Interactivity Advances Environmental Storytelling, Part I

September 15, 2021

A screenshot of the opening image of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post interactive “2°C: Beyond the Limit.” Image: Washington Post. Click to enlarge.

EJ InSight: Interactivity Advances Environmental Storytelling, Part I

By Joseph A. Davis

There’s a (relatively) new kind of journalism that can be richer, more engaging and more informative than can be imagined by much of the old-school print-based models. It wins prizes and makes people say “wow!” It has come to be called “interactive.” And it’s just perfect for covering the environment.

It’s also been called multimedia (mixed-media) journalism or convergence or immersive or artistic journalism. You might confuse it with web-first, digital-first journalism or mobile-phone journalism or crowdsourcing. It‘s a thing, yes, but it’s also a collection of things. To make matters more complicated, it can be a little different every time you see it.

It is partly just a creative use of all the recently emerged and emerging technical innovations that have enriched journalism and communication in the past several decades: video, web design, web coding, page design, photography, audio, data journalism (computer-assisted reporting), data visualization, mapping, geographical information systems, 3-D graphics, animation, gaming, drones and satellites — not always all of them, but often many of them together. And more.

It’s not just about journalism in the older sense of reporting, but also very much about the presentation of content. Like the elephant is perceived by the blind men in the parable, each of us perceives a different thing when we touch it.


At its best, interactive journalism is more than

flashy showoff presentations, but a better way

of getting at core truths than words or pictures alone.


At its best, interactive journalism is more than flashy showoff presentations, but a better way of getting at core truths than words or pictures alone. It shows multidimensional realities. And it usually takes a team of journalists with a range of skills. At its best, it creatively fits the right mix of these many techniques to the unique challenges and opportunities of the subject material at hand.


More than ‘multimedia’ journalism

In the old days, say a decade ago, when journalists were overworked and underpaid, and when publication owners wanted a single journalist to do the jobs of several others who had recently been laid off, the job ads asked for people who could not only report and write, but also produce video and audio.

All too often this meant trying to do everything with a cell phone and extra coffee. Before 5 o’clock. The results were not always stellar. “Multimedia” journalism risked getting a bad name. But sometimes not.

Not every story can benefit from interactive journalism. If a district court makes a ruling on a procedural point of environmental law, words alone (or words plus source documents like a written decision) may be enough.

But there are many other stories — for example climate change in the Arctic or wildfire epidemics or fishing on the high seas — where the full truth can only be seen by zooming out. Or diving in. You can often see more from a satellite. And see it more meaningfully, as we can with satellite multispectral imaging and time-lapse.


Interactive journalism is especially helpful

in telling stories about the environment and

energy, the natural world, the planet as a whole.


What is important for environmental journalists to understand is that interactive journalism is especially helpful in telling stories about the environment and energy, the natural world, the planet as a whole and the multidisciplinary sciences that go into the understanding of environmental issues.

And though “digital” anything too often scares us with obscurity and complexity and robot-like tonelessness, interactives can actually amplify and humanize the voices of characters in a story. You already have that audio in your recorder. Instead of transcribing it to put dead print words in a story, interactives want your audience to hear the personality in the quote.


The key is code (or at least computer skills)

Journalists often do not want to hear that coding is important (much less learn multiple computer languages). But the primary presentation of most interactives is on the web and other online channels. And one key language for the web is HTML (hypertext markup language), which for many years stayed rather tame as browsers got standardized. But the release of the last version, HTML5, in 2008 and later updates finally adapted web coding to much more of what the web could do.

HTML5 truly enabled multimedia. During the same period, other web necessities like CSS (cascading style sheets, which saves work as it finely adjusts how things appear) and Javascript (which programs interactiveness into pages) also evolved very significantly. One feature of HTML5, known as “overlays,” enables all that layering and scrolliness that characterize many of today’s interactives.


Journalists who want to sizzle might

want to know what a “developer” is.


Journalists who want to sizzle might want to know what a “developer” is — the person who makes all these languages (and more back-end technologies we won’t bore you with) sit up and sing. Sing together. So not only may you need a developer on your team — but ideally a developer who can think like (or at least talk to) a graphic designer. Many small outlets and freelancers can’t even imagine having such resources. That’s why big outlets like The New York Times excel at interactives.

And if you are dealing with environmental data (and we hope you do), you may need even more computer skills. There are software tools for handling and analyzing the data, just starting with spreadsheets like Excel and databases like Access. IBM has a database software called SPSS, which is good for statistical analysis in the mathematical sense. There is a language called R, which is good for going from data to graphics. There are a good many other computer languages and tools, increasingly specialized, that may help realize an environmental data project.

Mapping environmental data is very often the payoff of an interactive project. This kind of data, generically, is often called GIS (geographic information systems) data. There are multiple formats and tools, and getting them to play nicely together is part of the challenge. One dominant company, Esri, produces a helpful software called ArcGIS, which is pretty standard. It can be expensive, but they give away a lot of free copies.


Making choices, encouraging engagement

And, yes, interactive journalism is interactive. Often it just makes you interact with it. You move through it with your mouse or scroller, and in response it unfolds subchapters and subworlds. It allows and encourages you to look up your own data and how the subject may affect you. It is contingent. You make choices of what to see and hear.

Interactives are about engagement, especially. That buzzword is so important. Interactives are often huge, long-form stories. Yet research shows that most news consumers, most of the time, may principally get their news in the shortest of bites on their phones. Truth be told, interactives are often off-putting to people who do not have enough time or attention to spend on them. They are often designed for big screens, instead of the little screens by which many people get their news.

But at their best, interactives are breathtaking, captivating, absorbing. They do things that words and still photos don’t always do. They turn data into knowledge and understanding.

Like we said, interactive journalism is now a thing. You can get other perspectives on what it may be and how to do it in some of the books that are now beginning to come out on it. One is “Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data, and Code” by Nikki Usher (University of Illinois Press, 2016). Another is “Practicing Convergence Journalism: An Introduction to Cross-Media Storytelling” by Janet Kolodzy (Routledge, 2013).

[Editor’s Note: In Part II of this package, also read an interview with Hannah Fairfield, climate editor for The New York Times. Plus, in Part III, our list of model projects that set the standard for interactivity in environmental journalism.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 32. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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