Inside Story: Digging Deep Into an Insect ‘Die-off’ When the Data Is Missing
A detailed exploration of the global decline of insects last year won Mongabay contributor Jeremy Hance second place for explanatory reporting at a small newsroom in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2020 Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. SEJ’s judges said Hance’s evocative writing and interviews with two dozen entomologists enabled him to “craft an engaging, easy-to-understand narrative about the threats facing our insect neighbors across six continents.” SEJournal Online recently caught up with Hance about the project. Here is the conversation.
|Jeremy Hance. Click to enlarge.|
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?
Jeremy Hance: I'd say quite simply the lack of many studies from the tropics, where the vast majority of insects live. We solved it in a number of ways: First, we acknowledged upfront that there was a dearth of data. Part of the story's thrust was the call for more data everywhere but especially in the tropics. We also explored the research that has been done, and used anecdotal observations from experienced scientists that have lived in the tropics on and off for many years — this helped shed a light on what might be going on.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your findings?
Hance: I think the most surprising thing was just how concerned scientists were at the time and how alarming was the data we had. Often scientists don't get emotional or hold off on elucidating the alarm, especially on something that is still relatively understudied, but the concern from most was palpable. In some cases, researchers were far more frank than I expected.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the series and why?
Hance: It was pitched to me by Glenn Scherer, an editor at Mongabay who I'd worked with in the past. He and I had chatted via email prior about the insect decline issue and when he came to me with the idea of a full-fledged series, I couldn't say no — even though at the time I was working on a book as well and had promised myself I wouldn't take on other projects. But this story so desperately needed a thorough telling — a number of the stories prior to this had been simply too short to really portray the complexities and uncertainties of what was happening. And almost all the stories left out what might be happening in the tropics.
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the series and why?
‘I don't think this is a story
that can be fully understood until
we have decades of more research.’
Hance: I'm working on an update to the story and I think what's most interesting is that a year later we have some solid studies and more complexity and nuance. We still know next to nothing about the tropics, which is continuously frustrating, but I don't think this is a story that can be fully understood until we have decades of more research. Of course, by then, hopefully it's not too late for many of our insect friends.
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your project?
Hance: The story required a constant dance between portraying many of the scientists' genuine alarm but also negotiating the fact that the research was minimal and often from specific areas — in other words much of the story was about how we needed more data. We're also talking about the most speciose group of life-forms on the planet, so there will likely be winners and losers in the trends going forward. We're not going to lose all insects. That's crazy. But at the same time, what happens if we lose a significant number, or diversity or abundance does drop precipitously in many areas? I think this nuance — and the challenge of being honest to around two dozen [entomologists’] views — meant that not everyone would be pleased with the story. Some would say we were being too alarming, others that we were not alarming enough. It was difficult. And I feel that while we did a good job with this dance, we probably didn't get it perfectly.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
‘Really dig yourself into
the data (and the
debates about the data).’
Hance: I'd say make sure to really dig yourself into the data (and the debates about the data) and then talk to more sources than you ever imagined you'd need. Of course, for most journalism this isn't possible. The time required to really sink your teeth into this story means having the monetary ability to do so. That's one thing that was so special about the Mongabay series — they really allowed us to dig deep and for me to spend several months focused on this story. For a story with lots of ongoing arguments and nuance, make sure to try and portray that as much as possible.
SEJournal: Is there anything else you would like to share about this story or environmental journalism?
Hance: I think one of the most important parts of the series, and one thing that is continually lacking from the reporting on this, is that we know so little about what's happening in the tropics. But what we do know, the very little we know, doesn't look great. That must be taken with a grain of salt, of course, but we desperately need more data and more research to understand what's happening and most importantly how we can protect insects going forward.
[Editor’s Note: Read Hance’s full four-part series, “The Great Insect Dying.”]
Jeremy Hance is a writer and freelance environmental journalist. He is the author of the travel memoir “Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac.” As a journalist, Hance cut his teeth at Mongabay, beginning in 2009 and working as a lead writer and editor for six years. For over three years, he wrote the blog Radical Conservation on the Guardian. Today, he is a columnist for Mongabay, writing under the banner Saving Life on Earth: Words on the Wild. His work has also appeared in HuffPost, Ensia, YaleE360 and Sydney Morning Herald, among others. As a journalist he is passionate about wildlife conservation, climate change, forests and Indigenous people. A story on the Sumatran rhino for Mongabay was chosen for Best American Science and Nature Writing in 2019. In pursuit of stories, Hance has traveled to five continents. He considers himself ridiculously lucky to have spent time with singing rhinos and dinosaur mammals and angry clown fish.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 22. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.