Surviving the Elements: Confronting Difficult Field-Reporting Conditions

Taylor Weidman

Wudan Yan wading through what remains of a mangrove forest in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta in Oct 2015.

 

When freelance journalist Sophie Yeo headed into the Amazon to report for The Guardian on river dolphins last November, the challenges she faced were many and varied. For starters, her destination was a 15-hour boat ride from Manaus, Brazil, the city she had flown into. At one point during the journey, armed men wearing balaclavas boarded the boat, demanding to inspect the vessel and passengers’ bags. Having been warned about pirates, Yeo was alarmed, though the other passengers seemed unworried. (Yeo never learned who the men were or what they were doing on the boat.)

When she finally arrived in the remote city of Tefé, Yeo tried to check in at her hotel, only to find that it didn’t have her booking. Since she doesn’t speak Portuguese and internet wasn’t available, she had to rely on a fellow boat passenger to help her find a room for the night.

Soon, she moved further afield, taking a three-hour motorized canoe ride to a house that served as a floating research station on a tributary to the Amazon River. There, the dolphin researchers she had come so far to see told stories of a caiman biting off the leg of someone who was cleaning fish near the house—stories that provided no comfort to Yeo, who saw the animals lurking nearby.

To get around the difficult terrain, she relied on canoes and mototaxis, where she perched on the back of a driver’s motorbike as the skilled drivers navigated pothole-pocked roads. To communicate with phoneless sources and to sort out logistics, she depended on radios and translators.

As Yeo can attest, reporting from the field entails some different skills than calling interview subjects from a climate-controlled office. Navigating unfamiliar languages, terrains, and cultures simply comes with the territory. And when science reporters head out into the field, they can face a number of risks to their health and safety, from vector-borne diseases to icy crevasses to kidnappings. For every harsh environment reporters might face, their equipment and notes also endure similar hardships. Returning from the field unscathed demands awareness of the hazards, careful preparation, and a willingness to ask for help.

For many science journalists, though, all of the risks and challenges are justified by the potential reward—the kind of colorful, dramatic, impactful stories that can only be told through on-the-ground reporting.

 

Consider Seeking Special Training

When the first shot went off, freelance journalist Wudan Yan dove for the floor, lying flat on her stomach with her feet together, as she had been trained. Soon, she was handcuffed, blindfolded, and had a bag over her head, awaiting interrogation. Thankfully, in this case, she was safe. Her abductors were actors taking part in a Hostile Environment and First Aid Training (HEFAT) course in which Yan was enrolled.

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Yan was prompted to take the training after finding herself in potentially dangerous reporting situations. While covering migrant healthcare on the Thai-Burmese border in August 2016, she was concerned by the extensive sex trafficking taking place there. Yan feared that if she let her guard down, “I could potentially open myself up to danger.” She wanted more in-depth, formal training to learn more about how to recognize, avoid, and—if necessary—respond to threatening circumstances.

The three-day course, which she took in Miami in July, helped Yan prepare for many different situations a reporter may face in the field, from abduction to a twisted ankle somewhere far from medical care. She learned about how to develop situational awareness, how to stop bleeding, and how to stay calm in a crisis, among other valuable skills.

 

Put Your Health and Safety First

Knowing what environmental conditions to expect and preparing for them whenever possible is one key to staying healthy in the field.  Before Yeo’s trip to the Amazon, she had to jump through a number of hoops to obtain the necessary pre-trip vaccinations and medications. Due to a shortage of yellow fever shots, she had difficulty tracking one down, and was surprised by the cost. “I’m British, and so I’m not used to having to pay a lot of money for vaccinations,” says Yeo, who was living in the U.S. at the time. “Getting all the vaccinations was an unexpected expense.” Still, it’s worth it to keep potentially deadly illnesses at bay.

Even more common health threats such as dehydration and heat stroke require forethought and planning. Navigating rugged desert roads in a 4×4, public radio reporter Susan Valot readied herself for intense conditions as she journeyed deep into Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in July 2017. She had come to cover the annual bighorn sheep count, which is conducted during the peak of the Southwest summer, when sheep head toward water sources. That day the thermometer topped 111 degrees Fahrenheit as Valot joined volunteers patiently waiting for sheep to appear.

 

Courtesy of Susan Valot

Susan Valot gathers sound during a field producing outing with Los Angeles County Firefighter Erin Regan.

 

“[In] that particular desert, they have usually about a dozen deaths a year,” a majority of them heat-related, she says. So Valot took precautions. In addition to erecting a shade structure with other volunteers at the field site, she drank lots of water and made sure to consume electrolytes, in addition to slathering on sunscreen and draping herself with cooling towels.

Valot encourages reporters to anticipate worst-case scenarios when preparing for field work. When she reports on wildfires, for example, she brings a particulate-filtering face mask and dresses with fire danger in mind. “I think about taking things that aren’t flammable,” she says. Things that “aren’t going to melt on my arms.”

On assignment in polar regions, freelance writer Douglas Fox faces a far different combination of environmental risks. While reporting on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 2007, Fox spent up to eight hours a day snowmobiling with scientists as they placed instruments in various field locations. When venturing into new locations, they would travel slowly, roped together, using an ice-penetrating radar to look for crevasses.

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At one point, the group stopped to stretch, and Fox noticed his boot sinking into the snow. For the first few seconds, he said the gravity of the situation didn’t really register, but when it did, Fox said it took a surprisingly long time to pull his boot out of the snow. When he looked where he had been standing, Fox saw what he described as an “eerily-lit blue chasm that was hidden under a crust of several inches of snow,” and “a boot hole that had no bottom in it.”

Fox emphasizes the importance of traveling with and learning from those who know how to navigate a particular terrain. “There are hazards,” he says. But “people know how to behave down there and, with them, you learn how to behave too.” Still, he emphasizes the importance of being responsible for your own safety. “I try to keep cognizant at all times that I’m the guest, and if I fall into a crack in the ground or break my ankle or get lost or anything, then I inflict a lot of damage on the ability of those scientists to get their work done,” he says, noting that “a crevasse rescue in the deep field can end a field season.”

But Fox says his biggest obstacles are more mundane than dodging crevasses. “For me the real challenges were just the trivial-seeming things: figuring out how to record outside when the wind is whistling through, how to write in a notebook when your gloves are like bear claws and your fingers become numb in 60 seconds, and how to be ‘on’ and reporting virtually all of your working hours, every day, for weeks.” (Editors’ note: Fox tells the story behind that expedition here.)

 

Protect Equipment and Data

 

JT Thomas

Doug Fox in January 2013 at Lake Whillans in West Antarctica. The UV-proof googles protected his eyes from the powerful lamps researchers were using to sterilize equipment before they lowered it into the pristine subglacial lake.

Protecting yourself from the elements and other dangers while in the field is crucial, but it’s also important to safeguard your data and equipment to make sure you can tell your story. With the cold and windy conditions Fox faces in the field, he has to make sure his equipment is up for the job, so he tests it before leaving home. Before bringing his expensive camera to Antarctica, he even went so far as to put it in the freezer to see how it reacted to the cold. He did not, however, think to “freezer test” his laptop, so it wasn’t until he was on assignment that he discovered the frigid air made it operate at a fraction of its normal speed. To combat the cold battery, he began sleeping with his laptop inside his sleeping bag, and would sometimes put it under his many layers of clothing to warm it up.

Fox also encourages journalists to consider whether their normal reporting techniques and equipment are suited to their field conditions. While he typically wears a recorder around his neck to record conversations, he discovered that it was difficult to pick up sound with diesel engines and powerful winds howling in the background. When he knew the recorder wasn’t likely to capture certain information, he tried to get a backup record through another means, such as taking notes.

Yan takes notes in waterproof notebooks. To keep her data safe, each day she photographs her notes and uploads them to the cloud, using an international data plan and connecting through her phone’s hotspot. That backup could be essential when she’s reporting on particularly sensitive or controversial topics, like palm oil or border issues. “I have a digital version of my notes, even if my notebook gets confiscated,” Yan says.

 

Plan Ahead and Ask for Help

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Whether protecting yourself or your equipment and data, planning ahead is crucial. Before going out into the field, Yan spends a significant amount of time preparing a safety plan and discussing what to do in certain circumstances, such as if she’s spotted by a security officer while on a palm oil plantation.

“I think I spent more time researching security precautions before I went than the actual story that I was going to do,” Yan says.

Don’t be afraid to ask colleagues about their time in the areas you are going to visit, to glean intel from their own travels. “Sometimes that can feel competitive,” Yan says, “like it’s asking for somebody else’s sources, but that’s really not it.” Reporters can—and should—learn from one another’s experiences and mistakes alike.

Find out who to rely on for on-the-ground support and information. Yan hires local fixers to help when she’s on location and always makes sure they’re fluent in spoken and written English. To vet them, she asks about their experience, seeing if they’ve collaborated with other journalists, or if they are journalists themselves, and what types of stories they’ve worked on.

When Valot is going to be reporting from remote regions, she turns to local experts, such as park rangers and event organizers, to find out important details ahead of time. “Try to have a contact before you go who can help you get the lay of the land and come up with a reporting plan,” Valot advises. In addition to advising on conditions and weather, she says these contacts can help answer questions about which locations to visit, whom to talk to, and even the availability of sources during her visit.

 

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If Valot doesn’t have a local connection, she looks to social media to find local Facebook groups. Here, she can ask people familiar with the location about what to expect and how to prepare. She will also use Google Maps to help with route planning. The bottom line, she says, is trying to find out as much as you can before you go.

Despite all the challenges and risks inherent in remote field reporting, the potential payoff is huge. Stories that include on-the-ground color and action are often more dramatic and compelling that those reported from the comfort of one’s office. If you’ve never put yourself in the middle of the action to get a great story, your first trip can be intimidating, but there’s only one way to overcome the fear—get out in the field and give it a try. “There’s going to be a first time for everyone,” Yan says. “That’s how you start doing this kind of work.”

 

 

Courtesy of Kristen Pope

Kristen Pope

Kristen Pope is a freelance science writer, and her work has appeared in Discover, Audubon.com, Hakai, Yale Climate Connections, and many other publications. She is also a member of the National Association of Science Writers. Follow her on Twitter @Kristen_E_Pope.

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