Al Jazeera Journalism Review

outside image
Search and rescue operations continue for people trapped under rubble on the fifth day after a 7-magnitude earthquake in Marrakesh, Morocco on September 13, 2023 [Abu Adem Muhammed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

How to use data to report on earthquakes

Sifting through data sounds clinical, but journalists can use it to seek out the human element when reporting on natural disasters such as earthquakes


In the first moments when an earthquake strikes a city or any part of the world, there's a limited window of time to sift through heaps of data circulating on media outlets and digital platforms.

We must quickly answer the fundamental questions that may well be life-changing for people: Did the earthquake actually occur? Where? With what magnitude? What are the preliminary outcomes? Which areas require immediate intervention? And how can we minimise the losses as much as possible?

After we've sifted through and removed inaccuracies from the news circulating on social media, and have separated the verified information and genuine images of the earthquake from the incorrect and misleading, a deeper, more comprehensive coverage is required.

The database can be our avenue for achieving this. But where do we start and what specifically should we do?

Predicting earthquakes reliably is difficult - sometimes, tremors occur without us even noticing. 

Database plays a crucial role in understanding what has happened, in assessing the scale of the losses, and in preparing for similar phenomena in the future.

A recently published infographic by Al Jazeera explains the strength of the earthquake that struck Morocco recently [AJLabs]


Which stories should we report?

Depending on the size of the earthquake and the damage it has caused, several focus points can help amidst the flood of news during times of crisis:

  1. Magnitude and impact: Which areas did the earthquake hit? Which are most affected?
  2. Horizontal and vertical comparisons: Here, we can compare the current earthquake to the history of seismic activities known, which we term as vertical comparison. Then, we provide rankings and comparisons to nearby areas, known here as horizontal comparison.
  3. Historical analysis: This allows us to scrutinise the earthquake data records over an extended time period. We can identify the locations where earthquakes have previously concentrated and in which city or country.
  4. Explanatory designs: Data can help us to explain the phenomenon of earthquakes to the public and engage the audience in the exploration process in a way that helps us understand how specific buildings and areas are affected by different magnitudes of earthquakes.
  5. Scale of losses: By using satellite data, we can present a comprehensive visualisation and analysis of the effects caused by the earthquake on the ground.
  6. Verification: Data can be used to validate claims regarding the severity of an earthquake or the losses it has caused, especially if there are claims that it is the strongest in decades or otherwise.

Data also helps us contextualise as numerous factors contribute to the extent of earthquake damage such as population density, architectural design and more.

There's no one-size-fits-all template for earthquake coverage and the use of data in reporting on it. Earthquakes surprise us, as do the numbers associated with them, requiring us to make multiple editorial decisions in a limited timeframe.

This could increase the possibility of making mistakes. We will also have to deal with numerous figures and statistics and need to know how to incorporate these numbers into the narrative.


Examining your data

Gathering data during an earthquake is a time-sensitive exercise. But, when using international databases that continuously monitor and record earthquakes, and although your editors may expect you to produce a data-driven report on earthquakes that have struck the area over the past decade, take a moment to review the methodology of the sources you're dealing with.

There are always limitations to the data you're working on, so try to identify them and ensure you can explain them to the public. Seek expert advice when needed.

A graph published by Al Jazeera in 2015 showing the number of earthquakes that affected the vicinity of the Indian plate [AJ Labs]

When examining the methodology of earthquake data collection, don't forget the descriptive data that helps you understand the data at hand and how to deal with it.

Understanding the methodology and accuracy of data collection is the backbone on which the story will rely; without it, you're vulnerable to scrutiny after publishing.

In addition to that, don't neglect the data filtering phase amidst the rush of a crisis.

Also, try to frame your questions during data analysis within the context of earthquakes.

Aside from questions like: "Was this the strongest earthquake in the country's history?" or: "Are the losses unprecedented?", consider questions such as: "How does this earthquake differ from previous ones?" and: "What can previous earthquake data tell us about mitigating its impact?"


Presenting your findings

Collecting, filtering and analysing data are hidden stages that the public doesn't see. Regardless of the effort and time required, it's all in vain if the story isn't presented clearly and engagingly.

We need to choose the most suitable visual formats and interpretive methods, without overlooking expert opinions, specialists and the human stories behind the numbers.


There are various types of maps that can help us display the distribution of earthquakes and seismic activities that may go unnoticed in a specific geographic area or globally.

Maps also allow us to visually present variations in earthquake intensity across different regions or time frames. Moreover, continuously updated maps can keep the public informed about ongoing seismic activities.



A single earthquake goes through several phases, leading to aftershocks. There's also the trajectory of announcing losses, aid intervention and rescue news.

These can be better narrated and clarified through timelines, allowing the public to follow different phases and understand the scale of damage and aid.

Scatter graphs

Scatter graphs allow for the display of correlations and can be used to explain the relationship between earthquake magnitudes and the risks they pose in different urban and environmental contexts.

Humanising the numbers

It's easy to track the number of victims. Have they reached a hundred, a thousand or a hundred thousand?

These numbers might look similar; a large number may signify that many people have died, but that's hard to grasp. It's difficult for us to imagine large numbers, but we can offer stories that use data to portray the victims, by putting a name behind each number.

Some media outlets do this in wars and have also published similar stories about COVID-19 victims. We would need a database detailing the victims. We could also sketch a general picture of the victims by knowing their age groups, their cities and other variables.

The idea here is to humanise the victims, not treat them as mere continuously updated numbers.


Data with new dimensions

The bulk of work in data journalism takes place in front of a computer. Additional tasks may be assigned to journalists, such as speaking to sources and narrating human stories.

However, data allows journalists to consider earthquakes in terms of scale and impact. It enables them to work on comparisons with different dimensions and also to produce explanatory content that helps them better understand these phenomena.

Furthermore, data can identify areas that have suffered less damage and allow for the verification of information that may circulate about seismic events as soon as they occur.

In summary, through the use of data, we inform, clarify, scrutinise, and most importantly, reveal what the numbers tell us about people; about lives that have ended and lives that have just begun.


Translated from the original Arabic by Yousef Awadh




More Articles

Journalistic malpractice monitoring in Gaza coverage

On this page, the editorial team of the Al Jazeera Journalism Review will collect news published by media institutions about the current war on Gaza that involves disinformation, bias, or professional journalistic standards and its code of ethics.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 28 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023
The bombs raining down on Gaza from Israel are beyond scary, beyond crazy

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: As Israel bombarded Gaza for the third night, I found myself closer to a missile hit than I could have imagined

Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023
Reporter’s Notebook - what I learned from covering the Kalash people

As journalists, our fascination with Indigenous communities can blind us to our ethical obligations to respect privacy and dignity of those we document - we must reflect carefully

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 5 Oct, 2023
The French banlieues and their troubled relationship with the media

Discriminatory media coverage of recent unrest in the suburbs of Paris shows that little has changed since the uprisings of 2005

Ahmed Nazif Published on: 28 Sep, 2023
Why are Zimbabwe’s elections always surrounded by media controversy?

Election season in Zimbabwe has long been shrouded in controversy, with intimidation of opposition activists and journalists, combined with disorganisation at the ballots creating a perfect storm for chaos. This year was no different

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 25 Sep, 2023
Analysis: The media’s coverage of the Pakistan cable car incident

It was a roller coaster ride with news organisations all over the world giving minute-by-minute reports on the daring rescue. How does the media create suspense and is this sort of coverage useful?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 21 Sep, 2023
‘I had no idea how to report on this’ - local journalists tackling climate change stories

Local journalists are key to informing the public about the devastating dangers of climate change but, in India, a lack of knowledge, training and access to expert sources is holding them back

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 13 Sep, 2023
Ethical reporting - how to cover suicide responsibly

Sensationalist reporting of suicide cases has been shown to cause a rise in the numbers of people taking their own lives in affected communities. Journalists must take great care

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 7 Sep, 2023
‘Don’t let someone else narrate your stories for you’ - travel journalists in the global south

THE LONG READ: Life as a travel journalist isn’t just for privileged Westerners ‘discovering’ quaint parts of south-east Asia and Africa

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 1 Sep, 2023
‘People need to stop blindly obeying the law’ - journalists fighting on the fringes in Vietnam

THE LONG READ: Imprisoned, exiled and forced to base themselves overseas, independent journalists in Vietnam are punished harshly if they publish the ‘wrong’ sort of content. Some, such as Luật Khoa tạp chí, are fighting back

AJR Correspondent Published on: 25 Aug, 2023
Ethics and safety in OSINT - can you believe what you see?

OSINT is increasingly important for journalists in a digital world. We take a look at ethics, safety on the internet and how to spot a ‘deepfake’

Sara Creta Published on: 15 Aug, 2023
‘Other journalists jeer at us’ – life for mobile journalists in Cameroon

Journalists in Cameroon are using their phones in innovative ways to report the news for many different types of media, but major news organisations have still not caught up

Akem Nkwain Published on: 1 Aug, 2023
‘Life of journalists is cheap’ - how the Philippines became deadly for reporters

Forging ahead with a career in journalism is fraught with difficulty in the Philippines - and many are walking away. What went so wrong?

Ana P Santos Published on: 19 Jul, 2023
Analysis: Could AI replace humans in journalism?

Recent advances in AI are mind-blowing. But good journalism requires certain skills which, for now at least, only humans can master

Mei Shigenobu
Mei Shigenobu Published on: 17 Jul, 2023
Analysis: Comparing coverage of the Titanic submersible and migrant boat disasters

Two disasters costing human lives have occurred at sea in the past two weeks, but the media coverage of each was markedly different. How and why?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 28 Jun, 2023
The silencing of Sudan's journalists - again

THE LONG READ: Detained, beaten and their cameras smashed - Sudan’s journalists are enduring a renewed crackdown on the media

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 7 Jun, 2023
'Rebuilt memory by memory' - recreating a Palestinian village 75 years after the Nakba

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: How it took the collective memories of several generations, painstaking interviews and a determined search through tall grass and prickly plants to recreate a destroyed community

Amandas Ong Published on: 4 Jun, 2023
Suffering in silence - the Kashmiri journalists facing a mental health crisis

THE LONG READ: Al Jazeera Journalism Review has interviewed more than 20 journalists in India-controlled Kashmir who are facing exhausting, insurmountable obstacles to doing their jobs safely every single day

Adil Akhoon
Adil Amin Akhoon, Khalid Bashir Gura Published on: 29 May, 2023
How to analyse satellite imagery

When you have a story, but still need to tie up loose ends to answer where or when a particular event occurred, satellite imagery can point you in the right direction

Sara Creta Published on: 25 May, 2023
OSINT: Tracking ships, planes and weapons

Tracking ships and planes is an increasingly valuable technique in open-source investigations carried out by journalists. In part 4 of our special series, we examine how it works

Sara Creta Published on: 18 May, 2023
How social media bans have crippled journalism in India’s Punjab

The Indian government has ordered social media platforms to block hundreds of accounts of journalists and activists

Meer Faisal
Meer Faisal Published on: 16 May, 2023
Tear gas and internet blackouts - reporting on protests in Pakistan

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, violence has erupted across Pakistan. For journalists, it is like reporting from the centre of a storm

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 May, 2023
Remembering Shireen; my colleague and a 'role model for professionalism'

On the eve of the first anniversary of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera's Senior Correspondent in Palestine, her colleague commemorates the compassion, integrity and professionalism which made her the extraordinary journalist and human being that she was

Walid Omary Published on: 10 May, 2023