Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Capital Public Radio

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 8 Aug 2019

Credit: Emily Zentner, Chris Hagan, Ezra David Romero, Sally Schilling, Nick Miller, Gabriela Fernandez, Renee Thompson, Katy Kidwell, Veronika Nagy

Project description:

TahoeLand is an eight-part podcast that investigates how climate change is impacting Lake Tahoe, an environmental jewel and major tourist attraction high in the Sierra Nevada between California and Nevada. It also further explores what lessons this region holds for the global climate crisis. This project is a collaboration between our environmental podcast team and our digital team to create a digital audio product that uses data, science and general nerdiness to take a localized look at climate change.

Impact reached:

This project connected the dots for the communities around Lake Tahoe about what climate change will mean for the place they love to call home. Climate change is a big, worldwide issue that it can be hard to conceptualize in your day to day life, but by marrying data about snow, lake clarity, the tourism economy and more, we displayed the daily struggles caused by climate change in this area. We even heard from the CEO of Tahoe’s leading economic development nonprofit, the Tahoe Prosperity Center, that this podcast led to a major revelation for her about the center’s work. She said that when Ezra and Emily first asked her about how climate change will impact Tahoe’s economy, she didn’t understand why we were asking her about climate change at all. But as we talked to her about the data we found correlating tourism job loss with California’s long drought, it became clear to her how a changing climate will dramatically change Tahoe’s economic identity. She said that she is now thinking on how she can help Tahoe’s residents cope with this change as her center continues to work at diversifying Tahoe’s economy.

The Pinecrest Nordic Ski Patrol is currently using the podcast episode about snow, including our data reporting on how climate change is impacting Tahoe’s snow, as a part of their avalanche training. The podcast is also now a part of the AP Environmental Science curriculum at a high school in the Tahoe area, and students at the Tahoe Expedition Academy are currently making a podcast inspired by our work.

Techniques/technologies used:

As we partnered with scientists and researchers on their findings, we were able to do most of our data analysis in Microsoft Excel. We worked with the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, the California Tahoe Conservancy and the Desert Research Institute to marry climate change projections with data on bear hibernation, fire danger, lake clarity and more. We also used QGIS to process GIS data. 

To visualize this data, we used Infogram, Carto and the NPR Daily Graphics rig. We used Infogram to create a chart of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center’s predictions for the rain-to-snow ratio that features a snowy mountain. We used Carto to map a geodatabase showing different areas of fire risk throughout California. And we used the NPR Daily Graphics rig to create bar charts to accompany our stories on the length of bear hibernation and Tahoe’s tourism economy to visualize the changes scientists are predicting and the impacts this community has already felt.

We also worked with NPR to use their app template to create an extremely visual buildout for our story about the invasive mysis shrimp that are making the lake less clear. We used their template to marry video, illustrations, photos and interactive data visualizations to track the link between the prevalence of the shrimp, the disappearance of the zooplankton they eat and the declining clarity of the lake.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Working on this project meant working with really complicated scientific data, thus combining two already intense tasks: data reporting and science reporting. That meant that Emily and Ezra needed to understand this research well enough to boil it down into something that our audience could understand, and to portray it in an interesting way. For example, Emily spoke with the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center’s Geoff Schladow about the process climate scientists use to turn current data on global greenhouse gas emissions into different climate scenarios that allow them to predict different futures for places like Tahoe depending on how well we mitigate our emissions. While this process wasn’t reported in the podcast, understanding it was key for Emily to be able to explain what Schladow’s climate projections for the Tahoe Basin meant, and for her to answer any audience questions about these predictions.

But aside from just understanding this science, we had to make it interesting, too. That often meant taking these extremely high-level topics and talking them through extensively again until we were able to explain them in their simplest form. While our data segments in the podcast may sound laid-back and fun, they came from Ezra and Emily agonizing over the script until this science was digested into its simplest form. We had to work hard to make this science accessible, but we are proud that we were able to help our audience learn about research that otherwise may not have been available and relatable to them.

What can others learn from this project?

This project is a great example of how you can use data and research from scientists in your region to tell a localized story about climate change. Climate change is a giant concept, and it can be hard for people to wrap their minds around how their individual worlds are actually going to change over the next century. By working with some of the people doing climate research in our area, we were able to give our audience a look into the future of what could actually happen to a place they know and love rather than talking broadly about the fact that the climate is changing. Rather than just saying there will be less snow, we were able to say just how climate change would impact the amount of snow vs. rain that the Lake Tahoe region will be getting. This made this story more impactful and interesting for our audience, and painted a picture of what this global issue actually means for our community.

By looking at how we went deep on the research being done locally, others can get an idea of how they could tell a similar story on a local level for their audiences. We built close working relationships with the scientists in our area to get a full picture of what they’re studying, and of what concerns them the most in what they’re finding. Finding these local connections and making them a key part of our storytelling helped make this podcast great.

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