Barry Lopez made several trips to the Arctic that informed his classic Arctic Dreams. Greg Mortenson returned to Pakistan many times before co-writing Three Cups of Tea. How best can reporters be clear that they are folding a variety of excursions in one place into a single narrative?
SEJ members who overflowed a network lunch table on the topic, Facts Gone Wild: Applying Journalistic Ethics to Outdoor Writing, opposed passing many trips off as one seamless story, but agreed that multiple trips to a place at the center of a story strengthened the reporting.
Composite trips might be made acceptable with a direct explanation at the start of a report. Under no circumstances, however, should composite characters be used, the table agreed.
Direct quotes can be hard to jot down when you’re clinging to a ledge, negotiating options with a climbing partner, or otherwise engaged in a rigorous adventure. Can a reporter reconstruct dialog, being true to the tone and meaning while uncertain about the exact words of a quote? Yes. No. Sometimes.
“If you don’t have it, you can’t use it,” said Tony Barboza, an LA Times reporter who is spending this year as a fellow at the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado.
You could wear recording devices, such as a GoPro camera or small audio recorder, to capture direct quotes, suggested Mark Neuzil, author of, among other books, The Environment and the Press: From Adventure Writing to Advocacy.
Keeping an adventure blog while in the field might be perceived by editors as prior publication and be used for grounds for spiking a piece.
“Don’t blog what you intend to write for publication,” said David Ferris, who writes about eco-business and eco-technology.
Ultimately, journalistic standards are something professional reporters need to carry with them on their adventures to gain an audience and built a reputation of excellence.
“I think it’s important that you try very hard to reach for a higher journalistic standard than everyone else out there,” said Michael Kodas, author of High Crimes, a book about Mount Everest. “And there are a lot of other people out there. There are more laptops than stoves on Everest and everyone is writing a blog.”
Kodas suggests conducting interviews and gathering documents during a trip. It might be hard to do at the time, but tracking people and documents down later can be time consuming and maybe not possible.
Journalists intent on taking their professional ethics and standards into the wild can avoid some ethical challenges by thinking about what those challenges might be before they launch on their expedition. If anyone reading the blog has ethical pitfalls for the outdoor writer, please share them in the comments here and let the conversation continue.