More than 2.5 million scientific articles are published each year, but only a small percentage of the information goes beyond the realm of scientists. As scientists work to tackle climate change and other pressing environmental issues, knowing how to translate environmental data for public use is more important than ever. Scrutinizing this data, particularly as it relates to the environment, and making it available to the public has been the focus of Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Chris Mooney’s work. And this year, Mooney ’99 BA taught students at the Yale School of the Environment how to do the same as a visiting professor 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 in communications strategies and techniques, has been a reporter at The Washington Post for seven years, overseeing 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 exceeded 2 degrees of warming, which scientists call the tipping point for global warming keep analyzing data at county level.
His latest research for the Post found that many countries under-report their greenhouse gas emissions in their United Nations filings. The result was based on a dataset Mooney and the Post team created from emissions figures reported to the UN in various formats.
Mooney, who delivered a Fall Poynter Fellow talk on environmental data science and journalism, says that communicating environmental issues has two distinct challenges: First, readers can be so distant in space and time from an environmental change that they don’t relate to it to have . Second, environmental issues are closely linked to complicated regulations that are difficult to break and which can also provoke partisan reactions.
“Translating what is important from scientific papers in journals and getting it across to the public and policymakers in a form that they can understand and use is just very difficult,” says Mooney.
He points to the whiplash and “windshield wiper effect” that the public often experiences when the media heavily reports the results of one study and later reports another study that contradicts those results. And often important studies – those that provide important new insights but are too complex to simply translate into a single piece of news, for example – receive no media attention at all.
“The media as a whole reports a selective portion of what is learned in science, including environmental science, and the reason is that some scientists are much better at communicating than others,” says Mooney.
There are many sets of data that governments release, Mooney notes. Finding and focusing on those that can reveal an untold story and using them as a basis for building your own datasets is crucial, he says.
“There are many publicly available datasets that haven’t even been looked at very closely. And data will ask you questions you didn’t even know you should have asked,” he says.
Advances in data visualization techniques are helping to communicate complex information and research results in a more shareable way, he says. For example, online articles may contain short videos and animated numbers that appear on screen as a reader scrolls through certain parts of a story.
In his spring semester, Mooney covers the history of media coverage of the environment, how the media has changed, the challenges facing the journalism industry, how the public processes messages about environmental science, and various theories of science communication. As part of class study, students choose an environmental topic to present. They create messages on the topic and communicate them in a variety of formats, including five-minute lectures and videos.
Uthara Vengrai ’22 MESc says Mooney’s course helped her craft a focused message about her scientific findings and learn how to guide the reader through data with numbers revealed at specific points.
“I think the lessons he shared were really helpful in formulating more impactful ways of presenting my own research,” says Vengrai. “There is so much bad news that it is important to highlight messages that offer solutions.”
Photo: Chris Mooney gives a talk during his spring class, A Toolkit for Communicating Environmental Science. Credit: Cloe Poisson