On January 25, I crawled into my tent exhausted, ready to turn down the volume on my handheld radio and sleep for several hours. My tent was one of thirty-five or so arranged in neat rows at a remote field camp on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, about 380 miles from the South Pole. I had come here to see a team of researchers attempt a historic feat: drilling into a subglacial lake, hidden beneath half a mile of ice.
I had followed this project for six years, and set aside eight weeks to travel to Antarctica to see it through to its conclusion. Now, the success or failure of this entire venture was coming down to ten days of intense, round-the-clock action. I would sleep for only one to four hours at a time during much of that period as I scrambled to capture every shred of useful material that I could.
Embedded reporting is time-consuming for sure; but by doing it, you can learn so much more about a topic, and about people, than you do by staring through the narrow-aperture keyhole that is a 60-minute phone interview. I love embedded reporting, and love the stories that come from it; but it has been a constant learning process, and these 10 days were among the most challenging of my career.
Anchored in action
I hoped to write a narrative that would move from scene to scene, documenting the series of triumphs and disappointments leading up to the penetration of Subglacial Lake Whillans. We often think of explanatory quotes as the gems that liven up a science story—and they have their place—but quotes like these can also slow down a story.
I planned, instead, to gather seemingly mundane material that would connect readers to the action—for example, the chatty dialog between drillers and scientists on handheld radios as they coordinated the lowering of a camera on 2,600 feet of cable.
You can always ask someone after the fact to explain the science behind what happened; Michelle Nijhuis (bio) conveys this thought in my chapter, “Excavating the evidence” in The Science Writers’ Handbook. The more urgent thing is collecting peoples’ immediate emotional responses and real-time chitter-chatter that interlocks with the action at hand like the teeth of a turning gear wheel. You simply have to be there as the action is unfolding to get this material; you cannot, by and large, go back and recreate it.
Twenty four-hour grinds aren’t unheard-of in embedded reporting. They can happen on research vessels at sea, for example, as I experienced during a cruise along the Antarctic Peninsula in 2010, or as Mark Schrope (bio) experienced on a ship that discovered at least one new species of deep-sea squid in 2004. Similar situations can even happen during office-based reporting of major events, such as Thomas Hayden‘s (bio) reporting for US News and World Report on Hurricane Katrina and its unfolding aftermath in 2005. (They later reconstructed their round-the-clock reporting in three separate pieces.)
This nonstop schedule made life especially difficult for me at Lake Whillans. Two shifts of ice drillers were working round the clock to open a hole into the lake—and once the hole was open, scientists would labor 24 hours a day to make use of it before it snapped shut in the bitter cold. There were certain moments that I needed to be present for, such as the breakthrough into the lake, but I could never be sure when those moments would happen. And in some cases those events appeared imminent for two or three successive nights in a row—forcing me to stay up. It all added up to 10 days of 24/7 action—pushing me to make difficult choices about what to see and what to miss.
What complicated it this time was the constant need to plan for different possible stories: Would the scientists succeed in getting into the lake, or not? And if they did, what would they find there? A lost race of aquatic monkeys? Microbial slime? No life whatsoever? Each of these unknowable outcomes demanded that I collect a different set of foreshadowing details from the earlier action—just in case I needed them later on, as I wrote the story.
You can never predict, out in the field, when something really amazing is going to happen—all you can do is maximize your odds of catching it by being present as much as possible—and by setting some priorities.
Plan for a tired mind
I planned my priorities in the days leading up to the crunch time. I talked to the drilling team, and to each of the researchers: What questions did they hope to answer? What potential mishaps did they fear most? How soon would key findings reveal themselves—and in what form?… As a three-digit number on an LCD display? As shining dots under a microscope? Or as live video feed from a camera slithering down an icy borehole?
The laundry list of must-see moments that I gathered from these conversations helped guide my decisions later on, when things started moving quickly and sleep deprivation reduced me to a squishy invertebrate incapable of rational thought. I ended up gathering plenty of good material during those ten days—but it didn’t all go smoothly. I missed one important moment that I had hoped to witness—the opening of a lake sample inside a crowded laboratory—simply because I was caught at the last moment without a proper Tyvek clean suit.
Access and expectations
That snafu raises an important point: The conversations that I had with people ahead of time should also have set expectations about what I needed to see first-hand—and should have identified potential barriers—like Tyvek clothing. That this slipped through the cracks was an oversight on my part—and a reminder that it’s good to iron this stuff out ahead of time—before you’re all grumpy from having been awake for 24 hours. (Securing access and setting expectations is something that I discuss in “Excavating the evidence” in The Science Writers’ Handbook.)
It didn’t matter so much in the end that I missed that one moment. I managed to make up for it by interviewing two people who were present for it: they provided sensory details of what had transpired out of my sight. I distilled that into two brief paragraphs that weren’t as rich as some of the other scenes—but still provided an important inflection point in the story’s narrative.
Getting the material was only half the battle, of course. A few days later I would arrive back home in California, sleep-deprived and dazed, with 1,095 pages of handwritten notes that I somehow needed to convert into a coherent story. And I had to file that story a month earlier than I had planned.
First of a two-part series on embedded reporting. Next week, find out how to organize all that material–and get the story written on time.
Image credit: Douglas Fox