Simplistic Visual Media Is The Best Way To Show Climate Change Data (To Non-scientists)

For the average citizen, understanding the intricacies climate change can be difficult. Especially when media outlets fail to construct articles with them in mind.

For example, the Washington Post released an article in April in which they did very little to simplify the science behind climate change. The article, titled “Global temperatures have dropped since 2016. Here’s why that’s normal.”, is very well constructed, and as accurate as it can be, but uses visuals right out of scientific articles to draw its points across.

confus graph
This plot of high and low-pressure systems using data from the NOAA is one of many used in the Washinton Post’s article, and people unfamiliar with science, or even those not well versed in graphic representation might be confused by what this represents. Credit: NOAA

This isn’t to say that the Washington Post is “bad” at creating articles with simple graphics, they have plenty of articles that prove otherwise, as shown specifically by this one. However, it does point out an inconsistency in the way journalists report climate change, presumably because they’re trying to reach different audiences. This inconsistency can cause confusion among a large group of readers.

In contrast, the New York Times released a tool that allows readers to see how much hotter their hometown has gotten since they were born because of climate change. The tool is very effective at showing individuals the change in the climate they are most familiar with.

This use of media is effective at showing an audience the way in which climate change has affected them directly, even if they hadn’t noticed it. It also uses a scientific model to show how much the climate will have changed by the time the user is 80 years old, which can be terrifying to some people.


nyt tool
A representation of Parkersburg, WV climate since 1997. The database includes data from a wide variety of United States towns with birth years as far back as 1920. Credit: New York Times

These personalized tools are simple to use and effective at representing scientific data. Linear graphs are also a great way to show the rate at which temperatures are rising.

Other examples of effective graphics include heat maps and statistical maps. The New York Times has used both of these in the past to convey messages.

An effective heat map can be seen in this article by Kendra Pierre-Louis of the NYT:

The graphic used in Pierre-Louis’ article is in the form of a gif image in which ocean temperature can be seen getting hotter over time. Videos and gifs like this are fantastic for representing time-lapses.

An effective statistical map can be seen in this article by Nadja Popovich of the NYT:

Statistical maps provide a quick glimpse into the data being represented. It is most effective when discussing social differences or surveyable data, and the colors used make for a quick understanding of the data.

Although journalism that represents the raw scientific data is necessary, especially for the scientific community, it might be beneficial to label the articles with the audience they are supposed to resonate with. This would reduce confusion among average citizens and help scientists select the data they want to be shown.


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