Top Beat Reporter Looks for “Window into Story”

January 15, 2014

Inside Story

Reporter Sam Eaton tasting raw scallops in Ogatsu, Japan, with tsunami survivor and aquaculture fisherman Hiromitsu Ito. Rather than waiting for government aid, Ito innovated a new Community Supported Agriculture model for aquaculture fishing. Photo by Yuma Hamayoshi.

When it comes to reporting on complex environmental issues around the world, few do the job justice like Sam Eaton. A NewYork-based radio and television journalist, Eaton was recently named first-place winner of the SEJ’s 12th annual award for outstanding beat reporting for large markets for his work on Public Radio International’s The World. Judges praised his work, saying Eaton “brought his listeners not just the world but the way it is changing at the hand of man.” SEJournal’s Beth Daley, who co-chaired the awards committee, recently asked Eaton about his prize-winning work about Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant and climate research in the Arctic.

SEJournal: How did the stories on Fukushima and the Arctic come about and tell us how long they took to put together?

Eaton: Both of these projects came about quickly. For Japan, Peter Thomson, The World’s environment editor, first approached me in mid-January 2012 about doing some stories for the tsunami-earthquake anniversary. Three weeks later I was on a plane to Tokyo with assignments for five radio stories for The World, a TV segment for PBS NewsHour, and a hard deadline of the March 11th anniversary. We knew going in what themes we wanted to explore, such as the environmental tradeoffs of making the Fukushima hot zone habitable again. But all the work of bringing the stories to life happened during my two weeks on the ground. I had an amazing fixer, Winnie Bird, a talented environmental journalist who had a very old and very tiny minivan. So we turned it into a road trip of sorts, driving the entire stretch of the tsunami-damaged coastline while gathering interviews, crashing on fishermen’s floors at night, and adjusting our itinerary along the way as each story took shape.

The climate stories presented a different set of challenges since my task was to connect the dots between Hurricane Sandy and the latest science on Arctic warming. People on the East Coast were still digging out from the wreckage, so I knew I needed to hit the right tone. I had covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for Marketplace and experienced how that story evolved over time from the immediacy of the storm and flooding to coverage with much more context. It’s a balance between the traumatic experience of the people who’ve lived through these disasters and want to rebuild their lives exactly as they were before and the scientific evidence that things will never be the same.

SEJournal: Your stories are notable for wonderful detail that helps listeners absorb lots of substance. The examples of the starving animal chewing on the wood and the economic fallout from Fukushima were incredibly evocative. How do you go looking for those details?

Eaton: These details are usually the images and quotes that stick with me after the interviews. The things I tell my wife about at the end of the day. In many ways it’s about luck. But more often it’s about patience. The farmers in Japan showed me that photo of the chewed-through wood beam in their barn after the interview had officially ended. We were talking about how much they loved each of their animals and how hard it was for them to abandon them. They had left after the disaster thinking they would be back in a few days. But the days turned to months and that photo captured the horror of what had happened in their absence.

I also came to journalism from fiction writing so I’m always looking for the small details that evoke a much larger meaning. And in broadcast, where a six-minute story is a luxury, they can be used to add more context or to convey a sense of place when economy of language is a requirement.

SEJournal: How long were you in Japan’s contaminated zone,where you needed special equipment to breathe, etc.?

Eaton: We were in and out in a day. A small group of international journalists shared a small van. We all had those white Tyvek radiation suits and booties, full-face respirators, etc. I even wrapped my recording equipment and microphone in saran wrap and tape so that it wouldn’t collect radioactive dust during my visit.

SEJournal: Was there any particularly nerve-wracking time and if so, how did you resolve it?

Eaton: I will never forget the moment shortly after crossing into the hot zone when everyone’s Geiger counters started going off at the same time. Up to that point we had all been casually talking. And once the alarms went off we all went silent. I think it’s safe to say that the reality of what we were doing hit everyone at that moment.

Outside we were passing these abandoned towns. Everything had the look of a place that was evacuated in a hurry. And after a year there were already signs of nature slowly reclaiming the area. The most eerie experience by far was walking through a forest less than a mile from the reactor in my radiation suit, listening to the sound of the wind in the trees and the haunting calls of Japanese crows. The radiation levels here were the hottest we had seen, yet crows and other wildlife were completely oblivious to this invisible contaminant that was now in everything. It was the moment for me when it really sunk in how difficult, if not impossible, it is to clean up after a nuclear disaster.

SEJournal: What has been the most challenging part of telling stories about climate change?

Eaton: Most of the time climate change stories are about new research or scientific publications. In broadcast it’s really hard to make a compelling story out of that. So I try to get scientists to talk about the experience of doing research in these remote and wild places, what keeps them up at night, what they’re most excited about. I look for anything that offers a window into the story behind the hard numbers and formal reports. I think a lot of coverage loses sight of just how quickly things are changing and how weird things are getting. These scientists have the rare privilege of observing climate change in some of the most rapidly changing places on the planet. The sense of wonder they feel is rarely conveyed in the official reports. But it offers a point of connection for listeners and viewers to relate to these abstract stories.

SEJournal: What is the most difficult part of your job?

Eaton: Staying positive. It can be a real challenge not getting totally depressed when you live and breathe these stories for so long. I have days where I feel like the world my five-year-old daughter will live in will be nothing short of apocalyptic. I see her respond with such excitement to the diversity of life that still exists knowing that much of it may be gone by the time she’s my age. For this reason it’s so important to try to focus on stories that offer solutions. That was the experience I had with the final round of “Food for 9 Billion” stories we did for NewsHour and The World. I was inspired by the people I interviewed for these stories and how deeply they believed that they could alter the course of humanity and the world.

SEJournal: What is the best advice you can give to a freelance journalist?

Eaton: I’ve found that producing stories as packages and as special projects is a much more effective model for freelancing. Anyway you can cluster multiple stories into single trips saves time on the front and back end that, as a freelancer, you’re never really paid for. Another advantage is to be able to produce stories for multiple venues. Funders love cross-platform projects. So learn how to juggle it all! If you can shoot photos and video, get audio for radio stories, and write print pieces, you’re going to be much more marketable and the income from each project will hopefully increase as well.

Eaton is currently working on a new year-long environmental reporting project for radio, television and the web. His work can be seen and heard on American Public Media’s Marketplace, PRI’s The World, and PBS’ NOVA and NewsHour. Follow him on Twitter:@eatonsam. Links to his SEJ award-winning work can be found here. Daley, until recently the environment reporter at The Boston Globe, is now reporter and director of partnerships at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom.


* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Winter 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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