The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney Addresses the Challenge of Translating Environmental Data for Public Consumption
As Earth Day renews the public’s focus on climate change and other environmental issues, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Chris Mooney teaches students at the Yale School of the Environment how to effectively translate environmental data for public consumption.
More than 2.5 million scientific articles are published each year, but just a small percentage of the information gets beyond the realm of scientists. As scientists work to address climate change and other urgent environmental challenges, knowing how to translate environmental data for public consumption is more critical than ever. Digging through this data, specifically as it relates to the environment and getting it before the public has been at the center of Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post reporter Chris Mooney’s work. And this year, Mooney ’99 BA has been teaching students at the Yale School of the Environment how to do the same as a guest lecturer teaching, “A Toolkit for Communicating Environmental Science.”
Mooney, who has authored four books on the environment and has worked with the National Science Foundation to train scientists across the country on communication strategy and techniques, has been a reporter at the Washington Post for seven years, spearheading its environmental and energy coverage. In 2020, he was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism for an article that revealed which parts of the country have surpassed the 2-degree Celsius warming that scientists believe to be the tipping point for global warming through an analysis of county-level data.
His most recent investigation for the Post revealed that many countries are underreporting their greenhouse gas emissions in their United Nations filings. The finding was based on a data set Mooney and the team from the Post built from emissions figures reported to the UN in a variety of formats.
Mooney, who gave a Poynter Fellow talk in the fall on environmental data science and journalism, says communicating environmental issues has two distinct challenges: First, readers may be so physically distant in space and time from an environmental change that they do not relate to it. Second, environmental issues are closely tied to complicated regulation that can be hard to break down and that also can ignite partisan responses.
“Translating science from academic papers in journals and getting it to the public and to policymakers in a form that they understand and can use is just really hard,’’ Mooney says.
He notes the whiplash and “windshield wiper effect” the public often experiences when the media heavily reports the findings of one study and then later reports another study that counters those findings. And often important studies — ones that reveal significant new findings but are too complex to be easily translatable into a one-segment news story, for example — get no media attention at all.
“The media as a whole reports a selective slice of what is being learned in science, including environmental science, and the reason it is selective is because some scientists are way better at communicating than others,” Mooney says.
There’s plenty of data sets out there that governments publish, Mooney notes. Finding and focusing on the ones that can reveal an untold story and using them as a base to build your own data sets is key, he says.
“There are a lot of publicly available data sets that have not really been even looked at that closely. And data will give you questions that you didn't even know you should have asked,’’ he says.
Advances in techniques for data visualizations are helping to communicate complex information and research findings in more shareable ways, he says. For example, online articles can include short videos and animated numbers that pop up on screen as a reader scroll through specific parts of a story.
In his spring semester class, Mooney covers the history of environmental reporting by the media, how media has changed, the challenges the journalism industry is facing, how the public processes messages about environmental science, and various theories of science communications. As part of the class studies, students choose an environmental topic to present. They craft messages about the topic, and communicate them in a variety of formats, including five-minute talks and videos.
Uthara Vengrai ’22 MESc says Mooney’s course helped her compose a focused message about her scientific findings and learn how to guide the reader through data with figures revealed at specific points.
“I think the lessons that he's shared have been really helpful in formulating more impactful ways of presenting my own research,” Vengrai says. “There’s so much bad news out there that it is important to emphasize messages that offer solutions.”
Photo: Chris Mooney gives a talk during his spring course, A Toolkit for Communicating Environmental Science. Credit: Cloe Poisson