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Why you need to read The Outlaw Ocean

This post was updated on July 30, 2015.
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This morning, The New York Times published the fourth installment of The Outlaw Ocean —a wide-ranging investigation into murder, exploitation, criminal pollution of waterways, and illegal fishing across our tragedy-ridden commons: the high seas.

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Ian Urbina, a member of the Times’ investigations unit, has crafted some exhaustively documented stories covering everything from stowaways to the difficulties associated with monitoring international waters.

Roughly 2,000 stowaways are caught each year hiding on ships. Hundreds of thousands more are sea migrants, whose journey involves some level of complicity from the ship’s crew.

If able to stay concealed, these individuals —forced or incentivized to take such risks— fall prey to chance and circumstance.

Refrigerated fishing holds become cold, exhaust pipes heat up, shipping containers are sealed and fumigated. Maritime newsletters and shipping insurance reports offer a macabre accounting of the victims: “Crushed in the chain locker,” “asphyxiated by bunker fumes,” “found under a retracted anchor.” Most often, though, death comes slower. Vomiting from seasickness leads to dehydration. People pass out from exhaustion. They starve.

But stowaways found aboard, far beyond the territorial markers of individual countries, become mere data points and, like other crew members, are subject to the rise and fall of the market: of buyers and sellers in marginal industries, of captains trying to squeeze out the barest of profits.

According to the Times’s investigation, these men often become obstacles to be disposed of by whatever means most convenient.

Murders regularly occur offshore — thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die under suspicious circumstances annually, maritime officials say — but culprits are rarely held accountable.

These murders can be documented —even videotaped— but accountability drowns in the same ice-cold waters.

“Summary execution, vigilantism, overzealous defense, call it what you will,” said Klaus Luhta, a lawyer with the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, a seafarers’ union. “This boils down just the same to a case of murder at sea and a question of why it’s allowed to happen.”

But the answer is as unsatisfying as the explanation is frustrating. Urbina writes:

Though the global economy is ever more dependent on a fleet of more than four million fishing and small cargo vessels and 100,000 large merchant ships that haul about 90 percent of the world’s goods, today’s maritime laws have hardly more teeth than they did centuries ago when history’s great empires first explored the oceans’ farthest reaches.

But these sea-based industries require bodies and their labor. Urbina tracks this rise to ‘sea slaves’ in the heart of southeast Asia:

While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates. The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.

And:

While United Nations pacts and various human rights protections prohibit forced labor, the Thai military and law enforcement authorities do little to counter misconduct on the high seas.

Into this void, however, creep private (and independently funded) organizations trying to carve off and address these persistent issues —seemingly beyond the current reach (or interests) of individual governments.  Thus, in their final segment, the Times retells the story of the Sea Shepard vigilante crews, who stalked one of the ocean’s worst offenders across 10,000 miles of ocean for 110 days.

In an epic game of cat-and-mouse, the ships maneuvered through an obstacle course of giant ice floes, endured a cyclone-like storm, faced clashes between opposing crews and nearly collided in what became the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history.

While the pursuit culminated in the sinking of the fugitive ship, the article’s conclusion —in which the author hints the ship could have been intentionally scuttled, carrying evidence of its crimes to the ocean’s floor— leaves readers with the image of a defiant captain, his fist raised, as his infamous vessel dips below the waves.

This short summary is not —and should not— supplement for reading these stories. Urbina’s lengthy investigation isn’t is not intended as an ending, but as a beginning:

There is much at stake: A melting Arctic has expanded trade routes. Evolving technology has opened the deep seabed to new mining and drilling. Maritime rivalry and piracy have led to more violent clashes. And, with an ever more borderless economy, sea commerce is vital to many countries. “Without ships, half of the world would freeze and the other half would starve,” Rose George, a British nautical writer, said.

A hallmark of journalism committed properly is its ability to hook a reader, reeling them into a world that is both distant and inextricably connected to their everyday life. This series accomplishes just that.


Update: Ian Urbina joined the team at Longform to discuss his project, The Outlaw Ocean. You can by clicking the Longform icon below. (One of many gems to be discovered on the Longform site

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We Get What We Want: Nepal Coverage in Context

I suppose all things must end. #offassignment #exit

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Yesterday, Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, tore into foreign news coverage of April’s earthquake in Nepal.

The international media arrives in herds and hunts in packs. Everything has to conform to a preordained script: you parachute in and immediately find good visuals of ‘utter devastation’; recruit an English-speaking local who doesn’t need subtitling; trail the rescue teams with sniffer dogs you flew in with as they pull someone out alive, after 12 hours (the rescuers need their logos on TV as much as you need them in the picture).

His words are sharp, burnished —it seems— by his frustration at the sight of equipment-laden voyeurs who shadow disasters. However, Dixit loses his ferocity within paragraphs, his vigor replaced by a wariness that the story of Nepal —what the 7.8 earthquake wrought, other than a surplus of media— will be forgotten as the media cycle ticks stubbornly on.

Dixit is right, of course. We privilege those moments of crisis. These are the shortened seconds and sustained shock where journalistic imperative is often felt strongest. And yes, we left as quickly as we arrived.

But no one I met there, tasked with writing, filming, or photographing a disaster Dixit knows is “too big to comprehend” thought that Nepal (as a story) could be exhausted in a week. Most of us packed our bags because the economics of empathy —at least as expressed in the world of journalism— made it impossible to remain any longer.

There is nothing cheap about covering crisis: hotel rates spike, the demand curve for translators and fixers stretches skyward, access to electricity and Internet are expensive at best. These effects aren’t surprising. But they exist.

This means that every minute on the ground, those necessary moments exploring what Dixit calls “stereotypical coverage,” limits our ability to “catch a deeper understanding of what’s really happening.” You cover your bases first, then you start brushing the dust away. If you still have the finances to do it. But Dixit knows this. “There is a formula for news and it’s hard to file a story that doesn’t fit it” he writes.

And so his charges —well-intentioned and worth considering, seriously — struggle with same question that haunts the reporter: What are we (journalists) to do when the audience signals it’s ready to move on?

To care everywhere and always and to cover that everything in real time, is —in part— to report on nothing. Priorities must be set. Today, those priorities are increasingly shaped by scarcity and our growing knowledge of audience interests. As a result, we live at a time where “comprehensive coverage” can appear more aspirational than practical.

But even sustained attention, if you can arrange it, comes at a cost. If Nepal played home to a bumper crop of reporters for months on end, one might imagine Dixit writing stories of local fatigue: calls to leave the Nepalis alone as they rebuild.

Dixit is stuck with media coverage as necessary evil: the tedious, too-predictable peering eyes and pointed pens, effect (and affect) relief efforts. They write the “headlines [that] keep the crisis alive.”

None of this excuses any damage inflicted by journalism done wrong: the irresponsible reporting of fear-inducing rumors (i.e. “predicted” aftershocks, etc…) did much to erase any sense of security and stability just days after disaster. But Dixit struggles to differentiate the system of journalism from the journalists themselves.

I can’t speak for all the reporters who covered those first days in April, as the dusty afternoons stretched into unsettled evenings, as media teams sat bleary-eyed in the small hours of the morning trying to arrange logistics to cover the stories outside the bubble of Kathmandu, but I would bet many would have stayed longer and traded horror stories for those of revival and triumph.

The latter are more satisfying than stunning, more humble than haunting, and they are probably the ones Dixit wants to read. Most of us just didn’t get the time to write them.