Photograph by Morgan Heim

Solutions
11.07.2017

Life Stories

In today’s world, solutions-based science and environment stories aren’t just a pleasant diversion—they’re a critical step toward a healthy future for our species.
Opinion by Stephanie Stone 

On the anniversary of our most recent presidential election here in the United States, it’s both tempting and unsettling to reflect on the events of the past year and attempt to make some sense of them. Regardless of your political persuasion, it’s hard to argue that 2017 has been an easy year. Over the past 10 months, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported 16 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the United States—the highest number on record for that span of time. The overwhelming loss inflicted by these events—of loved ones, of livelihoods, of homes, and of community resources—has devastated families from California to Puerto Rico.

Sadly, these natural disasters haven’t been the sole source, or often the primary source, of pain for most U.S. residents this year. Since January, we have faced threats to our civil liberties and setbacks to social justice that seemed unimaginable several years ago. In the aftermath of the Charlottesville protest, I cried with a friend whose son was afraid to go back to school because of racially motivated bullying. And I started talking to my 5-year-old about the importance of taking a stand against hate and ignorance (a conversation I had naively thought she and her peers were too young to need). It was not the first and not the last time in 2017 that I was brought to tears by events that shook my confidence in basic human decency.

So when I see that issues like deforestation and habitat fragmentation aren’t getting as much traction in public conversation these days as they once did, I get it. Most of us have a finite capacity for coping with bad news and tough problems. And when faced with so many urgent social and economic crises, it’s tempting to relegate longer-term environmental conservation and education efforts to the back burner, at least for now. But here’s the thing: If we set aside those efforts today to focus exclusively on issues that seem more immediately pressing, we will have missed our window of opportunity to put the brakes on troubling environmental trends that will only exacerbate our current social challenges.

Clearing tropical rainforests doesn’t just put charismatic animals at risk. It also accelerates global climate change, facilitates the spread of zoonotic diseases, and strips communities of their access to clean drinking water, food, and medical supplies. More often than not, the people who are affected most directly by these changes are the very people who are least equipped to deal with them—including here in the United States. A paper published in Science earlier this year revealed that climate change is likely to disproportionately impact the poorest counties in the country.

Photograph by Rodrigo Baleia

At bioGraphic, we’re convinced that the best way to engage people in these environmental issues is by igniting a deep passion and appreciation for nature—and then showcasing reasons to be hopeful about its future. That doesn’t mean we ignore the problems. Many of our stories shine a light on pressing issues like climate change, habitat loss and degradation, the spread of disease, and the challenges inherent in global resource management.

But sharing this sobering news without offering any evidence that things can improve gives audiences an easy excuse to disengage. So we place special emphasis on telling stories about the people, ideas, and technologies that are making headway in addressing these challenges. We bring our audience from the depths of the ocean to the top of the rainforest canopy to meet the scientists and practitioners who are working, against all odds, to better understand and protect the ecosystems and organisms on which we depend. We reveal their motivations and humanity, and we celebrate their successes—especially those that have the potential to be broadly adopted and applied. These journeys don’t just demonstrate that it’s possible to create a more sustainable future; they also help people to better understand and appreciate the scientific method and key ecological principles, equipping them with both the knowledge and inspiration they need to become engaged advocates for science and nature.

We have learned from our audience that our approach to storytelling has made a difference. When surveyed, 87 percent of readers reported that bioGraphic stories have deepened their connection to nature, and 82 percent said the stories have given them hope for a more sustainable future. We hear from readers on a regular basis who have been inspired to engage with a particular issue and want to thank us for providing that motivation. And we have seen the power that our success stories hold to spark conversation, including—importantly—during gatherings of the scientists and stakeholders who are best positioned to build on these achievements.

But we don’t have to look just to our own readership to see the power of solutions-based journalism. Around the world, media consumers—especially younger audiences—are asking for news coverage that goes beyond reporting on challenges to offer potential answers. A 2015 BBC survey of readers across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America quantified this sentiment, finding that 64 percent of respondents under the age of 35 wanted their news coverage to include solutions to problems. An increasing body of research is revealing the benefits of this approach.

For instance, studies conducted over the past several years by the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin have demonstrated that solutions-focused articles heighten readers’ interest in learning about issues, their understanding of complex subjects, and their optimism that problems can be resolved. Additionally, the studies found that these stories have the potential to strengthen the ways in which audiences engage with both the media and specific causes. Readers of solutions journalism were more likely than consumers of traditional news to seek out additional stories on the topic, discuss the issue with friends and family, and support or participate in solutions-related efforts.

Photograph by Marcus Westberg 

The power to catalyze conversation has long been considered a hallmark of good journalism, but not all types of dialogue are equally constructive. Our goal at bioGraphic is to spark the kinds of discussions that reenergize advocates for science and nature, equip policymakers with convincing data and compelling narratives, and inspire scientists and conservation practitioners to implement new approaches. Our partners at the Solutions Journalism Network have conducted research on the capacity for solutions-based reporting to change public discourse around various issues, and they have found that these types of stories intensify conversations about promising efforts to address problems, raise the profile of issues among policymakers, and facilitate efforts to pass new legislation.

In May of 2016, we published a photo essay about pangolins that revealed both the plight of these critically endangered animals and some of the most promising efforts to protect them—a story that has been seen by more than 7.6 million people on Twitter alone. We also shared the story with two of our media partners, Discover and Atlas Obscura, introducing a large global audience to the world’s only scaly mammals. The week these stories were published, worldwide Google searches for “pangolin” more than tripled, hitting their high point for the year. What’s more, the increased interest in these creatures persisted. After the initial spike in searches, pangolin queries remained an average of twice as high as they had been before the stories were published. Our photo essay was undoubtedly not the sole driver of this Google trend, but the timing of the surge suggests that the piece at least contributed to the increase in public interest that summer.

In late September of 2016, the governing body of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to give all eight species of pangolins the highest possible level of protection, banning all international trade in both the animals and their body parts. These new protections are enabling countries where pangolin products are in high demand to enact stricter laws and harsher punishments to dissuade traffickers. While this legislation won’t solve the pangolin poaching challenge overnight, the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group views the recent vote as an important first step—one that was almost certainly facilitated by an increased level of public awareness about these animals.

Helping to ensure the survival of a single group of endangered species, while important, clearly won’t make a significant dent in the systemic environmental issues facing our planet today. But if compelling, solutions-based storytelling can have a meaningful impact on efforts to halt pangolin poaching, it can be a powerful change agent for bigger issues like deforestation and climate change as well.

At bioGraphic, we are committed to continuing to tell these stories, shining a light not only on charismatic species but also on complex ecosystems. We will tell them beautifully, offering vivid journeys into some of the most spectacular places on Earth. We will make them personal, painting three-dimensional portraits of the people working to understand and protect our natural resources. And we will showcase promising solutions to the most pressing environmental challenges of our time, fostering both a deeper appreciation for what’s at stake and a belief that it can be sustained. We’ve never needed those sentiments more than we do today.

Photograph by Suzi Eszterhas

Photograph by Zsolt Kudich 

Stephanie Stone

Stephanie Stone is the Pam McCosker Director of Science Communication at the California Academy of Sciences and bioGraphic’s Editorial Director. She oversees the magazine’s content strategy and development, as well as strategic distribution partnerships. With a degree in anthropology from Harvard University, Stone has spent the vast majority of her career developing effective ways to share information about science and nature with public audiences. In addition to finding and helping to craft compelling stories for bioGraphic, she has written about science and the environment for Sierra magazine, California Wild, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and has lectured on science communication at Stanford University. Follow her on Twitter @StephStoneSF.

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