How should science journalism talk about environmental pollution? The collaboration of data journalism and solution journalism

June 19, 2023
Enjoi Team
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Data is fundamental for framing and understanding the problem, discussing the measures to be taken, and presenting solutions that have been successfully implemented in particular contexts

Pollution and environmental disruption are heavy themes, difficult to contextualize and describe. Often, when we read or hear stories about pollution – from the lack of prevention to the inadequate measures from the government and to the impact of big polluters on ecosystems and biodiversity – we end up with a sense of hopelessness and disempowerment, and maybe some confusion about the exact boundaries of the issue. It might be more effective, on the other hand, to tackle the problem with a scientific approach, considering data and statistics, and including examples of concrete solutions which have already been implemented. The two branches of journalism that meet and merge together in this approach are data journalism and solution journalism.

Data to frame the problem and call to action

Though data alone is not objective and cannot tell a story, its correct interpretation can help to contextualize the topic and highlight the gaps in terms of action or the need for further and better data collection. When dealing with complex and large-scale problems, data is fundamental for discerning local and global trends and for discussing the measures that need to be taken to control a public emergency or to embrace practices of prevention. In this context, data journalism is also a good instrument to demonstrate where institutions and governments are not fulfilling the right of citizens to have access to information and data. And while it is important to guarantee accessibility to the data, and to promote their everyday use when it comes to relevant issues such as environment and pollution, it is also necessary to provide the tools for data to be understood and used in the right way.

Data journalism is the best approach to collect public but scattered information across documents and web platforms and to make them easily available and accessible by journalists and interested citizens and has demonstrated that to uncover topics on a transnational level collaboration from different countries is crucial.

In the context of pollution issues, data journalism has, for example, enabled the investigation of numerous issues concerning water resources and droughts in Brazil, in a project called Liquido e incerto (published by the Folha de São Paulo), which collected numbers concerning water management using public data and data from private companies. 

The results made it clear that the country is completely unprepared for the water crisis it has been experiencing for several years. Or, in India, the project Who Gets to breathe clean air in New Delhi (published by the New York Times) showed how affordability is a key factor in exposure to air pollution: wealthy people breathe cleaner air because they can pay for technologies used to sanitize the air in homes and work/school environments. 

And finally, in the broader and more complex field of fossil fuels, the Dirty Subsidies investigation (by Investigative Europe) published data on the capital invested in the fossil industry at the European level. The picture that emerged often clashes with the decarbonization promises of policymakers and companies. The result is an informative report that can be accessed by any citizen, journalist, or activist.

Solution journalism to focus on practical examples and inspire

Data can also lead to more conscious and well-planned prevention strategies and solution measures. Talking about solutions is as important as examining and discovering problems, and even more so when the issues we are talking about are urgent and pervasive. Solution journalism is a powerful means to shed light on the possible solutions to the challenges we globally face, such as pollution and the environment, but should stick to a few, fundamental, rules:

  • talk about specific and practical solutions to specific problems;
  • maintain a critical approach, and not just report good news;
  • inspire and call to action, presenting local advantages and solutions which are scalable;
  • maintain a general perspective and a transparent approach in order to draw a big picture starting from local examples.

A good example of solution journalism that fulfills the items listed above is the video reportage about green building trends in Kenya, realized by DIRAJ (Disaster Risk Reduction Association of Journalists). This video reportage focuses on green building technology, which has quickly become one of the most popular construction trends, and the authors examine how Kenya is slowly joining the club of countries that use green or ecologically friendly architecture in real estate development as the movement gains traction in Africa. 

Remaining in Africa, another example of solution journalism concerns plastic pollution in Liberia, where the government does not have any recycling method to address plastic pollution. Both public and private waste end up in landfills and the environment thereby causing flooding. The piece entitled Liberian women leading the Way in tackling plastic pollution tells the story of a group of Liberian women leading a recycling movement to turn plastic waste into tiles, which were used to pavement some streets. 

Finally, another virtuous example comes from Sweden: the country sends less than one percent of its waste to landfills. In the article How Sweden Sends Just 1% of Its Trash to Landfills published by the outlet Reasons to be Cheerful, the author reports on the innovative solutions adopted in the country for non-recycled waste, which is burned to produce heat and electricity, a method that while emitting CO2 is better for the climate than sending garbage to landfills.

Further reading:

Find out more about science journalism and data in ENJOI’s report Analysis report on the use of data and open science results

Learn more about solution journalism in ENJOI’s Focus Report On Solution Journalism


Featured image by Frans van Heerden, Pexels
Other pictures are screenshots of examples quoted in the text (Folha de São Paulo; The New York Times; Investigative Europe; Disaster Risk Reduction Association of Journalists)

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