Making obscure animals and ecosystems compelling characters

By Ruth Thornton

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories coming out of a recent meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Philadelphia.

Four science journalists discussed framing compelling stories about obscure animals. From left: Benji Jones, Maya Kapoor, Douglas Main and Bethany Brookshire. Image: Ruth Thornton.


PHILADELPHIA – One of the many challenges of environmental journalism is making the general public care about animals that are not cute or ecosystems that are obscure.

A recent session of this year’s Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference taught journalists how to do just that.

Four science journalists discussed how they framed stories about lesser-known species including pigeons, the American chestnut tree and ice worms that live in glaciers.

Benji Jones, a senior reporter at Vox, moderated the panel that included freelance journalists Bethany BrookshireMaya Kapoor and Douglas Main.

One of the species highlighted in Brookshire’s book Pests: how humans create animal villains is the pigeon, which was once loved by people but fell out of grace when we didn’t need them anymore, she said.

“Pigeons were once the original internet,” she said. They carried messages over long distances and provided other services, including food and fertilizer. But when technology supplanted those uses we didn’t need them anymore.

“Humans filter animals through our desires and our needs,” she said.

Main advised journalists to follow their curiosity to unexpected places. Stories are hiding in plain sight, he said.

For example, he wrote a story about the osage orange, a common tree with the largest fruit native to North America, and was surprised that the story got more responses than almost any other he had done.

“Following your curiosity can really pay off,” he said.

Kapoor covered the American chestnut tree in Grist last year. The species was once common in U.S. forests and had been covered widely. She looked for an angle that hadn’t been told before.

When she learned that native Americans had extensively managed the forests to increase the food supply, she knew she had a story.

Kapoor said that non-human species are interesting because they exist on their own outside of us, but stories about them are also stories that we tell about ourselves.

She advised journalists to look for those intersecting stories that make species and habitats more relatable to people.

For example, when describing the American chestnut’s fungal disease that decimated the species, she made the sick tree seem like a sick person.

Obscure animals are almost easier to pitch as story ideas since they haven’t been covered much, Kapoor said.

Obscurity can be a peg rather than a barrier, she said.

Main agreed: “Being obscure can actually help because people always want to learn, they want to be surprised. So I would say look for something surprising.”

And “if you can help tell a larger story, that’s really helpful,” he said.

Main once wrote a National Geographic story on ice worms that live in glaciers and can thrive in freezing temperatures.

“They’re going extinct now because the glaciers are disappearing,” he said. Tying their loss into larger regional or global issues helps make the story more relatable.

Small single studies can illuminate larger ideas, ways of thinking and illustrate how humans have perceived the world, Brookshire said.

Kapoor cautioned to make sure that press releases aren’t over-selling a study’s findings.

She stressed the importance of understanding the scientific process and taking the time to read and understand a study.

“There’s so much pressure to be published and to have these studies,” she said. “Is it truly new?”

Brookshire stressed the importance of finding what humans have in common with the species you are covering. For example, some caecilians, an obscure group of limbless amphibians, also produce a milk-like substance for their young.

“That’s something we have in common,” Brookshire said. “You can bring readers in by saying that this animal is not as unlike you as you think it is.”

Kapoor stressed the importance of using the craft of writing to make stories compelling.

“That’s where those writing chops come into play,” she said. “For the audience to come along on the story of your journey” to help readers see that bigger story that you’re revealing.

“The audience may not care about that weird species,” Kapoor said. “But hopefully they care about whatever that bigger story is.”

Jones recommended framing the ecosystem or species as a character and putting it in a cinematic lens.

Kapoor likes using what she called the “first person minor” in her stories. “It’s not a personal essay, it’s not about you, but you acknowledge that you were there as an observer.”

The panel also discussed the value of finding scientists who devote their lives to studying a species or habitat. The researchers’ passion helps tell the story.

“The researcher cares about this species, and here’s why you should care about it too” can be an effective tool, Main said.

Using the active tense when talking about a species can be effective in showing that it has agency, and this can also be effective for plants that don’t move around, Kapoor said.

She urged journalists to do a lot of research on obscure ecosystems to find the story.

“The ecosystem is the house,” Brookshire said. “Find who lives in it.”

Why should journalists report on wildlife and plants that may seem less important than other environmental issues, such as climate change and the energy transition?

It’s more important than ever to celebrate biodiversity when the extinction crisis is one of the worst things happening to the planet, Main said.

Jones agreed: “Biodiversity loss is much more important than people realize.”

Kapoor said that the same things that harm people also harm the natural world. “It’s important to make those connections.”

Brookshire said that stories about the natural world provide a balance “between the really dark, terrible, important things that we need to report on and also the joy that we can inspire and share.”

“Joy is way more motivating than misery,” she said. “It’s so much easier to want to be there for the natural world when you realize that it’s awesome.”

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