WyoPanama: A Crash Course in Field Journalism

Post by Priscilla Ashleigh Wigington

University classes teach journalism students like me quite a lot to prepare us for working professionally. But, there are aspects of being a journalist that I didn’t learn about until I was actually in the field––and by field, I don’t mean my professional field. I mean the literal field: the Panamanian rainforest of Soberanía National Park.

Priscilla (right). Behind the scenes as I captured portraits of my classmate, Noah Richter. 
(Image © 2020, Shayne Mazur/WyoPanama 2.0)

When I first heard about the opportunity to travel to Panama as a part of an ecology field course, I envisioned hanging out with a bunch of researchers and witnessing their amazing work firsthand. My nose would grow a foot if I said I didn’t also envision basking by a pool. For the most part those expectations were met and even exceeded. I did indeed observe incredible science being done by Smithsonian Institute researchers as well as by my fellow classmates, and I went to the nearby resort’s pool not just once but twice.

We stayed in a duplex in Gamboa, Panama, a small town approximately 40 minutes away from Panama City––or about an hour away if you take the vibrantly painted SACA bus, which probably lived its first life as a school bus in the United States. Gamboa is a quiet town, home to some Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute labs, the aforementioned Gamboa Resort, and a community of locals of many nationalities.

Our class focused on two main subjects: the ecological culture of Panama and science communication. We each had independent projects, with which we would explore those two things. One of the most enjoyable things about the class was tagging along with my peers as they worked on their independent projects. Everyone went in so many interesting directions. Shayne Mazur, an English major, wrote portions of a screenplay inspired by Central American folklore. Max Packebush, a micro- and molecular biology major filmed colonies of leaf cutter ants in order to analyze caste-sizes. Others conducted experiments analyzing responses of tropical mockingbirds to bird calls that originated from various distances away from Gamboa or analyzed the effects of background color on antshrike nest predation.

Priscilla (right) documenting the forest where classmates conducted ecology research projects. (Image © 2020, Bethann Garramon Merkle)

I decided to attempt to create a magazine, inspired by magazines like Orion and Ecotone, about the many sides of Gamboa.

In addition to working on our projects, we experienced several days full of adventure at the Miraflores Canal Locks, in the historic district of Panama City, touring and meeting the primate residents of the small islands of the canal, and learning about the history and culture from the Embera–Wounaan people.

Despite the incredible experiences, there were some aspects of being in the field that I wasn’t necessarily prepared for by my classes.

  1. Living conditions vary. Our’s weren’t bad by any means, but it took a while to get accustomed to a house with no air conditioning in a place where the daily forecast is 90º Fahrenheit with 80% humidity. That’s nothing, though, compared to our teaching assistant, Laura — she was once part of a project that involved camping in the rainforest of Peru with little to no amenities for eight months. Bottom line: you may be roughing it. While that isn’t all that unexpected for a field journalist, it wasn’t something I had really considered in much detail.
  2. The story opportunities seem limitless. Every corner I turned there was something new I could write about or photograph. This is incredible for planning new stories, but less great when it derails what you initially set out to do. 
  3. You can easily burn yourself out. It’s hard to be out of your element for an extended amount of time, especially without friends and family around. It is not hard to get overwhelmed by working 24/7. That said, don’t treat it like a complete vacation, or you might fail to meet deadlines. 
  4. Be strategic about your relationships. You may be spending immense amounts of informal time with the people you’ll be interviewing later. It doesn’t necessarily mean that interviews will be bad or harder. But, for three weeks, I lived with the people who were my interviewees.  That inevitably impacted the dynamic between me and my interviewees. On the other hand it was an immense benefit for photojournalism, scientist profiles, and portraiture. The subjects and I were quite comfortable around each other when I was photographing them.

Another benefit of being thrust into the field was the reinforcement of other tenets of journalism that I already from university classes. While it might seem redundant and elementary to list, it never hurts to be reminded of just how fundamental these elements are to writing and reporting.

  1. Take notes. Really really take notes. Doing so can be especially helpful if you are writing an in-depth feature or profile about the people you are with. Jotting down observations even outside of interviews (such as notes about someone’s personality or a funny anecdote) will later help you immensely as you try to bring that person to life on the page for your readers.
  2. Ask the dumb questions. I’ve learned this from writing assignments in my former classes, but it was reinforced by perusing The Open Notebook, an organization that offers resources and more to help science journalists improve their writing. Ask simple questions or for clarification about the smallest details, even if you already know the answer. One of my favorites is to ask my subjects to explain some aspect in the same way they would to someone who has no knowledge of their field at all. Not only do these explanations help me understand the science better (I’m not just playing dumb since I genuinely do not have a strong background in science). These responses often provide great quotes that the average reader will also be able to digest.
Snapshot of my field note journal, in which I was planning out my Gamboa Magazine. An open notebook shows notes detailing story elements of a magazine. (Image © 2020, Priscilla Wigington/WyoPanama 2.0)

This class was a lot more self-guided than many of my other journalism classes have been. It meant that I learned some of these points the hard way––granted, sometimes that’s the most effective way for a lesson to actually get through my head. I couldn’t bring myself to lock down a concrete idea, meaning my magazine didn’t exactly get finished. Nor did it even make it far out of the planning stage. I was much too caught up in our amazing surroundings, with boundless material for writing and photography, and I felt that I was confining myself too much with the magazine.  

After failing fairly miserably with the magazine, I took a step back and decided to focus more on photojournalism and portraiture. I took portraits of all of my classmates as well as our instructors. These photos will later become part of another magazine, one that will enjoy the benefits of better planning and strict deadlines and hopefully will not die a miserable death.

In the end, I wouldn’t count any of these “problems” I encountered as real shortcomings. A few were self-inflicted while others were simply eye-opening experiences about the realities of field journalism. Not only did I get the amazing opportunity to observe and learn about ecological research in the tropics, but I got a little mud on my boots and am now twice as prepared to be a journalist in the field––whether that’ll be the professional field or an actual one is anyone’s guess.


For more about Priscilla’s project and the WyoPanama program, visit the following links: WyoPanama course on Facebook | The UWyo Biodiversity Institute’s spring 2020 series on WyoPanama research | WyoPanama course website

Priscilla (Casper, WY) is a senior majoring in Journalism at the University of Wyoming. She developed and led her own, independent project as part of the WyoPanama study abroad course supported by the UWyo Honors College and Travel Abroad program. The course is led by Department of Zoology and Physiology faculty Patrick Kelley and Bethann Garramon Merkle, with invaluable support from TA and international master’s student Laura Gomez-Murillo.

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