Maryn McKenna reports the dark side of agriculture

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Maryn McKenna

Science journalist Maryn McKenna has covered the infectious diseases beat for more than a decade. During that time, she’s written countless articles and two award-winning books on the subject. Through her reporting, she developed an interest in how large-scale farming operations spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Last year, McKenna produced a package of stories on women who had contracted antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections from chickens carrying resistant E. coli. She created the project in collaboration with the Food and Environmental Reporting Network (FERN) — an independent, non-profit news organization that produces investigative journalism on food, agriculture, and environmental health. The stories landed on a single day last July in The Atlantic, ABC News, and Good Morning America, and on McKenna’s Wired blog, Superbug.

Here, McKenna tells TON co-editor Jeanne Erdmann the story behind the story:

You mentioned during an interview with NPR that you first learned about the potential human health risks posed by large-scale agriculture back in in 2006. What tipped your interest in this problem?

A couple of things happened. First, when I started reporting the book Superbug in 2006 (the book came out in 2010), I learned that in 2004 scientists had noticed a new type of the resistant bug, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which had previously been a hospital and community problem but now was arising in animals and moving to humans, and was detectable because of a resistance signature from a particular antibiotic. So that got me interested in the topic.

I signed a contract for Superbug in early 2007, and I wanted to bring attention to the book both before and after publication, and to attach my name to the topic. So I started a blog, which was also called Superbug, and which is now at Wired.com. In starting the blog, I assigned myself the task of constantly surveying the scientific literature and news from around the world, to see what was surfacing about antibiotic resistance, and then pushing what I discovered out to an audience who might not have time to survey that landscape. In return, I wanted readers to help crowdsource my research, by talking to me about what they knew about antibiotic resistance. In the process of doing that, I started finding papers about the impact of antibiotic use in agriculture, and whether that was causing resistant organisms to cross to humans.

Then, after the book came out in paperback in 2011, I realized I wanted to talk more about the topic. I felt I had a lot to say about the control of antibiotic resistance in hospitals and the community, but the agricultural side felt under-investigated. I decided to make myself into a food policy reporter, by exploring and covering the topic more. On blogs, the only gauge of whether you are having an impact is your audience’s reaction. So I started trying to write about the intersection of antibiotic use and livestock-raising, and the potential impact on human health, and discovered lots of people are interested in this.

How did you connect with the Food and Environmental Reporting Network (FERN)?

Once I got into the topic, I discovered there was an existing community of food-policy writers, some of whom were former mainstream-media people, some who had always been blogging or writing online, and some who are activists. I met in some in real life, and others electronically, particularly on Twitter. It was out of those relationships that I met the people who had begun FERN, which was getting established at the same time. I thought what they were doing sounded intriguing and I wanted to be part of it.

How did you interest FERN in this project?

One of the challenges in writing about antibiotic resistance is that infections occur in people who are already sick. The main victims tend to be people already in the ICU, or older, or undergoing chemotherapy; it’s hard to get a general audience to identify with victims like that because they think, “I’m not elderly,” or, “I don’t have a chronic disease,” or “I’m not in an ICU.” But UTIs are something that affects that general audience; I don’t know a woman who has never had a UTI. To my delight, the FERN people said that it would be something that would fit their model — a story very grounded in evidence, and one that would have wide audience appeal so they could broker it to their mainstream partners.

How does FERN work?

The idea behind FERN is that it seeks, within a particular topic space, to help reporters do stories that maybe 20 years ago would have been done on a project team at big newspapers. In newspapers (where I used to work, as a project reporter) you have a group of people who are doing deep-dive stories, and the project editor makes sure those stories are brokered to the rest of the newspaper — so they get on the front page, or get support from a particular section editor.  What FERN does is kind of replace the project editor. So you pitch them an idea, and if they see deep-dive potential they write a contract, so you are contracted with FERN. Then they broker the idea to big media outlets, TV, radio, the web, and so on.

Depending on the complexity of the project sometimes they are just a pass-through and you are actually being paid by the outlet where your work is going. In my case, because my investigation was going to several outlets, I got paid by FERN rather than being paid by Atlantic or by ABC News. FERN has a stronger network that I do individually, as a freelancer. Though I’ve written for Scientific American, Self, More and Wired, I’ve never sold anything to the Atlantic, so they extended my network by having contacts that I don’t have.

How did you pitch the story?

Usually they ask for pitches to come through their website, at most a few hundred words. But I had already met them and knew what they were interested in.  I met Sam [Samuel Fromartz, FERN’s founder and editor-in-chief] at a conference in the fall of 2011, and I earlier had asked executive director Tom Laskawy to be on a panel with me at the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) meeting in Philadelphia. So I had been building the relationships for a while without knowing where they would lead.

In the beginning of 2012 another paper came out, the latest in this ongoing investigation of drug-resistant E. coli, and whether the resistance could be assigned to antibiotic use in chickens. I said to the FERN folks, “Look, I’ve been keeping track of the literature for a few years now, and given this most recent paper, I think there’s a story burgeoning here that hasn’t been covered yet.” Because we already had that contact I could describe things in an email, and then we had a phone call, and then I wrote a series of pitch memos for them. I feel incredibly fortunate that they took my pitch.

What happened next?

Thankfully FERN was correct that this was a story their mainstream media partners would see as worthwhile. They went to ABC News, who said yes. At first, it was just going to be a piece for Good Morning America, scripted by ABC News from a mix of my and their reporting. But then Sam Fromartz said there was more to this, so he also took it to The Atlantic and proposed it to them as a story written by me that would be richer and longer. And then once ABC got into it, and also realized how rich the story was, they decided to do a second package. We ended up with a morning piece of about one-and-a-half minutes on Good Morning America, an evening piece of about two-and-a-half minutes on World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer, a story on ABC’s website, and a 1,500-word piece on the Atlantic website — all of which I then summarized and put on my own blog with links to all the rest. That we were in different outlets meant we were reaching different audiences. And then other media picked it up, which was very gratifying. It’s a model that FERN has subsequently used on other stories.

Because this story crossed so many media platforms, what were the challenges in reporting?

This story kind of crossed a couple of different genres. On the one hand, it was a deep dive into the literature, and was a scientific-evidence story, but on the other hand, it was kind of a classic magazine service piece for which we had to go out and canvass for real victims. I actually had different victims in the Atlantic piece and the ABC News piece. For some of them, ABC News helped because they have a network of doctors whom they contact regularly. We went to those doctors and talked to them as expert sources and asked if they had any patients we could contact, but I also did a bunch more beating the bushes, and putting out all kinds of networking to find additional victims for the Atlantic piece.

Even though UTIs are so common, it was surprisingly hard to get people to go public about it, particularly for women, whom UTI affects most often. If you talk about UTIs, almost inevitably you are talking about sex because it’s often sex that makes women more vulnerable. So it was harder to get women to talk, compared with other disease stories I have done.

This project sounds like it took a lot of time. Did the money from FERN make the investment worthwhile?

Yeah. It’s another reason I’m grateful to FERN.  One difficulty of writing for big magazines, particularly if you are doing anything investigative or narrative, is that you have to do so much research before you see any money. It’s a real barrier to accomplishing those kind of complex stories. But FERN’s grants allow them to give writers pitch funding, essentially small research grants, in advance of the story being sold. It makes it possible to produce the kind of pitch a big magazine requires, which is often several iterations of a 1,000 to 1,500-word memo, without making a financial sacrifice. That was a huge help with these stories in particular, because I needed complete transcripts to assemble the portfolio for ABC— so I was able to send all the interviews off to a professional transcriptionist while I continued to report. A little-discussed aspect of big-magazine reporting is that, at the start of a story, you are more financially invested than the magazine is, because you are spending your time and effort long before they begin to pay you. This time, for maybe the first time in my magazine work, I was breaking even from the start.

Craft-wise, what lessons did you learn from this project?

A couple of things. I have never been a TV person, not even a radio person, but to make this successful I had to report as if I were. I had to report in a traditional print-reporter manner to get material for the written story for The Atlantic, but I also had to essentially give ABC News a portfolio of all of the pieces of the story, which they could then draw on to choose the best victim stories, and to decide where to go for their best shot to make a good video story. So what we gave ABC News was not a story written by me, but a portfolio: sound files, complete transcripts, all the medical literature, and a long story memo. Out of that, they generated their video stories, and then out of their video, generated a written story.

When I say I had to report in two different ways, I mean that I had to get what I needed for my own story, but also had to attend to the mechanics: I had to make sure I had good sound files and good transcripts, and make sure I was writing a good memo that was not a story in itself, but a description about where their story might go. The lesson I learned out of this wasn’t really about excellence in writing, or even excellence in story organization, but rather understanding how many different things you have to do to make a story into a multi-platform piece. So many reporters are asked to do that now: Editors ask, “Do you have a slide show?” Or, “could you have video?” Or, “Is there some other point of entry you can offer?” It gave me a taste of what that feels like.

What did this feel like?

It’s a lot of work.

Do you think you’ll do another project like this (FERN project) again? And if so, would you do anything differently?

Actually, we’ve been working on another project together since shortly after this package was published: another deep-dive, big-think magazine piece, which may or may not have a multi-media component. This one has also required a lot of up-front work, so I’m once again grateful to FERN for being willing to invest that pitch-research funding.

What’s next for you?

Like a lot of writers (I think), I did an end-of-year assessment of what I published in 2012, and wasn’t thrilled with what I saw; I’d paid the bills, for sure, but aside from the FERN package there wasn’t too much I was proud of. So my 2013 goal is to focus on projects that will be bigger than, and different from, what I’ve done before. As part of that, I’m polishing a proposal for my next book, which will look at the twin histories of antibiotic development and modern agriculture — but I’m hoping this next FERN project will be a big achievement in the coming year as well.

A glimpse behind the scenes:

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Jeanne Erdmann is co-founder and co-executive editor of TON. She is a freelance science journalist in Missouri.

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