Data Journalism: Do the Numbers Add Up to Climate Action?

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Journalists and other communicators are increasingly using digital graphics to bring climate data to life. Will their creative new approaches help shake public ambivalence on the climate change issue?

For those trying to communicate climate data, the public’s digital newsfeeds are a challenging arena. The story of tiny changes at thousands of sample sites all over the world probably moving mostly in the same direction doesn’t provide news-hungry journalists with much of a hook.

Compared to many other front-page stories climate change is abstract. The action doesn’t happen on a battlefield, a red carpet, or a trading room floor but on a complex spreadsheet in a university or federal research office somewhere.

But hope is at hand. A new media cohort has emerged in the digital cloud grouped loosely under the banner “data journalism.” Highly skilled at data handling and with a nose for number-based stories, data journalists are brightening up climate change coverage with interactive diagrams, slideshows, calculators, charts, and maps.

The Data Journalism Handbook describes the movement as comprising a mixture of journalists, hackers, web developers, graphic designers, and academics. They publish through online news sites and through one-off media projects commissioned by businesses, nonprofits, universities, and advocacy groups. At the heart of the movement are principles of transparency and collaboration. Most reports use free online data and open source software. Experienced data journalists have provided a wealth of training resources for the next generation, including free online handbooks, competitions, and websites collating new work.

Data journalists have covered climate change on a number of levels. Some projects relay basic climate and energy science. Others make it easier for their audiences to search climate data on their own. Some data journalism projects probe government and business datasets to examine responses to climate change. But the movement has been challenged over the quality of data analysis produced by these often self-trained statisticians, and the perennial question remains: Will providing people with more information on climate change really make a difference to their willingness to act?

Explaining Basic Climate Science

One way data journalists help communicate climate change is through interactive graphics providing the public with essential background information on climate and energy issues. Simple, playful, and packed with photographs, charts, video and music, these digital lessons are a far cry from the dog-eared textbooks that turned so many away from high school science.

The advantage of presenting complex information in graphics is supported by cognitive science. Princeton University Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, showed that people generally are more willing to engage with images than with text.

One striking example of data journalism in the environmental context is “The Great Barrier Reef: An Obituary.” This five-part multimedia slideshow was released by the Guardian newspaper to coincide with the IPCC’s “2014 Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Report.” In text overlaying stunning photographs, the slideshow tells the story of the reef from its geological origins to its present state of disease. The story, with its own eerie sound track, is interspersed with videos of indigenous fishermen, marine biologists, and reef activists. Using similar tools the Guardian has produced a guide for permafrost, and a stylish refresher on climate change terminology.

The issue needn’t be as old as coral pollution for public understanding to be rusty. When the shale gas industry started to boom in Pennsylvania, Penn State Public Broadcasting identified a lack of accessible information on basic fracking processes. The station produced a high-definition graphic transporting the viewer down through 5,186 feet of shale rock, providing rich deposits of information along the way.

Explore Shale graphic
Penn State Public Broadcasting identified a lack of accessible fracking information and produced a high-definition graphic taking viewers down through 5,186 feet of shale rock.

While these graphics aim to give explanations of climate and energy systems, another set of graphics aims instead to display climate change metrics like CO2 emissions. The graphic design company Carbon Visual created an animation of carbon emissions exuding from New York City with each ton of CO2 represented by a giant blue bubble. The piece won awards for its original presentation of emissions data.

Another well-known team in the data visualization field, Information is Beautiful, caught mainstream attention for its particularly elegant portrait of sea-level rise — a bar chart constructed from the skyscrapers of the world’s most celebrated cities.

Targeting Confusion and Apathy By Making Climate Data Personal

Data journalists are not only targeting public confusion but are also going after public apathy by making climate data personal. By providing calculators and interactive maps data journalists are opening up the traditional linear news story, thus allowing readers to find their own narratives amongst the data points.

Carbon footprint calculators, for example, were an early device for members of the public to get past national carbon emission statistics and find out how they as individuals had been adding to the greenhouse gases warming the planet. Though more closely associated with the conservation movement than with newsrooms, carbon footprint calculators were a parallel to developments in personalized coverage of the economy. For example, the BBC’s Budget Calculator, which allows readers to work out how annual budget changes will affect their households, emerged around the same time as carbon footprint calculators and was held up as a landmark in the data journalism movement.

A more somber calculation is provided by Duncan Clark of the Guardian. His interactive “Climate change: how hot will it get in my lifetime?” allows readers to line up their and their children’s futures against the latest IPCC projections of dangerous temperature rise.

How Hot In My Lifetime graphic
Duncan Clark’s “Climate change: how hot will it get in my lifetime?” interactive graphic allows readers to enter birth years to line up their and their children’s futures against IPCC temperature rise projections.

New media projects also are helping the public find out about observed climate in their own communities. Thermal interactive maps allow viewers to select a location and instantly see the effects of global warming at that point. Teams who have made these maps include New Scientist, and the University of East Anglia (UEA) in partnership with Google Earth. In the latter case, the map was also part of an effort by climate scientists to increase data transparency and help counter some critics’ accusations that they had engaged in some sort of climate change conspiracy.

Targeting Injustices By Speaking Truth to Power

Public information projects such as these, however, hide data journalism’s sometimes-rebellious streak, for the movement has somewhat radical roots. “Data journalism” as a term came into more widespread use in 2010 after WikiLeaks released confidential documents relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Newsrooms were presented with thousands of columns and rows of military data, and those with the skills to interpret the spreadsheets were suddenly in high demand. As it expands, many in the data journalism movement continue to pursue what they see as social and environmental injustices. Prominent data journalist Nate Silver, for example, explains his personal motivation in correcting the reality that “‘big data’ has not yet translated into widespread gains in economic conditions, human welfare or technological growth.” Accordingly, data journalists like Silver have gone after social justice issues from inequality in hospital care to racial segregation in housing.

Data journalists reporting on the environment have challenged government and companies on a number of issues, including natural disaster relief and energy extraction, by making powerful use of maps.

On the issue of natural disaster relief, an early example of data-based reporting came from former Miami Herald research editor Stephen Doig. Now an academic, Doig led a team investigating the pattern of damages caused by Hurricane Andrew. The team found that the destruction correlated not only to the wind speed, but also to the age of housing — those built after the relaxation of planning laws proved the most vulnerable. A more recent series by the independent nonprofit news service Pro Publica points out the failure of authorities to update flood maps in the years prior to Hurricane Sandy.

Another issue which data journalists have highlighted is deforestation. The Earth Journalism Network, an international non-profit helping journalists in developing countries find and map environmental data, has supported a number of media projects tracking forest loss. InfoAmazonia for instance draws together satellite data of Amazon rainforest coverage with records of mining, hydropower, and fossil fuel extraction to allow the public to closely monitor industrial development. The website Ekuatorial maps data on Indonesia’s forests and oceans with a similar mission.

In areas experiencing rapid exploration and extraction of fossil fuels, data journalists have used maps to call attention to threatened ecosystems and breaches of environmental regulation. Shale Play, a project of NPR and local public media, maps the 6,931 active wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and highlights in orange 3,331 cited violations. Australia’s ABC News mapped coal seam gas extraction to draw attention to the industry’s contributions to water scarcity in drought-prone regions.

Other projects have presented more upbeat data on climate change adaptation and mitigation. Bloomberg, for example, produced a quirky interactive showing renewable energy investments around the world moving from west to east over the last decade. In 2013 the Guardian Datablog produced an extensive comparison of transport usage across European cities demonstrating those with the highest rates of public transport use and cycling.

Bloomberg Interactive graphic
Partial view of Bloomberg’s interactive graphic illustrates historical growth and future projections of world renewable energy capacity.

Statistics Imply Authority … But are the Numbers Right?

These reports are often intuitively structured and highly polished, but some have doubts over whether the math behind them is really sound. Twitter’s data editor Simon Rogers has called data journalism the “new punk” (anyone can do it), but others worry data handling tools are being promoted to those too inexperienced or too partisan to use them rigorously.

In addition, statistics may give the reader a misleading impression of expertise, economist Allison Schrager recently posted: “I worry that data give commentary a false sense of authority since data analysis is inherently prone to bias … Even data-backed journalism is opinion journalism.”

Media professionals working with data need to be able to judge the quality of the methods by which that data were collected, the sufficiency of the sample or samples, and whether correlations in the data really are evidence of causation. Yet many journalists long have stayed well away from college tracks of math and science, and on-the-job training is often a luxury.

The data journalism community is aware of such concerns and data journalism handbooks and journalism training courses now offer guidelines for those who are new to statistics.

There is also a risk that the push for transparency boosted by the data journalism movement inevitably makes climate data more easily available to those determined to deliberately manipulate it for political ends. The “Climategate” controversy, in which hackers released thousands of private e-mails and documents from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, provoked a feeding frenzy of climate science attacks. Whether open climate data initiatives like the Obama administration’s climate.data.gov launched last month will experience similar abuse remains to be seen.

Turning Data on Climate into Social Change

Do The Math Photo
350.org’s ‘Do The Math’ campaign helps advance the movement to divest holdings in fossil fuel interests. 

Even if data journalists’ graphics were as dazzling as those in Hollywood blockbusters, and even if the analyses behind those graphics would pass muster in the world’s most revered journals, can data journalism get the public sufficiently motivated to personally act on climate change? Understanding of climate science has changed only incrementally in 20 years of IPCC reports, and over that time the proportion of the public saying they are highly concerned has not increased significantly. It isn’t enough for people to know the climate change numbers, they have to care.

One example where aggressive use of data has managed to get the public on their feet is 350.org’s Do The Math campaign. The campaign compared the (small) total of additional carbon emissions permissible before temperatures are projected to exceed 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) scenarios and the (very large) total of carbon emissions held in fossil fuel reserves. But 350.org didn’t let the data just stay on the screen. Activist leader Bill McKibben and a host of prominent speakers went on tour presenting the data at live shows and rallying audiences to act on what they’d seen, urging that their schools, churches and businesses divest from fossil fuel holdings.

The Role of Data Journalism in an Evolving News Culture

It is clearly crucial that straightforward explanations of climate change are readily available to the public, and digital graphics are a fun and accessible tool. Data journalism is also bringing into the newsroom new skills for telling environmental stories often under-reported: from holding governments to account on issues from poor flood preparations to high deforestation rates.

Data journalism offers freelance and salaried reporters a valuable new arrow in their quiver, even as traditional newsrooms frequently face retrenchment and “down sizing.” Finding the resources to capitalize on the new tools in some ways may come easier for freelancers than for traditional newsroom employees facing severe belt-tightening.

All the same, when digital graphics are combined with the clear follow-on actions and a strong sense of collective responsibility, as often motivated by environmental concerns, data journalism becomes not only convincing but compelling, not only educational but also inspiring. And those are qualities established newsrooms and freelancers alike find much in need.

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One Response to Data Journalism: Do the Numbers Add Up to Climate Action?

  1. Paul Quigg says:

    Junk in, junk out.