One Constant Remains ... The 'Wow!' Factor

Digital Journalists Confront Unique Opportunities, Challenges in Explaining Climate Change Online

A 3-D spinning globe on the new website TakePart tells a compelling story about the tremendous impacts of climate change.

The graphic is part of an online feature explaining climate science. The globe, the centerpiece of the feature, can be spun with a click of your mouse. Moving the slider below whirls you through the years 1950-2050, as glaciers vanish, ice caps dwindle and portions of the Amazon turn to dust.


TakePart is a for-profit company that launched last November with hopes of engaging and mobilizing the public through online storytelling. The organization is an arm of Participant Media, which produced “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 climate documentary.

The most important feature of the globe, said Doug Fitzsimmons, who led the TakePart team that created it, is to show that all is not lost. A second slider allows you to control the amount of carbon dioxide emitted: Notch emissions toward the best-case scenario and the pace of global change slows.

“The real goal of it is to show through some of the sliders – turning it into an interactive piece – that if we start working on this problem, we can actually help make things better,” Fitzsimmons said. “But if we don’t do things differently, we’re in for a pretty rocky period.”

A More Compelling Experience … ‘You Lean Into It’

Graphics such as the TakePart globe demonstrate the power of what Joe Weiss calls “lean-into” online experiences. Weiss is a multi-media expert best known for developing Soundslides, a tool used to combine images and sound. He said that in contrast to passive experiences such as watching television, interactive online media encourage audiences to participate.

“You lean into it. You engage,” he said.

That’s not to say that traditional forms are dead.

“Reading to learn is incredibly ingrained into human nature at this point,” he said. But by combining interactive graphics, text, still photography, video and audio, multi-media communicators can sometimes give the audience a more compelling experience.

“In the best case they get something they could not have received in a traditional format,” Weiss said.

Clearly, digital storytelling has pizzazz. But when it comes to climate change, online communicators are still struggling to overcome the problems that have long bedeviled traditional environmental and science journalists. Like their dead-tree counterparts, online media must portray slow-moving, global changes and complex, easily misunderstood data.

Grasping $100 K Per Capita vs. 1 Billion Metric Tons

“The hardest part of explaining climate issues is not the uncertainty, but that the units are totally uninformative,” said The New York Times’ Amanda Cox in an e-mail response to a question. “I think there’s a similar level of uncertainty about future debt levels, but I know what $100,000 per capita in the U.S. means. I have no real reference point to understand ‘billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent.’”

Cox was a member of the design and programming team that developed the interactive graphic, “Copenhagen: Emissions, Treaties and Impacts” shortly before the December U.N. climate negotiations. The graphic skillfully guides users, step by step, through the consequences of climate change and the effects of the Kyoto Protocol.

For Cox, graphics that explain real-life impacts can make climate change more comprehensible to an ordinary person.

“I think there’s real value in pulling back from a straight-forward presentation, like a map of temperature anomalies, and describing what that means in an intuitive way,” she said.

Telling the Climate Story of Today

To Danish photographer and filmmaker Jonathan Bjerg Møller, the challenge of communicating climate change boils down to this: “It’s hard to visualize something that might happen in 25 years,” he said.

One solution, Møller said, is to document the lives of people already living with the consequences of climate change. In 2008 and 2009, he spent eight months living in Bangladesh, where, according to leading experts, as many as 30 million people could become climate refugees within decades. In the resulting Web series that mixes photography, video and natural sound, Møller portrays people clinging to life in a region pummeled by unusual droughts and floods.

In one of Møller’s stories, a man named Wahidul describes what has become of his village, Kuziartek. Once home to 40,000 people, Kuziartek has nearly been swallowed by the rising sea. Only seven families remain.

In a haunting passage, Wahidul explains why his family did not escape to the mainland on a day when they knew a powerful storm was approaching.

“We were preparing to go to sleep after eating dinner when the storm hit at 9 in the evening,” he says. “Those who had the chance had left for the mainland earlier in the day, but we couldn’t go. We’re too poor to leave.”

Less a Photographer, More a Storyteller

For Møller, using multi-media was important to telling stories like Wahidul’s.

“I see myself less and less as a photographer and more as a storyteller,” he said. “I have a whole bunch of new tools that I can use to convey feelings and emotion and atmosphere.”

When Anna Stevens produced a story about the fate of Tuvalu, she, too, used multi-media to highlight the human experience of climate change. She created the project for London-based Panos Pictures with photographs and audio by Robin Hammond.

“The aim with the Tuvalu project was to look at the impacts of climate change on people, rather than landscape,” she said in an e-mail message. “We were very conscious that the imagery used around climate change was often unpeopled – desertification, melting ice caps – and felt that this further distorted people’s perception of what is in some ways quite an abstract and complex subject. We wanted to show that impact upon real lives told in people’s own words.”

Multi-media proved to be a good vehicle for humanizing the Tuvalu story.

“The great thing with audio-visual slideshows is that people who are portrayed in the images can speak directly to the viewer,” Stevens said.

In the story, a Tuvaluan woman named Mila laments the loss of her former life in the islands. Like one-third of all Tuvaluans, Mila now lives in New Zealand.

“Back in Tuvalu, if you don’t have money, you survive on your own local food,” Mila says. But in New Zealand, “If you don’t have money here, you die.”

What’s Next for Multi-Media Journalism?

In the past, Weiss, the multi-media expert, has been reluctant to make predictions about the future of multi-media journalism. But he will venture that the importance of digital journalism will grow as devices such as the iPhone proliferate.

“We’re going to get to a point where no one is without a device for consuming experiences,” he said. “The future really is mobile and multiple distribution networks.”

But no matter the medium, the most important work of journalists will remain to grab their audiences, Møller said.

“We need to be so thorough in our work that when people are reading it or watching it, they have this ‘wow’ factor,” he said.

“It’s important that you make people fascinated with your work, and there’s no shortcuts to that.”

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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