Media mob wades into penguin paradise

Media mob wades into penguin paradise

It’s got great pictures and is good news. As a result, it’s a story heard around the world.

Back in 2015, Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, started the tedious yet important job of counting Adélie penguins in a place with a well-earned name: the Danger Islands. This chain of nine Antarctic islands is surrounded by rocks and potentially ship-trapping ice.

These parameters present a picture-perfect paradise for Adélie penguins, who live, breed, eat, squawk and poop there — more on that in a moment. Armed with drones that fly over these islands and working with collaborators from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at Oxford University in England and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Lynch and others counted these flightless birds. The final number came to an astounding 1.5 million.

Wait, but how could a planet so well covered by satellite imagery, where you can see your car in your driveway through online apps, not know about a colony so large that it’s called a supercolony?

We kind of knew that they lived there, although not in such staggering numbers, when a plane flew overhead in 1957. It wasn’t until more recently, however, that Lynch and Mathew Schwaller from NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland, studied satellite images from guano stains — this is where the poop comes in — that they had an idea of the enormity of a population of penguins that would make Mr. Popper proud.

News outlets, including TBR News Media, couldn’t get enough of the story, grabbing the pictures, getting Lynch and her colleagues on the phone and learning about the creatures.

Publications of all political stripes, from The New York Times to CNN, to The Wall Street Journal to Breitbart News have all covered it.

“It’s a good news story,” said Lynch. “People latched onto that.”

Lynch said she spoke directly with 12 or more journalists. At the same time, about 360 stories mentioned Stony Brook and penguins.

Some of the coverage has included mistakes. One report, for example, had spectacular visuals. The narrative, however, suggested the Danger Islands was a hotspot for penguins because the location has been left undisturbed by people.

“That’s not what I said,” she said. “The question was, ‘Why hadn’t we discovered them before?’ The answer was because this is not an area where people go.”

That, she said, is not the same as suggesting that the penguins flourished because humans haven’t been there. It only means we didn’t know about them because visiting the islands is so hazardous.

Another outlet suggested that the Adélie penguins were on the verge of extinction. Not only is that inaccurate, but the population has been growing, as previous research from Lynch indicated.

While that may not fit a simple climate-change narrative, it supports the concept of a warming world.

To simplify the message, the climate-change community has made a link between population and climate, which is “impossible to break,” she said, even though it’s also inaccurate.

There is this “kind of tug of war between the scientists dealing with nuance and detail, and the conversation community,” she said. They don’t need to be at odds, she added.

Indeed, this colony thrives because the Danger Islands hasn’t increased in temperature at the same rate as other parts of the Antarctic.

The media spotlight taught her a few lessons.

For starters, in addition to the talking points she had during her interactions, she would include bullet points in the negative, to make it clear what the researchers aren’t saying.

Ultimately, however, Lynch recognizes the value of the photos.

“The drone footage is amazing and stunning,” she said. She gives credit to the Woods Hole staff. “If we didn’t have pictures” the story would likely not have received such extensive coverage.

What’s the lesson? From now on, she said, “I’ll think about the visuals in advance, if I want the attention.”

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