Best practices for covering climate change with data

Six data journalists weigh in on how to best report on climate change.

Climate change is not an easy topic to report on. Just some of the challenges include making scientific jargon relatable to the public and simplifying a complex issue that is wrapped up in politics with a plethora of long term and short term effects on society. This is not to mention climate change sceptics and the viral spreading of myths, which only serve to complicate reporting further.

However, the annual UN climate change conference, COP 23, which will take place in Bonn in November this year, is a good opportunity for journalists to rethink their approaches to environmental reporting.

We gathered insights from seven experts from the the Data Jounalism Awards Slack team, including Tim Meko of The Washington Post (USA), Gustavo Faleiros of InfoAmazonia (Brazil), Rina Tsubaki of the European Forest Institute (Spain), Kate Marvel of NASA GISS (USA), Elisabetta Tola of Formicablu (Italy), and James Anderson of Global Forest Watch (USA), on how to engage readers on climate change as the COP 23 approaches.

From top left to bottom right: Kate Marvel of NASA GISS (USA), James Anderson of Global Forest Watch (USA), Rina Tsubaki of European Forest Institute (Spain), Gustavo Faleiros of InfoAmazonia (Brazil), Elisabetta Tola of Formicablu (Italy), and Tim Meko of The Washington Post (USA)

Make it personal

One of the questions data journalists need to ask themselves is: ‘What does the data say about your city and your life?’, says Anderson. Researchers from the University of Austin are doing precisely that through a study on air pollution in Oakland. Google Street View cars drove 15,000 miles, gathering three million unique data sets on air pollution, which were displayed in visualisations to draw people’s attention to pollution hotspots within the city.

‘People care about the air they breathe, and [pollution] is a massive health crisis,’ underlines Anderson.

This interactive map allows readers to view and pinpoint the precise spots where traffic, industrial activities, and other local pollution sources sully the city’s air.

The After Ice app released on Apple’s app store in April this year is an interesting artistic experiment that also aims to make the issue a more personal one. It uses geolocation, and AR, and NASA data to show users how their cities and its surroundings will look once ice caps have melted. The app shows how many metres of water are predicted for the user’s location with a stream of sea water, which floats across the screen (along with fish and bubbles). The app was released to honour Earth Day, and the aim was to help users ‘visualise what is happening to the planet’, bringing the consequences of climate change closer to home.

Make it actionable

iPhone screenshot of the After Ice app.

‘I think making stories hyper-local and relevant and keeping the whole process very transparent and open is key,’ says Anderson. He underlines that there is a need to do more than just provide a simple exposé of data, as people often feel powerless when presented with giant complex data sets related to environment or health problems.

‘It would be great if reporting could go one step further and start to indicate a call to action’.

This is especially true as humans are hardwired to pay attention to sudden disasters rather than gradual ones, according to Kennedy Warne. He underlines that a big part of the difficulty in reporting on climate change is the fact that in the early days, it tended to emphasise that the most serious effects will be centuries away, which in turn put readers into a false sense of security. Warne says that media have to ‘break through this fog of complacency’ by making climate change a more tangible and current issue.

The Guardian is using data in a more dynamic way as seen through an interactive tool dating back to 2015, which shows how much fossil fuel has been extracted in the world since the reader has arrived on the page. The reader is also given the option of entering their age to show how old they will be when the global carbon budget is blown. The interactive therefore serves as a quasi call to action, illustrating the speed at which changes are occurring, making climate change a lot more relatable.

Screenshot of The Guardian interactive.

Very often, reporting on climate change is apocalyptic, where ‘doomsday narratives’ about what climate change will ‘wreck’ serve only to bring about a sense of hopelessness among readers. According to an article published on the Guardian, ‘Feeling hopeless about a situation is cognitively associated with inaction and predicts decreased goal-directed behavior’, leading the reader to look the other way. ‘Climate change adaptation only works when we are hopeful for the future and believe that environmentally vulnerable communities have the agency to act’.

This sense of involvement and agency is conveyed in the Citizen Science Project where scientists track forest pests through people’s social media posts. Anderson says that this type of project makes people feel like they ‘have a stake’, encouraging them out of their passivity.

How to deal with climate change sceptics

A language issue

Most experts on the Slack discussion seem to agree that climate change denial is often more of a tribal or cultural reaction. Anderson adds that using discourse that leaves out explicit references to ‘climate change’, while keeping the core message of regulating emissions, is efficient when addressing people who still have doubts.

A New York Times article by Tabuchi tackles this subject by alluding to Trump and how he painted ‘Democrats as overzealous environmentalists with little sympathy for the economic realities or social mores of rural America’.

The article states that ‘climate change discourse is dominated by liberals, which has alienated some conservatives’, leading to a trend of ‘people talking about climate change without talking about it.’

For example, the farmer interviewed in the article ‘can talk for hours about carbon sequestration… Just don’t expect him to utter the words climate change.’ Furthermore, rather than pressing the need to decrease carbon emissions, ‘regional politicians and business leaders speak of pursuing jobs that clean energy may create’, showing the importance of adapting rhetoric when addressing different audiences about a politically charged topic.

Fake news

The challenge of covering climate change sometimes runs deeper than words. An Buzzfeed article underlines that debunking viral myths from climate change deniers is ‘near impossible’. The article cites a story published by the Daily Mail claiming that ‘world leaders were duped into spending billions over manipulated global warming data’ was shared thousands of times. Material questioning the bogus story was shared only one quarter as much. ‘Because of our cognitive biases, once your opinions are formed it’s hard to change that’ concludes the Buzzfeed article.

Screenshot of BuzzFeed’s article.

Tola, however, is more positive in suggesting that by keeping the quality of data journalism high and the process of data collection transparent, people might be encouraged to look for information with an open mind or a critical attitude.

Climate Feedback is an initiative to keep an eye on when it comes to verifying information published about climate change.


Challenges, challenges, and more challenges

Format

When it comes to working with environmental data, journalists and scientists alike seem to be facing challenges. The main issue seems not to come from scarcity of data, but rather a lack of journalistic tools available to process this data, explains Tola.

Faleiros supports this view, saying that data formats are constantly evolving.

‘We know about spreadsheets and geodata, but then there are all these other formats, used only by scientists. I am not really sure how we could use those.’

Scientists and journalists should therefore be encouraged to work hand-in-hand more often, and environmental data should be more accessible and easy to interpret. However, the existing incentive structure makes that hard.

‘Scientists don’t get paid or promoted for talking to journalists, let alone helping process data’, according to Marvel.

Unreliable data

It is not always easy or straightforward to get environmental data. Nigeria was cites as an example during the Slack discussion.

‘There is a hypocrisy in governance. I wish to say that press freedom is guaranteed in Nigeria on paper, but it is not in reality. You find that those in charge of information or data management are the first line of gatekeepers that will make it practically impossible for journalists to access such data. I can tell you that in Nigeria, there is no accurate data on forestry, population figures, and so on’.

What is the solution?

Tips from our experts

  • Seek non-governmental sources, such as satellite imagery by NASA or Planet Labs or even Google, then distribute via Google Earth or Google News Lab. Download deforestation, forest fires, and other datasets from sites such as the University of Maryland or the CGIAR Terra-i initiative. Foreign sources, such as Nigeria DMSP Visible Data by NOAA/NGDC Earth Observation Group, are also helpful.
  • ‘Play an inside and outside game’, says Anderson. Work with the government to slowly publish more and more data under their banner while also providing competing data that is better and will raise the bar for what people should expect.

‘We’ve worked with six countries in the Congo Basin to have them improve their data collection, quality-control, and sharing. They now have key land data in a publicly-available portal, but it took two decades of hard work to build that partnership’.

Screenshot of an interactive map representing land use from the Forest Atlas of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Collaborate with local scientists. ‘There are often passionate scientists who really wish to see their data out. Especially if they feel it could be of use to the community’, says Tola, who started working on data about seismic safety over five years ago. She says that she is still struggling to get the data that is hidden in tons of drawers and offices. ‘I know it’s there!’
  • Connect with people who are facilitating negotiations for programmes like REDD to get an insider view, added Tsubaki.

Great examples of data journalism about the environment we’ve come across lately

How Much Warmer Was Your City in 2015?

By K.K. Rebecca Lai for The New York Times 
Interactive chart showing high and low temperatures and precipitation for 3,116 cities around the world.
(shared by Gustavo Faleiros of InfoAmazonia)


What temperature in Bengaluru tells about global warming

by Shree DN for Citizen Matters
Temperature in Bengaluru was the highest ever in 2015. And February was the hottest. Do we need more proof of global warming?
(shared by Shree DN of Citizen Matters in India)


Data Science and Climate Change: An Audience Visualisation

By Hannah Chapple for Affinio Blog
Climate change has already been a huge scientific and political topic in 2017. In 2016, one major win for climate change supporters was the ratifying of the Paris Agreement, an international landmark agreement to limit global warming. 
(shared by Rina Tsubaki of European Forest Institute)


This is How Climate Change Will Shift the World’s Cities

By Brian Kahn
Billions of people call cities home, and those cities are going to get a lot hotter because of climate change. 
(shared by Rina Tsubaki of European Forest Institute)


Watergrabbing — a Story of Water

Watergrabbing looks into the water-hoarding phenomenon. Every story explains a specific theme (transboundary waters, dams, hoarding for political and economic purposes), and shows the players involved, country-by-country. Take time to read and discover what watergrabbing means, so that water can become a right for each country and every person.


Ice and sky

Discover the history and learn about climate changes— the interactive documentary Ice and Sky by Wild-Touch.
(Shared Gustavo Faleiros of InfoAmazonia and GeoJournalism)


Bear 71 VR

Explore the intersection of humans, nature, and technology in the interactive documentary Bear 71. Questioning how we see the world through the lens of technology, this story blurs the lines between the wild world and the wired one. 
(Shared by Gustavo Faleiros of InfoAmazonia and GeoJournalism)


The World’s Soaring CO2 Levels Visualized as Skyscrapers

By FH Potsdam

In the run up to COP 23 in Bonn, City Lab has made a video explaining the basic principles of climate change. The video begins by talking about the history of the exploitation of fossil fuels and how this has led to economic growth and technological progress. It then gives a visualisation of the globe, where particularly European countries have growing bars on them, representing how much CO2 they have emitted into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels over the last 250 years.