Powering your climate solutions reporting with data visualisation

Conversations with Data: #100

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Welcome back to our 100th edition of the Conversations with Data newsletter.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Yet communicating about this can present some challenges, particularly with audience apathy. So how can data journalists help engage readers and empower them to take action? Embedding data visualisations in your climate journalism is one way to boost audience engagement.

In this podcast episode, we spoke with information designer and data storyteller Duncan Geere, data journalist Pei Ying Loh from The Kontinentalist, and visual journalist Rodolfo Almeida from Nucleo. Drawing on their combined experience in information design and climate solutions journalism, we hear helpful advice on approaching data visualisation design for impactful climate coverage. 

Listen to the podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google PodcastsAlternatively, read the edited Q&A with Duncan Geere, Pei Ying Loh and Rodolfo Almeida.

What most appeals to audiences when designing visualisations for climate journalism?

Duncan: In my experience, reporting on stories around people is most engaging for general audiences. When working with climate data, it's easy to start writing stories about temperature anomalies, sea level rise, atmospheric forcings, or other technical terms like this. Those are the metrics that your data will come in, but those things are a bit too abstract for a lot of people. They don't necessarily care about model outputs and stuff like that. What they care about is what is happening and what's going to happen to human beings. And most of all, they care about what happens to human beings like them.

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What other challenges do journalists face when engaging audiences on climate change?  

Duncan: Many audiences are super fatigued by stories about disasters happening on the other side of the world. And if you're looking for big engagement on a climate story, you need to centre your readers in it and make it relevant to the people you're talking to. Find the people who are in your audience that are being affected by climate change and tell their stories. And then, finally, I think people have very much become numb to the constant stream of disasters. All our TV shows, movies and books are about dystopias and disasters. And in the work that I do at Possible, the climate charity, we try and very much focus our storytelling around solutions.

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At The Kontinentalist, what approach do you take for engaging with audiences on climate change issues?

Pei Ying: I recently attended the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, and they had an entire session about how you should be reporting on the climate in a way that translates into real impact. One of the things that they mentioned is that guilt doesn't work. Alarmist headlines like "the earth is on fire" don't work anymore. People tune out and are not interested in that narrative. That's why at The Kontinentalist, we approach our stories with empathy and put ourselves in our audience's shoes. We talk about things that will have a direct impact or interest. We use language that avoids doomsday messaging or making them feel guilty. We focus a lot on empowerment, not hope. For instance, we give them suggested actions to change the situation at the end of a story. Some of those could be talking to their elected representatives, being more conscious about their own consumption habits or even educating people around them.

Could you cite an example of what formats have worked best at The Kontinentalist for climate journalism?

Pei Ying: Some of our most effective climate stories have been what we call micro-stories. These are told in squares on Instagram with text and visuals. We only post them on social media and not on our website. This is the opposite of long-form visual, interactive pieces. Because of their short attention span, this format is a lot better at connecting with younger audiences, especially Gen Z. It is easier to reach them where they are instead of forcing them to leave a social platform to read something somewhere else. There's also a certain viral-ability factor for these types of stories. People can easily share it on their own Instagram account. 

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Rodolfo, you gave an inspiring talk on visualising the invisible at The Outlier conference this year. Could you tell us more about it?

Rodolfo: That talk was primarily derived from research I've been conducting at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, where I'm investigating how the climate crisis is portrayed in data visualisations. I'm trying to find a theoretical framework to prompt better visualisations of the climate. This is mainly motivated by the discomfort I've felt when designing charts that depict this really brutal climate change data, which after you've made the 10th or 20th map with data on deforestation in the Amazon, you start to wonder if there's a more effective way of delivering this message to a general audience that gets them to feel involved with the problem and digest the scale of it. 

How does data visualisation lend itself to communicating about climate change?

Rodolfo: Data visualisation, in a sense, is a fertile ground to work with climate issues, not only because climate change is a phenomenon that is very much attested through data but also because I think data visualisation is really helpful in getting a reader to come up with a mental model of the world to help them grasp a very complex issue in a simple and manageable representation. The general idea that I was calling attention to is that climate change is this hugely complex problem, more complex than we can even grasp. Because there are many interconnected and ecologically interacting data points, it can be easy to lose that sense of scale and report on specific issues without considering how they interact with larger climate issues or with the bigger picture. As data journalists, we need to actively take a step back and form a bigger picture. 

Another speaker at that conference, John Burn-Murdoch from the Financial Times, showed us the results of some research on how charts are very effective in changing minds regarding climate change. That is mostly because charts do seem to have an authority and credibility factor to them, or at least they're understood this way by the reader. We should be making responsible use of this to deliver the messages that need to be delivered.

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What are some challenges faced by journalists covering the Amazon in Brazil?

Rodolfo: Many challenges exist in Brazil. This is especially the case during the last four years with Jair Bolsanaro in his last term. Most reporters I know who are working with climate data are denouncing corruption in the cattle industry, land grabbing or deforestation in the Amazon. Most of these issues are deeply related to the preservation of the Amazon and, therefore, to the larger climate situation. But they are also related to very powerful institutions and people in Brazil. These journalists who cover this receive death threats and harassment from people who are economically interested in keeping things as they are. Some publications more invested in covering climate justice can get labelled activist publications. Journalistic credibility can be questioned because of their interest in this issue. And the media ecosystem still has this idea that you have to be neutral when reporting specifically on a certain subject, which can damage the credibility of those doing important work and calling attention to situations that need to be denounced.

Duncan, you've worked in journalism and for a not for profits focusing on climate change issues. How does your data design process differ across these two worlds?

Duncan: The goals differ. As a journalist, my job is to help people understand the world better. For instance, it is about drawing their attention to interesting or useful things they might not have seen. This is a somewhat passive role where I'm just showing the information. My work for non-profits like the climate charity Possible is much more about getting people to change their behaviour -- both the general public and politicians. My role is a lot more active and involves thinking about how to make it easier for people to do something different to change their behaviour. It's a lot harder, to be honest, but the rewards are so much bigger. For me, it's worth trying to take on that challenge.  

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What one thing would you all like to see in the future from journalists when it comes to tackling climate change?

Duncan: I would like to see more journalists use data and visualisation to engage politicians, businesses and other people with power about the sustainability promises that they are making. Are these promises good enough, and how are we going to meet them? I want to see journalists set out the situation that we are in, clearly and truthfully, and show what can be done to fix it. We also need to ask why we are not rolling these solutions out fast enough. We have all the solutions that we need to fix our climate. We just need to see those solutions used. And journalism can play a huge role in making that happen. 

Pei Ying: Within Singapore and the Asian region in general, we are far behind in data journalism and much, much further behind when it comes to climate journalism. Climate journalism is still pegged to the latest IPCC report or COP event. But every news topic has a link to climate change and action. Encouraging more conversation around solutions rather than just talking about how bad things are would be helpful. We need to empower people to feel that they have the ability to change things. We also need journalists to show how communities are directly impacted by climate change in their reporting.

Rodolfo: One thing I would like to see is stronger data visualisation. We need more impactful and direct data visualisation that's not scared of packing a punch and delivering an emotionally compelling experience. If we are not allowed to feel emotions when reading data about our own extinction, there's something wrong with how we communicate this data. There's no solving climate change. It's more of a situation to mitigate and adapt to as much and as quickly as possible. And that sense of urgency involves making some tough decisions relating to our daily lives and habits as well as how our economies are structured. 

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Latest from European Journalism Centre

Building on the European Journalism Centre’s partnership with the Google News Initiative, we are excited to announce that this summer, we will launch a European Climate Journalism Award, with the winners to be announced in the autumn at our 2023 News Impact Summit in Lisbon. Want to know more? Next week we will announce further details about the award's prizes, categories and eligibility for entering. Sign up for EJC's newsletter for the full announcement. 

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Latest from DataJournalism.com

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 DataJournalism.com 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.

Want to be on the podcast or have an idea for an episode? We want to hear from you. Don't forget to join our Discord data journalism server for the latest in the field. You can also read all of our past newsletter editions or subscribe here.


Tara from the EJC data team,

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