This investigation into the state of the UK’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) involved the analysis of more than 26,000 official inspections – some of which had never been published before – to reveal the poor conditions of some of the UK’s protected sites. SSSIs are chosen because they are home to rare plants, species or important geographical features. This story revealed thousands were in a poor state – with half of official inspections finding conditions unsatisfactory. Some sites were destroyed. Many sites had also gone unassessed for years, leading campaigners to fear the situation could be worse.
Ranging from national to local newspapers, the investigation was featured in approximately 90 JPIMedia newspapers/websites across the UK. The story was produced centrally within the JPIMedia Data Unit and shared across all newspapers. This allowed local newspapers to take their own unique approach to the story and share an exclusive with their readers – it was the frontpage splash on multiple newspapers. I also produced my own UK wide version which was featured on all JPIMedia websites (project link 1).
While looking at the state of the UK’s SSSI on a national scale made an impact in its own right, at a hyper local level it meant the readership of our local newspapers could directly see what the situation was like in their immediate area. For example, the Edinburgh Evening News reported on how “lack of remedial management” meant grassland at the iconic Arthur’s Seat park was in an unfavourable state. The Portsmouth News also reported on how the Portsmouth Harbour and parts of the water near Lee-on-the-Solent were seeing no improvement. The Edinburgh Evening News spoke with the body which manages the land who confirmed they were addressing the issue and the Portsmouth News spoke with a local environmental charity to shed more light on the situation. These are just two examples of how a wider data driven investigation brought action at a local level.
To produce this investigation I used standard data analysis software. I predominantly used Excel to clean and analyse the larger datasets, while Google Sheets was used to share the data across our newspapers. I also used visualisation software, Flourish, to map the results across the UK.
What was the hardest part of this project?
This investigation involved bringing multiple datasets into one story. Sourcing equivalent data for all four UK countries was one of the biggest challenges of the project. While the Scotland data was publicly available there was no such information for Northern Ireland. This didn’t stop me accessing the information though and after contacting a government department I was given the equivalent, unpublished data which meant I could provide an exclusive story for our newspapers in Northern Ireland. The data for England was far more complicated to analyse though. It involved cleaning a messy dataset from an official government website and then merging and cross referencing the SSSIs with data from another official environmental site to ensure the sites were linked to the correct areas and regions.
What can others learn from this project?
I think an important point of my story for other journalists to take away is that you don’t need to always follow the newscycle to produce an important piece of work. While the state of our environment has never been more appreciated, SSSIs and our local environment don’t always receive the attention they deserve. The investigation highlighted hyper local issues in a national context.
Another important point to take into consideration is that despite the shocking figures, it was only after speaking to a farmer that we could appreciate the difficulties faced by landowners when it comes to managing land which is also home to a SSSI. The interview brought a whole new dimension to the story as we could get a better understanding about the challenges faced by landowners.