Ricardo Garcia: Storytelling with numbers
on the environment
on the environment
Published on November 3rd, 2015
News and climate change are two search keywords that lead many internet users to the work of Ricardo Garcia, a journalist for Público, who has been writing on this topic and other issues on science and sustainability for over 20 years. News texts, chronicles and infographics are the different forms of communication that the journalist uses to reach out to readers, trying to overcome the difficulties of access to information – the numbers, in this case – existing in this area. He described to Clima@EduMedia how it is possible to tell and discover stories about the environment, doing research at the same time.
What led you to pursue journalism, particularly the environmental field?
My background is in history, a field I worked in while in Brazil. And when I went to Portugal I started working for Expresso newspaper as a collaborator. In the beginning my work was more about society, and then I realised that there was an increase in the environmental movement. Quercus was emerging as a large association and I proposed to write an article on the ecological world, on associations. With that report, I made several contacts, and afterwards I was the one being contacted, and stories began to emerge.
Was there little information on the environment at the time?
I found a niche. There was not much, it was a boiling subject in the late 80s and early 90s. It was from then on that I began to write more about the environment and never stopped.
Are there any peculiarities in environmental journalism and special care that a journalist should have when writing on the subject? What are the difficulties felt in your day-to-day work?
The features are very similar to those of science journalism. And with those of journalism as well. We have to write about the issues so that people understand, and to do so, journalists themselves have to understand the information that is given by scientists. The “translation” is one of the characteristics of environmental journalism: understand what the scientists say and transmit it as honestly as possible. Another feature is that an environmental journalist must have ambition since, among other topics, environmental journalism has a tendency to “rise and fall”: either everybody is interested in the environment or not. An example: after 2008 and 2009, the topic of climate change was barely spoken of, but then several conferences on the climate began to emerge, and continue to take place, and the subject was once again discussed. One must be aware because people may not be paying a lot of attention, but things are happening and we need to break the news.
The notion of risk is also typical of environmental journalism. Pollution, for example, will always be associated with harm. To talk about climate change is to talk about the risk of having a warmer future.
It's hard to write about the environment because it is something more complex. And in fact, there is one more feature in writing about the environment with regard to long processes, such as climate change, as they unfold over time. Basically, we have these four characteristics: technical complexity, the notion of risk, “up and down” interest of society in this matter, and long processes.
As for the notion of risk, we must be careful with alarmism...
You cannot be afraid of being alarmist. The alarm must be justified. For example, cases of legionella contamination in the air were very serious. Anything that was being written caused alarm, but it was a justified alarm. It is necessary to be careful, talk to people, and address various sources.
“Infographic is a journalistic project, and you can tell a story through it”
You also have been devoting your work to infographics. What is the importance of this tool for communication, particularly in the environmental area?
Infographic is key. I work with the computer graphic department at Público several times. What I do is devise, think about the data and understand how I can combine them. Because environmental journalism is more technical and complex, it becomes easier to understand if we are able to show the information in a graphic format. It is said that an infographic is a journalism supplement, but an infographic is a whole. It is a journalistic project, an editorial product, and you can tell a story through it. The technology is now so developed that you can think of a paper infographic, but we can also think of something much more developed like an online infographic.
Given the complexity of this type of journalism, already addressed in this interview, can you tell us what the most challenging assignment you have done was?
All assignments involving research, related to economics, are challenging. There are works that take a long time because we do not have easy access to information. This is a problem in Portugal. It has to do with official documents. For example: I needed to consult a document of the Ministry of Finance regarding a housing development in a golf course, and they did not want to give me that information. Anyone can have access to these documents, they do not even need to say for what purpose. And it took me four years to get the report.
Every so often, it takes a long time to get a story. And all that is written must be proven with documents, each sentence must have data to prove it. Great research work is more time-consuming because it has to be honest and verified. Another challenge is the pressure to publish the content, due to the news factor. It is not easy to quickly check the information in order to publish. While I'm verifying, all the other newspapers may already be reporting the news.
You’ve published two books. The first is a kind of guide – Sobre a Terra: Um guia para quem lê e escreve sobre ambiente (On Earth: A guide for those who read and write about the environment) – and the other is a set of chronicles. What led you to write them?
The first book came up when I began to notice the amount of books published, especially in the United States, on this topic. There were several books on climate change and the ozone layer, and I couldn´t find a single one in Portugal that could help understand these issues. I already had some experience, and the aim was initially to create a guide for environmental journalists. Afterwards, it became something bigger and I ended up writing for a wider audience.
The other is a set of chronicles on sustainability that I write for Público newspaper every Sunday. They are day-to-day stories. It's a different way of communicating this topic. I have more feedback from the chronicles than from the news I write, also because I do it in a lighter and more humorous tone.
Do you feel that people are more aware of the environment than they were 25 years ago, when you started your career?
Through opinion surveys, for example, the Eurobarometer, we are able to see that people are progressively taking interest in the environment, but that does not mean that they do more for the environment. We are still very far from being able to say that we have a solution for a sustainable life cycle.
How do you assess the communication of climate change in Portugal?
Portugal has good journalists. There are plenty of news being published on climate change. The environment is more widespread in various fields, such as economy. As I said, the news on this topic arise in cycles. For example, now we have a lot of information on the subject because of the conferences, but in a few months there will be nothing, only specific situations.
How can one communicate this issue beyond addressing it through this type of events? Climate change will always continue to exist.
It is necessary to seek information, see what happens. We have to go behind the stories to find new things. I give an example: I did an article a few years ago about how people go to work. I picked up the theme and that data that had nothing to do with climate change, and got a consultant to do a calculation to understand which municipalities spent more in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, and interestingly this municipality was Barreiro. It was thus concluded that the municipality where people use more public transport was the one spending more emissions of this greenhouse gas. All this because, despite the fact that people take these collective means of transport, many kilometres were covered.
By: Renata Silva