Connecting local and climate journalism

Conversations with Data: #101

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Welcome back to our latest Conversations with Data newsletter!

For decades journalists have examined the global ramifications of climate change on the international stage. From highlighting scientific research findings to covering climate negotiations at UN conferences, audiences are well-versed in the global challenges of our time. But as local communities become more impacted by extreme weather in a variety of ways, there is a strong need for journalists to deliver reporting on climate change through a local and solutions lens.

In this podcast episode, we spoke with Alex Harris, the Miami Herald's lead climate change reporter and Tahmid Zami, the Dhaka-based climate journalist at Thomson Reuters Foundation. We hear helpful advice from the United States to Bangladesh on approaching localised climate stories with data.

Listen to the podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Alex Harris and Tahmid Zami.

What we asked

Tell us about your role and how you cover climate change for local communities.

Alex: I cover climate change for the Miami Herald. We now have a three-person team, and I have been writing about how climate change affects communities at the local level for eight years now. I spend a lot of time trying to make the people of Miami understand the issues that we're facing.

Tahmid: I am from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and I work as a just transition reporter for Thomson Reuters Foundation. Just transition is about showing the linkage between climate, climate transition and how it is impacting communities. I've been reporting for more than a year and a half on how the climate transition in Bangladesh is impacting workers, ordinary communities, minorities and women.


Miami is known for its harrowing hurricanes. How have you become a specialist in covering them for your local audience?

Alex: Hurricanes are a huge issue for us. They are a common unifier for folks who may not feel very strongly about the impact of climate change in their life. But you can guarantee that anyone who lives in Miami understands the risks they face with hurricanes and wants to know the most up-to-date information they can get. We spend a lot of time doing day-to-day updates when a storm is coming and when one isn't imminent by doing stepbacks. For instance, we talk about how effective the latest models we use are, how effective the protections that the county or the cities are looking into are, and how the warming world is shaping that risk. We do a lot of deep dives into the science of how climate change affects hurricanes or makes certain aspects more likely, like stronger or wetter hurricanes. Surprisingly, it changes them in ways you wouldn't expect. For instance, we may see fewer hurricanes as the world gets warmer.

How do you use data to understand those hurricane models you've written about for the Miami Herald?

Alex: I use a lot of data when focusing on risk. For instance, we look at mapping for floods; we look at the age and distribution of buildings to understand where the old and new housing stock is located. Newer housing is built to a slightly higher level and, therefore, might be more able to withstand a storm. In our stories, we try to highlight the risk and who is facing most of it. For instance, when Hurricane Ian was coming, we did a lot of mapping and data journalism on the impact of storm surge, which is record high for us on the west coast of Florida. When that hurricane came slamming in last year up to 20 feet, we were able to look at the maps and see where more would be expected and how that would affect some of the buildings there. Data is a really important part of the conversation.

Tahmid, share with us how locals in Dhaka, Bangladesh, are experiencing climate change right now.

Tahmid: Bangladesh is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries and a developing country with limited resources. It has a limited capacity to address the climate challenges it is facing. If we look at the main climate challenges, the most recent and visible one is the current heat waves that have affected the greater part of the world. But this has also become worse in Bangladesh. Dhaka is a big metropolis with 15 to 20 million people. Most of the population lives in informal settlements, which do not have proper cooling systems. Many of these people also work outside in the warm sunshine during the daytime. Given Dhaka's built environment, these people face severe issues related to heat-trapping and the heat island effect. There are also several structural problems that make it worse, for example, the lack of availability of clean drinking water. Another issue is the availability of healthcare services. Climate hazards such as heat waves can make things worse for people. Bangladesh also struggles with longer-term issues such as seasonal cyclones, the longer-term salinity issue in the coastal area and floods in the northern region. 


How do you use data to report on the challenges in Dhaka?

Tahmid: When it comes to using data for reporting on issues such as heatwaves, you can use satellite maps to see which areas are more affected by them. Certain built environments might make them worse. We can explore where the main green spaces are within Dhaka and ask why these are distributed where they are. In our reporting, we have shown how most of the green spaces and bodies of water are often concentrated in more upscale neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, in the slum regions, there is less green space. Data can help us explore unseen dimensions at a macro level; we use it substantively in our reporting.

How do you embed climate solutions journalism into your reporting?

Tahmid: Solutions journalism is something that we are increasingly concentrating on. Without solutions, journalism becomes merely a series of doom-and-gloom stories that induce despair and negativity in people. When it comes to reporting on issues like salinity or heat waves, we try to point out emerging solutions. Our main approach is to identify what the emerging solutions are. We highlight small steps and innovations happening in the community that can lead to change. This may not impact a large number of people. But if you point out the changes, then the government, development organisations or financial organisations can pick up on that and potentially dedicate resources to those solutions and scale them up. An example might be creating rooftop gardens to spur more green spaces for the community.

Alex, what data sources do you regularly monitor locally and nationally?

Alex:  We have NOAA (National Oceanography and Atmospheric Association). This tracks tidal gauges all up and down the coast. NOAA allows you to examine their predictions of when we might see flooding, but also historical data showing how bad it's been in the past. They also show king tides, the highest annual tides of the year, which can lead to flooding. I also look at heat data from the National Weather Service that we can predict going forward and historically looking back. I also like to use the Environmental Protection Agency's flight tool, which allows us to look at the historical and projected data of greenhouse gas emissions in all sorts of buildings. For instance, we look at power plants, cement factories, and landfills, and you can drill down and see the biggest polluter in our area. 

Internationally, I examine the different measurements of global heat. We've broken quite a few global heat records in the last couple of weeks. The ERA5 is a global weather model tracking global temperatures since 1940. We're able to look at that and see we've broken heat records. July 3rd was the hottest day on the entire globe, followed by July 4th and July 5th. These giant global measuring systems and data repositories are really helpful when you're trying to put the local effects into context. 

How do you engage audiences on news avoidance on this topic?

Alex: Getting people to read stories about big, scary things is hard. People only have a tolerance for so much bad news in their life. I think that's why today's conversation with all of us has focused on solutions journalism. But every story can't be solutions journalism. Sometimes you have to tell the reality that things are bad and nobody's doing anything to fix them. I've been experimenting for years and trying to find what kinds of topics people will engage with. Yes, solutions stories are great, and they will usually engage with those. But we find the topics like healthcare, hurricanes and how things affect your wallet are the way that people will engage. For instance, we discuss climate change as a health threat and show how it affects you today. If we talk about the way that climate change is making life more expensive for you, your city taxes are going up, your property insurance rates are exploding, your home value could be declining because of the flood risk. If we focus on wallet and pocketbook issues, people do engage with those.

The last couple of weeks have been filled with a lot of very bad news for Florida. We've got home insurers dropping out of the market, global heat records being broken, and outdoor workers dying in the heat. I expect in the next couple of weeks; we'll see a pullback from readers who are overwhelmed. Our strategy after a series of scary headlines is to try to tell a hopeful story for our readers. For instance, is there an activist doing something wonderful that we can zoom in on or think about a building solution that is underway in our community? We ask how these technological or scientific solutions are developing. 

Finally, what advice do you have for local journalists new to covering climate change?

Alex: If you are going to start covering climate change in a local area, you don't have to be an expert on climate change. Find what makes your community unique. Find something that holds local significance and then ask how climate change affects it and what solutions are in play. This gives you a recipe for a story that people care about. You can learn a lot of things about your community and how climate change uniquely affects it based on focusing on the things people care deeply about. That's the best way to hit the ground running when you start covering this topic. 

Tahmid:  My advice is to build a network of climate communicators. These people can be found in different kinds of groups and institutions. For example, policymakers, the development community, academics, media, etc. In Bangladesh, we are trying to develop such networks of climate communicators. This means that if a specific issue needs urgent attention from the media, it can make the rounds very quickly with insights from experts. There is an opportunity for people in other developing countries to build a similar network in their communities. 


Latest from

Collaboration is a big part of data journalism. But sometimes, it can be difficult to figure out who is behind the team and what news organisations data journalists work for. That's why is joining forces with Lighthouse Reports to build a data journalism roster across Europe. Share your details and topics of interest for collaboration via our Google form. Please note this information will be shared publicly within the data journalism community.

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Latest from European Journalism Centre

We are proud to present the official programme and speaker lineup for the News Impact Summit on Elevating Climate Journalism in Lisbon on 11 October 2023. Join us for a day of insightful talks and practical workshops from experts in the field. Register and attend the Climate Award Ceremony happening alongside the summit, where we plan to honour outstanding reporting and impactful storytelling, shaping a sustainable future. Check out the entire programme and speaker lineup here

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Tara from the EJC data team,

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