Are there Really 7 Tons of Plastic in Charleston Harbor? – How to Write about Science without Bias

Turtles Eat Plastic

I couldn’t wrap my mind about the stat – there are seven tons of plastic floating around Charleston Harbor. Tasked by my my editor to investigate the possibility our community could go plastic-bag free, I knew I’d be facing down some disquieting figures, namely how much garbage we’d littered locally as a community over the last half-century.

Local or not, the seven ton statistic presented me as a journalist with a big problem – is this number real? How do I know? How can I present information to my readers they can trust… i.e. how can I present information like this without letting my personal biases get in the way?

How_To_Spot_Fake_News

It’s a problem I face every time I publish anything for a newspaper of course, but it applies to everyone really. When it comes to politics, science, or anything else that riles people up, writing or talking authoritatively using facts is a real issue. It’s hard, it really is but critical if only you want to be able to look yourself in the mirror each day without calling yourself a bullshit artist.

In the case of my story and the consideration of the seven tons of plastic in Charleston Harbor stat, it came down to one document I tracked down; it’s veracity, it’s acceptability in the public realm, it’s origin it was the key document.

The question we ask in the news business – is it newsworthy?

Newsworthiness is a phrase that brings with it connotations of both truth and interest to the public – i.e. it’s gotta be both true and useful. The funny thing about this stat is, I didn’t even end up using it. All the same, I had to know.

Where did I get the number?

My research into the potential the community I cover going plastic bag free necessarily had to begin with the question of was plastic bag pollution of legitimate concern here where I live in Charleston? It was a question that needed answering before any other, as I didn’t want to waste neither my nor my readers’ time.

The only way to logically do this, in my mind, is to find out what proponents of the idea the Charleston Harbor or as a whole the Atlantic Ocean allege, what do they assert they have as evidence this is happening? For me in this case that meant researching what leaders of the conservation movement are saying about the issue and on top of that, because we’re a community newspaper, we had to make it local. I needed to find someone connected with conservation on the ground level.

2016 Beach Sweep on Daniel Island

Volunteers working the 2016 Beach Sweep on Daniel Island recovered this massive pile of trash in just one hour by the Children’s Park at the end of River Landing Dr.

I found as as local, community souce on the story a gal who has served as the leader of the local beach clean-up for the past four years. In her eyes, at least for one, that Charleston Harbor was polluted with plastic was beyond question. I pressed her for her evidence, and she gave me some info.

In her info, the most compelling piece to hit me right off was the local evidence of plastic bags showing up during clean-ups of the area. She pushed me to investigate what the City had begun to do in recognition of the issue.

So I started digging into where the City of Charleston stood on the issue and came across the City of Charleston Plastic Bag Minimization Committee.  As it would turn out on the suggestion of members of the community, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg had spearheaded the formation of the committee, which had formed following a pair of cities – Folly Beach and the Isle of Palms – became the first two cities in the state to initiate plastic bag bans.

The coalition/committee:

And all of this is against the backdrop that the S.C. state legislature, specifically the state house of representatives, had recently voted – and by a 50-49 margin mind you – down a bill that would have banned cities from banning plastic bags, with the two cities that had already done so being grandfathered in.

I’m beginning at this point to believe the issue is real. But what about other states? Plastic Bag_thumb_thumb

Oh yeah, it didn’t take long to learn that other municipalities– even the states themselves, as in the case with California – had enacted plastic bag bans. The issue was certainly national.

The California state-wide ban made news across the country in 2014, particularly for the pushback sponsored by the plastic bag lobby – yes, that’s a real thing – which is backed by, for one S.C.-headquartered plastic bags manufacturer Novexco.

But I digress….

The City of Charleston research didn’t take long, as in their list of facts about plastic bags, I found what I was looking for, my diamond. Cited by the City themselves was a study on the presence of microplastics in Charleston Harbor – it was a Master’s Thesis submitted by a grad. student at the College of Charleston in 2015.

Wertz, Hope. 2015. Marine debris in Charleston Harbor: Characterizing plastic particles in the field and assessing their effects on juvenile clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) Master’s Thesis. College of Charleston.

But could I use this?

The bottom line when considering what is fact and what is opinion in material published on the web is there’s no bottom line. You’ve got to take each case as an individual case, research, in this case, the university the facts were published from.

The answer is yes… for me. Ultimately, as a journalist, commentator or just a person wanting to get the facts right, there is NO system to make sure you’re on the factual up and up.

You have to use your best judgement. Sorry for the bad news readers!

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