UNIVERSITY PARK — Their titles and work are different, but journalists and scientists share a common experience: the moment when one piece of research unfolds into a larger topic.
Last week, environmental reporter Craig Welch of the Seattle Times came to Penn State to discuss a project that began in such a moment.
Welch said that as a local news piece on oyster deaths expanded into an international story with multimedia science education components, he and colleagues realized that “This was something that wasn’t really being done elsewhere, and so we were breaking new ground.”
Welch’s visit, which included joining Penn State researchers for a panel discussion on ocean acidification, focused on his work on a reporting project about the impacts of ocean acidification supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Welch, with Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman, traveled to various places, including Papua New Guinea, to cover wide-ranging effects of ocean acidification.
Researchers there were studying natural vents in the ocean floor, which create acidic conditions mimicking those expected in future oceans.
The Pulitzer Center provides funds for journalists to travel internationally to cover “stories that have not been told broadly or... in this way,” said Ann Peters, director of development and outreach at the Pulitzer Center.
The resulting series, titled “Sea Change,” appeared in the Seattle Times, and multimedia features accompanied the series on the website. Welch and Ringman won the 2013 Scripps Howard Foundation award for environmental reporting for their five-part series.
The work started with a 2009 story about oyster deaths in Pacific Northwest hatcheries, but expanded when Welch began speaking with scientists about the causes – which turned out to be related to ocean acidification.
Welch said that led to the question: “What can we do to really help people grasp that this is not an oyster issue, but a global issue?”
Welch and Ringman’s series covers not only the research in Papua New Guinea but also the effects of ocean acidification on Alaska’s crab fishing industry.
The Department of Geosciences, the Schreyer Honors College and the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment sponsored Welch’s visit with support from the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.
Lee Kump, professor and head of the Department of Geosciences, said the Pulitzer Center’s goal to reach a broader audience “fit in with our efforts to promote science communication and oceanography at Penn State, and accurate information concerning climate change and associated effects on ecosystems and society."
Penn State offers a number of oceanography programs, including a marine science minor, a science diving program and research into topics such as coral reefs and deep-sea ecosystems.
Kump chaired the panel discussion, “Ocean Acidification: The Underreported Crisis,” which included Associate Professor of Biology Iliana Baums, Associate Professor of Water Resources Elizabeth Boyer, Professor of Geosciences Timothy Bralower, and Wren Patton, a graduate student in ecology.
Education is one of the Pulitzer Center’s goals, said Peters, to “broaden the reach of the reporting that we support.”
Peters said Penn State was chosen because of “the expertise on the campus itself” in fields relevant to Welch’s story. This interaction between scientists and journalists is crucial, said Welch: “I think it’s always been important but I think it’s incredibly important now.”
“It feels like the scientist-journalist relationship in general is improving in the communication world, and I think that’s good for everybody,” Welch said.
Welch’s visit also included speaking with individual faculty members, science and journalism classes, as well as with local high school students.