What reporting on a small Siberian village looks like between three different news organizations.
It is cold in Oymyakon, Russia.
While some reporters leaned more heavily on interviews with sources, others dug deeper into datasets to pull out more quantitative context.
The Associated Press’ original story included the following facts:
- On Tuesday, the temperature in the Yakutia region hit minus 67 degrees Celsius (minus 88.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in some areas.
- Yakutia is a region of 1 million people about 3,300 miles (5,300 kilometers) east of Moscow where students routinely go to school even in minus 40 degrees.
- In 2013, the village of Oymyakon recorded an all-time low of minus 71 degrees Celsius (minus 98 Fahrenheit).
- Over the weekend, two men froze to death when they tried to walk to a nearby farm after their car broke down.
USA Today’s story includes data-based details that provide context for the numbers reported by the AP, even including that the average temperature on Mars is warmer than what the temperature was on Tuesday in Yakutia. Their reporting added the following information:
- The average temperature on Mars is minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Space.com.
- Minus 89.9 degrees Fahrenheit is the coldest-ever officially recorded for a permanently inhabited settlement anywhere in the world.
- According to the Weather Underground’s Christopher Burt, unofficial temperatures as cold as minus 108 degrees Fahrenheit have been measured in Oymyakon.
- There is no record of temperatures rising above zero degrees Fahrenheit there from Dec. 1 and March 1.
- As for the all-time world record cold temperature, that will almost certainly stay in Antarctica, where a reading of minus 128.6 degrees Fahrenheit was recorded in 1983 at the Vostok research station.
The Washington Post’s story took a visual storytelling angle. The result is a rich portrait of what makes Oymyakon interesting and unusual, but tends to stay tightly focused on how cold the village is and what that looks like. They included the following reporting:
- That the village is dark 21 hours a day in the winter.
- A description of the work of Amos Chapple, a photojournalist from New Zealand, who traveled to the region in 2015.
- Descriptions of the village, including: their winter diet, which includes ice cubes of horse blood with macaroni and fish; video of markets in the village where frozen fish sit with no refrigeration needed; and that alcoholism is reportedly a problem in the village.
The New York Times focused not just on the cold of the Yakutian village, but on its lack of sunlight — and how both affect life for the people who live there. The story includes relevant data-based details:
- In December, Moscow was “shrouded in an unrelenting cloud cover for all but six minutes.”
- “It was the darkest December in the capital since the city began recording the data, the previous worst having come in 2000, when the sun checked in for a meager three hours.”
- The average amount of sunlight for December is 18 hours.
- In June, the Moscow Office for Psychological Assistance recorded a 14 percent rise in calls, compared to those in the same period in 2016.
- “The severe cold is traveling west from Yakutia. In Norilsk, an industrial city in Russia’s Arctic region, the temperature plunged to minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 45 degrees Celsius) on Wednesday, with warnings of a further drop to 67 degrees below zero on Thursday.”
What is surprising — or perhaps not surprising at all — is that none of these news organizations included a single data visualization in their story. All used the iconic photo of Anastasia Gruzdeva with her frosted eyelashes. But none took the time to display contextual data visually.
Admittedly, none of these stories are enterprise pieces with large teams of reporters and visual journalists, and likely had tight deadlines. But more organizations need to think about how they can make basic data visualizations accessible to the journalists who are already looking at data to enrich their stories.
After all, the logical next evolution of this story is data visualization. A line chart of the median temperature in Yakutia in December year-to-year. A bar chart of the percentage of each day without sunlight throughout the month. A heat map of median temperatures around the world on that Tuesday, labeling the coldest and warmest areas.
But regardless of the lack of data visualization, the stories that pulled in data were more interesting and enlightening for it. Even USA Today’s quick pullout of the average temperature on Mars provided a context that was both insightful and fun.
The more we train our journalists to think about data — and then think about data visually—the better we can educate and entertain our readers. And all of journalism will be stronger for it.