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.

earthquakes1
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.

earthquakes2
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.

Maps

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.

earthquakes3

Timelines

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

Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 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
Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023