“And as we all know, Oklahoma has more earthquakes than California,” the seismologist said. But until Michael Corey from the Center for Investigative Reporting attended the American Geophysical Union conference last December, he hadn’t known that. Corey, who had previously covered earthquakes in his home state of California, was shocked. He had a new story.
Using earthquake catalogs and science scripts from the US Geological Survey, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, and the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, Corey mapped seismic activity against state boundary lines. He discovered a surprising truth. Over the last decade, Oklahoma, a state with historically few earthquakes, had progressively become three times more active than California.
See the interactive map.
The question was why. In Corey’s original article from February, he uncovered that the likely cause of the earthquakes was an increase in injection wells, underground tanks where the polluted water from fracking is stored. But the oil companies were “a brick wall” and denied any responsibility, he said, so he relied on scientific studies to look for answers.
The majority of scientists and seismologists were incredibly cooperative, Corey says. They wanted the data to be used and made public, and helped to walk him through the interpretation of the information. However, that wasn’t the case with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, where both the interim director and lead seismologist could not be reached for comment. Corey also relied on court documents, in which a resident sued an oil company, building codes, and state emergency plans to report his story.
One problem was that “induced seismic activity (aka human-caused) is omitted from the USGS hazards model because the agency hasn’t decided how to quantify the risk. Meanwhile, Building Seismic Safety Councils rely on these models to update their code requirements every five years. With old or inaccurate information, Oklahoma’s architecture is left vulnerable. In this case the information is there, but no one really knows what do with it.
Listening to the Science: An Unconventional Way to Use Data in Your Reporting
Corey decided to listen to the data. In a radio broadcast story debuted this weekend, Corey used an audio track to simulate the increase in earthquakes over time. He downloaded earthquake catalog data from the last decade from the Northern California Earthquake Data Center, and translated each data point through a synthesizer. Now each earthquake, represented by a chime-like “ping,” could be heard and imagined, different pitches and frequencies corresponding to stronger or weaker seismic activity.
It was a good alternative for a radio story, in which documents and data could be read aloud but not visualized. By 2014, the audio track is a constant clanging of bells and chimes, illustrating the severity of Oklahoma’s earthquakes. This, coupled with interviews, brought life to a story built primarily on geological data and scientific jargon.
“For the radio story we had to put more emphasis on the human voice,” Corey explained. “With no documents or figures to show, we instead set scenes and characters, and bring in people who have experienced earthquakes.”
Listen to the full broadcast here.
Corey offers some advice to environmental journalists looking to report similar stories.
Get involved. Corey got the idea for his story attending his first geoscience conference. Not only do conferences and events like this generate ideas, they will also link you to important sources.
Seek a second opinion. Scientists, like journalists, rely on multiple sources before stating something as fact. Peer reviewed journals are your best bet, says Corey. This is especially true with oil company stories, where companies employ full-time researchers whose findings may be biased.
Become tech-savvy. In addition to the audio synthesizer track, Corey created visualizations and completed data analysis using tools like Quantum GIS and Python.
Stay modest. “You’re not going to understand everything, so follow up and read about it. Show interest in the topic, but be careful not to write before you understand the issue. You could end up getting a lot wrong,” he warns.
Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.