How To Approach The Numbers
For many climate stories — and science more broadly — numbers are a double-edged sword. Much like any other story, you’ll need human narratives and interviewees. But, more often than not, you’ll find rafts of numbers and data you need to untangle. The most important thing is to understand yourself first.
Frankel reminds us that while it can be easy to see numbers and make a story out of them, you should be aware of statistical coincidences or other explanations for two data points that appear to somehow agree with each other. In other words, make sure you check first.
Adding context to the data is vital, and Frankel suggests using your time with experts to go over the data and to push for numbers that are easily understandable.
Mariam Elsayeh is a freelance journalist with extensive experience in data analysis. She has produced health bulletins, COVID podcasts, and science interviews for platforms like the BBC, Al Jazeera, and Popular Science. Elsayeh knows first-hand just how complex numbers can be and highlights how important it is to present numbers in simple ways that are easy for the audience to understand. Like Frankel, Elsayeh underlines that correlation does not mean causation. “It is not a causation until you have another equation that proves something is the case,” she emphasises.
Elsayeh adds: “Data visualisation tools and practices can be powerful for communicating complex information in more engaging and accessible ways.” However, she adds that it is important to use them carefully and thoughtfully to ensure the message has been conveyed accurately and clearly. Best practices for data visualisation include choosing the right graph — because different graphs and charts are good for presenting different types of data. While a bar chart might be good for comparing values between different categories, a line chart might be better for depicting trends over time.
Design is also important in clarity and accessibility. Elsayeh advises using clear labels, titles, appropriate colours and schemes, ensuring the visualisation is easy to read and interpret. She cautions: “You are not in a research team. You are telling a specific story.” Too many data elements are going to be distracting to the audience. For a general audience, only include the elements relevant to them and ensure you provide enough context for understanding.
While you might know a lot about the story by this point, Elsayeh says charts often still need to be explained, and it’s your job to connect the story to the chart. She advises asking someone outside the field to read it so you know there is sufficient context to convey the data’s significance to audiences. That might involve using annotations, labels, comparisons with other datasets, or explanatory text. Essentially, keep it as simple as possible.
Lastly, Elsayeh advises becoming familiar with basic statistical concepts like mean, median, and standard deviation to help you with data interpretation and analysis. And as with any good journalist conducting research, remaining clear-headed and sceptical of the data is vital.
Ultimately, when communicating science stories clearly and engagingly, it is crucial to know your audience — why they care, what they want from the piece, and how much context they require. Once you understand these factors, it will also make it easier to know your story angle and pitch it to editors. As Frankel says: “If you try to sum up what you are trying to write in one sentence, then you know you have a good story.”