Saturday, July 4, 2009

An Open Letter to the Marine Conservation Community

Note to readers: Norbert Wu was selected as a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation in 2001. He spent the next three years traveling the world, documenting marine conservation issues. At the end of his fellowship, he sent the following letter to many of the marine scientists that he had encountered at the Pew Fellows meetings.

I am writing this to a few of you who seem to have an interest in working with the popular media to get marine conservation messages out.

The overwhelming messages that I heard at the recent Pew Fellows meeting were:
1. Things are getting worse, not better.
2. Scientists need to get their message out.
3. Scientists are terrible about getting their messsage out. They need help.

If the Pew Fellows program is serious about solving marine conservation problems and recognizes that the popular media is an important part of the solution, then it needs to enlist the help of the popular media in a fundamental and integral way. It needs to marshal the expertise of the few Pew Fellows that have experience or interest in working with the popular media. It needs to enlist the participation of freelance filmmakers, photographers, writers, film producers, directors, and programming executives. It has to extend its effort well beyond the selection of scientists who are understandably absorbed in their culture and their areas of expertise and cannot direct their attention and energy to effective communication in the media.

The Pew program and its Fellows need to develop a mutual working respect for those in the popular media. Perhaps most importantly, it needs to recognize that getting stories in the popular media takes a professional, committed, time-consuming approach. Getting the message out will not be effective if delegated to "afternoons after I've finished my morning writing." The Pew program needs to fund and support those Fellows who can tell or present media stories, and the Pew Program should make "getting the message out" a top priority.

Here's an example. A recent article in Time magazine discusses how the hit CBS drama, CSI, has dramatized and popularized forensic science. Forensic scientists are rolling their eyes about the dramatic license taken in the series, but this show has increased awareness of forensic science. Forensic science schools report a dramatic increase in interest and enrollment. This is part of what we need: a new series about the oceans, with compelling characters. The series will certainly will hype and over-dramatize science.

Any scientist watching such a series will roll their eyes and cringe in embarassment, as DNA is analyzed in minutes rather than weeks, and the characters encounter adventure after adventure and make definitive statements like "the bluefin tuna fishery is crashing!" rather than "if we look at the attached reports and graphs, there is a 90% probability that tuna stocks are in serious decline. We recommend further study."

There needs to be a push to get marine science into all aspects of the popular media. There should a computer simulation game called "SIM Coral Reef," just as there is a "SIM City." There should be several television series on marine science, featuring buff women and men who would otherwise be on Baywatch, and having plots that are only a small cut above Baywatch (which was the world's most-watched series in its day). We need to continue to preach to the converted, continue to hook up scientists with the media, but we need to take a far more proactive approach to getting our stories out in far more outlets. We need to realize that we have compelling stories to tell and sell to the popular media. The Pew program is ideally situated to help marine conservationists do this. In my opinion, however, it has failed miserably and spectacularly so far in getting any kind of message out to the masses.

I could say a lot more, but this is sufficient for an initial communication. I am happy to discuss these issues and ideas with anyone.


Norbert Wu
Norbert Wu Productions
Pacific Grove, CA 93950

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