalities associated with conserving the islands can come together and paint the different efforts in layman’s terms. They did just that for the book Galapagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy, a helpful guide in my own personal research.
But even a project like that, written by the experts, is forced to reduce the intimidating number of complexities associated with the islands to superficial terms an outsider like me can understand. Its authors are people who have spent decades on the ground and in offices around the world spearheading these different efforts and relationships, and even they struggle to describe all that goes into protecting the Galapagos.
So again, it begs the question: How can I, as a journalism student whose biggest scientific achievement is an A- in freshman biology, report on something so meaningful? I have one week in the islands, and I don’t wish to squander the opportunity simply enjoying it as a sunburnt tourist. However, I also don’t want to clock in a routine, glazed-over piece of reportage that is content to simply tell two sides and the five W’s, disseminating already-condensed lay knowledge into even simpler terms.  Given my limited time and even more limited knowledge, what can I actually do to service the truth? How can I contribute?
I lobbed the question to Dr. Christine Parent, an evolutionary ecologist and an assistant professor at the University of Idaho. Parent has spent more than two years in the field studying endemic land snails on the Galapagos Islands, where there are more than 80 different species and subspecies.
Parent was bursting with knowledge – on history, organizations, projects, and current research. She didn’t have just a single answer to my inquiry (who would?) and instead chose to paint me a better picture of the islands as a whole, describing the hook to several interesting storylines I could explore.
Some I had researched already – like the nasty conflicts between local fishermen and conservation groups on several of the more populated islands, including San Cristobal, my destination for the week. The locals want to work, fish and support themselves. Conservationists want fishermen to stop harvesting resources from the islands’ one-of-a-kind marine ecosystem. And even though I knew a bit about the issue, Parent managed to layer my basic ideas with the kind of grounded knowledge one only accumulates by actually putting their boots on the island’s volcanic dirt.
Others storylines she introduced were completely new to me, like the recent financial issues plaguing the Charles Darwin Foundation’s research station on the island of Santa Cruz. A brief surf through the shallow waves of the web reveals little media coverage on the incident, despite the fact that it has been the archipelago’s primary research center since 1964. While the foundation’s press releases report that a recent upswing in donations have helped the station recover, I have a feeling there’s more story to harvest.
After talking to Parent about the flux of issues flowing through the islands and the different opportunities to investigate them, I started to feel a bit better. I’m no expert and never will be, but that shouldn’t stop me from attempting to widen the sphere of public knowledge about the islands. I’m hopeful that once I’m down there I’ll be able to focus my gaze, discover a niche and put any skills I might have to good use. And if I manage to talk to the right people, read the right research and ask the right questions, I believe there’s a chance I could bring something of value back for readers.  
My paranoia would probably have seemed foolish to a veteran journalist. A seasoned professional could parachute in and rip a story out of the landscape, doing his/her job and scoring quality material in the process. Getting to worry and fret about journalism’s role and purpose in a place like the Galapagos is a luxury likely afforded by my own youthful idealism. However, I get to worry about it. That’s part of the prize. This is my trip, my project, my attempt at writing something real. And I intend to do just that.

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