Why science can’t ignore data journalism


There is no question that reading habits have changed over the past decade. People tend to read more superficially; they read the headlines, maybe the subtitles, and then scroll on if they don't get hooked straight away. In fact, some online magazines now even warn their readers at the beginning of their own texts: estimated reading time “approximately 15 minutes”. In today's world of journalism, it seems, you have to process the information visually, make it tasty, and spice it up, if you want to convey complex correlations.

Data journalism has become an important tool for the communication of scientific research. In fact, it is its very basis. The capacity to deal with the sheer amount of data available, to calculate, to analyse, to forecast, is closely connected to the latest advancements of modern computer processors. And with the foreseeable potential of quantum computers on the horizon, that amount might take yet another – maybe unprecedented – giant leap forward. Communicating those findings based on these new and big sets of data is today's challenge for scientists and journalists alike.

To showcase research and stories related to climate change, my colleagues and I recently put together a dossier on climate change for the online magazine FAIRPLANET.ORG. This dossier included interviews with climatologists, environmental and social activists, development aid experts, lawyers, farmers, and more. The aim was to show and discuss how we, as citizens, can take political, legal and economic action against climate change. In doing this, it becomes clear that the journalist’s ability to take scientific data and convey it in an accessible format is key for promoting action on science-backed issues.

The scientists, as well as all the activists and local people we interviewed for the dossier, have to deal with huge amounts of data and complex systems in order to get their predictions, their models, their recommendations for action and their solutions to the problems of everyday life delivered. But these data are not always easily understood by audiences.

The predictions provided by today's climate research, built upon enormous volumes of data, show the significance and importance of data journalism for science communication. And climate research will most certainly continue to increase in complexity. This, however, contrasts with the reading behavior of today's readers, who expect easy access to complex topics.

For example, the interview in our climate change dossier with Prof. Harald Kunstmann from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) about the state of affairs in climate research, provides an interesting insight into the complexity of this particular matter.

In their models, Prof. Kunstmann explains, researchers design grids, like cuboids, and calculate the data either at the vertices or at the midpoints of these cuboids. The smaller the cuboids, the more precise the data and the more accurate the predictions. These values are calculated for cuboids under water, near the ground and up to many hundreds of meters in the air. They collect and calculate them every hour, every minute, sometimes every second – the smaller the intervals, the more precise. And they calculate this for up to 100 years in advance! Confused? Most audiences would be.

The vast volume of data that underpins climate change stories can be overwhelming for even the best of audiences. When reporting on climate change, journalists must constantly consider variables like water and air temperatures at different depths and heights respectively, sea level and its changes (globally, regionally, on average), carbon dioxide concentration in the air, as well as methane and nitrogen oxides, and more; and then value these data for their audience.

Here, journalists are challenged in two ways: first, they must apply their classical journalistic skills, to be able to keep the reader hooked; and secondly, they must be able to analyze and process large amounts of data, in order to serve them to the reader in a digestible format.

Anne Weiss, the famous non-fiction writer, exemplifies this ability in her article, showing that journalism can even turn data into literature. She processes hard facts of research into her story of the threats of climate change - numbers, charts, graphs, analyzes, forecasts - and turns them into elegant storytelling that appeals to readers even on a sensual level, and captivates them just as a good novel might.

Another good example is the dossier’s Yasuni National Park story. The large numbers of plant and animal species in the park provide researchers with a multitude of data to predict the evolution of biodiversity and the potential impact of oil production. But the availability of these forecasting scenarios alone has not been enough to mobilise public action to protect the park. In 2013, a key project to protect the park failed, with Josephine Koch from the Forum on Environment and Development, citing a lack of public awareness for its collapse. We’ll never know, but things might’ve turned out differently if the park’s data were more accessible to the public.

Although science can be challenging to report, when journalists help audiences crunch the numbers, the results can have a huge impact.

Read the full climate change dossier here.

Image: NASA.