Student journalists in Baltimore used heat sensors to report on global warming

It was a hot summer in Baltimore. But for many low-income residents, it was often hotter inside their homes than outside. During a heatwave in July, the heat index inside city resident Stephanie Pingley’s home reached 113 degrees Fahrenheit — at 8 p.m. 

That was 15 degrees hotter than outside. 

Last week, journalists in Baltimore won an Online News Association award for using temperature sensors and other data to investigate the impacts of climate change on the city’s underserved neighborhoods. 

Did I mention those journalists were college students? 

The University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, launched in 2019, produced Code Red, a multimedia series published this summer illustrating Baltimore’s climate divide. It was the center’s first official project. And considering that project garnered a $50,000 prize and a collaboration with NPR, you could say things are off to a strong start. 

This week in Solution Set, we’ll take a look at how the students utilized innovative technology, built trust with the community, and collaborated with several organizations to bring both a local and an equity lens to climate change reporting.

With students walking out of class for the youth-led Climate Strike tomorrow, it looks like the next generation may be the face of both climate advocacy AND coverage. 

This issue is the second installment in our series on how news organizations are covering the climate crisis. You can read my overview of the project here.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one earth-shaking thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.


Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

The Challenge: Journalists at UMD have been interested in the intersection of climate change and public health for years. They’ve also, as of late, wanted to experiment with temperature sensors as a storytelling method. 

The Strategy: Journalists collaborated with several partner organizations to assist with their reporting and help expand the reach of the stories. To pull it off, they built the sensors; earned the trust of residents in order to install sensors in homes; analyzed large stores of data; and conducted extensive on-the-ground reporting. 

The Numbers: There were four installments in the series. Reporters installed nine sensors in seven homes to collect temperatures, which reached up to 97 degrees indoors. The project received funding from a handful organizations, including the Online News Association (ONA), which gave it a $35,000 grant in 2018 and a $50,000 award in 2019.

The Lessons: To encourage action in climate reporting, reporters have to emphasize solutions as much as the problems–and coverage should be local. Student journalists also brought fresh ideas and a much-needed sense of urgency to the coverage. 

The Future: The Howard Center plans to continue this coverage by bringing a climate change focus to multiple beats, from housing to public health. It also will likely use some of its award money to train other journalists on how to use temperature sensors in their own stories. 

Want to know more?: Scroll down for a behind-the-scenes look at the Code Red series and check out (and contribute to!) our growing list of resources for climate change reporting.


The Challenge

While Code Red was published in the summer of 2019, the origins of the project go back a year and a half. 

That’s when Capital News Service, the student-powered newsroom run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, started to explore stories about the effect of climate change on public health, particularly in low-income communities in Baltimore. Sean Mussenden, senior lecturer at UMD and data editor for the Howard Center, said that public health has long been of interest to students and faculty at UMD. They’ve previously reported on inequities in asthma prevalence, chronic illness and other health issues, in partnership with Kaiser Health News

“The other piece of it is that we were deeply interested in starting to focus more on what we consider to be the most urgent story of our time,” Mussenden said, referring to climate change. “That is a huge topic. And we sort of thought [public health] is a place where we can bring our experience and relationships we’ve built in Baltimore over time.”

At the same time, Mussenden and Krishnan Vasudevan, an assistant professor of visual communications at UMD, were toying with the idea of using data-collecting temperature and humidity sensors in their storytelling. These low-cost devices can be installed in residences to record heat levels. This can fill a crucial information gap, since most publically available heat data only documents outdoor temperatures. The sensors pick up temperature as well as heat index, which combines heat and humidity to illustrate what the air actually feels like. It’s a method that’s been employed by multiple newsrooms, including by WNYC and AdaptNY for its Harlem Heat Project

Mussenden and Vasudevan wanted to try something similar in Baltimore.

That culminated in Bitter Cold, a four-part series published in May 2019 examining how frigid temperatures caused by climate change disproportionately impact the health of Baltimore residents who cannot afford heating and proper insulation. Reporters installed the sensors in residents’ homes to monitor how cold they got, while also periodically interviewing those residents about extreme weather affected their wellbeing and day-to-day lives. 

The reporting was done in collaboration with UMD faculty and staff, as well as journalism students enrolled in one of the hands-on courses in which they produce Baltimore-focused stories for the CNS site.


The Strategy

When the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, an investigative support unit within the school, was launched in 2019, it made sense that its first endeavor would be to continue these efforts with an even bigger project: Code Red. 

The project was a deep, data-supported look into how global warming, combined with the urban heat island effect, is leading to dangerously high temperatures in Baltimore — especially in the homes of residents who cannot afford central air conditioning. Reporters would identify the neighborhood with the highest temperatures, interview residents about their experiences coping with excessive heat and install heat sensors in their homes to observe how high temperatures climbed.

Student journalists began the reporting process one year ago. They interviewed climate and health experts and started collecting and analyzing dizzying amounts of data, including detailed medical records, databases of Baltimore street trees, block-by-block temperature data and demographic and housing information from the U.S. Census. Much of that reporting was done during the production of Bitter Cold, which acted as a practice run of sorts for Code Red. 

Reporters identified McElderry Park as the hottest neighborhood in the city using block-by-block temperature data collected by researchers from Portland State University and the Science Museum of Virginia. Located in East Baltimore, the neighborhood has a high poverty rate and the residents are primarily Black. It also has significantly less tree cover than affluent neighborhoods, a key factor in its disproportionately high temperatures. 

Once summer approached and temperatures began to rise, it was time to build the temperature sensors. Each device consists of a monitor that includes a small computer, a temperature sensor, a clock, batteries and an SD card allowing for information storage. Reporters placed one or two sensors in most homes in locations where residents spent most of their time (but far away from heat-emitting appliances and sunny windows to avoid artificially increasing temperature readings.) 

(Top, temperature sensors; bottom, a sensor in a residence | Top by Timothy Jacobsen, bottom by Ian Round)

The sensors recorded temperature, humidity, date and time about once every minute. The journalists returned to the homes every few weeks to download the data and interview the residents about the findings.

Those sensors recorded indoor temperatures as high as 97 degrees Fahrenheit. They also documented heat index, which combines heat and humidity to illustrate what the air actually feels like. That value reached up to 119 degrees.

In addition to gathering data via temperature sensors, a team of 10 journalists spent the summer doing on-the-ground reporting. This involved interviewing residents of McElderry Park and other nearby neighborhoods about their health, their daily lives, and how they cope with high heat. The reporters also talked to emergency room doctors, public health leaders, city and state officials, climate scientists, urban foresters, tree-planting crews, and church leaders.

The UMD students and faculty collaborated with youth from the nonprofit Wide Angle Youth Media, which also worked on Bitter Cold. The nonprofit provides media arts education to youth aged 10 to 24.

Not only did those students work as reporters and photojournalists, but they also helped build the temperature sensors. That process was less of an assembly line and more of an educational opportunity, as students and faculty participated in workshops to learn how to put together the sensors, with guidance from University of Maryland’s engineering school. 

The list of partners involved in Code Red doesn’t end at Wide Angle Youth Media. The dean and associate dean of the journalism school reached out to NPR, which took interest in the project. (Robert Little, senior supervising editor of investigations at NPR, is also an adjunct professor at the school.) 

NPR published related stories on its site, as well as radio packages on its shows All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Up First. Those stories used Code Red’s reporting in Baltimore to investigate national trends about heat and inequality in cities. NPR reporters Sean McMinn, Meg Anderson and Nora Eckert also provided guidance, as well as information from their own reporting, to UMD reporters.

Code Red was also repackaged and distributed through The Baltimore Sun, WMAR television, and Associated Press.

“We as a school are always looking for ways to amplify the reach of our work,” Mussenden said. “If we can get a partner like NPR to work with us and also cover the same topic and link to our work, it’s just exponentially greater. And for our students, it also gives them the opportunity to work alongside these really great professional journalists.”


The Numbers

Including faculty members, editors, NPR reporters and student journalists, 36 people contributed to the project. CNS published four stories in the series. 

Those reporters found that this summer, surface temperatures in McElderry Park reached up to 163 degrees. The neighborhood is split between the areas known as Madison/Eastend and Patterson Park North & East. According to Code Red, the poverty rate in Madison/Eastend is 33.74% and the poverty rate in Patterson Park North & East is 21.69%

The Code Red team made 80 sensors in total, for both Bitter Cold and Code Red. For Code Red, reporters were able to establish enough relationships with willing residents to install nine sensors in seven homes. Mussenden and his colleagues intend to use the rest of the sensors for training and knowledge sharing (more on that in The Future.) 

The project was supported with funding from the school and a handful of outside organizations, including ONA, which awarded it $35,000 in 2018 as part of its Challenge Fund to produce “community data journalism.” After the stories were published, ONA gifted the team a $50,000 Challenge Fund Grand Prize for their efforts

You can find the full list of funders here.

The project included partnerships with six organizations. One of them, NPR, published three online stories and aired three radio packages in collaboration with Code Red. 


The Lessons

 

• Prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion: The young photojournalists from Wide Angle Youth Media, many of whom are from East Baltimore where McElderry Park is located, helped make the reporting process more authentic and representative of the people who live there. 

They were instrumental in navigating one of the more challenging steps in the reporting process: convincing residents to let them install sensors in the homes of residents in McElderry Park. 

“A lot of the kids [Wide Angle Youth Media] works with are from a lot of these underserved neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore. And that’s something they told us: it’s going to be hard to get people to agree to put them in their houses,” Mussenden said. “Because of a sense of like, ‘Does it really just monitor temperature? Or does it do something more? Is it like a tool of surveillance?’ And yeah, there definitely were people who were like, ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure about that.’”

Ultimately, Mussenden attributes their success to the advice of the students at Wide Angle Youth Media, combined with extensive outreach efforts on behalf of the reporters. During that process, the team took the time to get to know residents and neighborhood leaders in order to build relationships and trust.  

“And generally speaking, because we had such a long timescale with this, we didn’t really talk about the sensors initially,” Mussenden said. “That was usually a second or third meeting with people. And by then, they for the most part had come to see that we were deeply interested in the story they had to tell.”

(University of Maryland journalists and Wide Angle Youth Media students gather for a meeting. | Photo by Krishnan Vasudevan)

Another key to ensuring that the project was representative of the community was that the project was able to ensure that students receive stipends, rather than class credit, to work for the course of the summer.

The grant funding also allowed the Howard Center to pay the youth who were critical to the project. Mussenden said the project would not have been a success without them. 

“We were hoping that through their participation, we would come to understand the story better, more deeply, in a more nuanced way than we would as people who are generally not living in these neighborhoods,” Mussenden said. “A couple of our editors live a couple neighborhoods over but nobody is really from [McElderry Park.] And so establishing deep community ties was a big part of it.”

Some of the young participants even shared their own experiences with high heat. Their sentiments helped shape the story development process.

“A lot of the work they did was first person like, ‘These are issues that affect me, like when it’s really hot out, it’s hard to go to sleep,’ that sort of thing,” Mussenden said. “So they were able to impart that and then tell that story in a way that was different than the objective third-person approach we were bringing to it.”

• Focus on local solutions: The Code Red reporters saw the value of solutions-oriented reporting firsthand, as the residents they interviewed felt hopeless when it came to rising temperatures. 

Initially, Mussenden said, many of those residents were not aware of the underlying cause of high heat — climate change. After reporters shared their research about global warming, though, it only worsened residents’ pessimism. 

“Universally what our reporting team was saying is that people really hadn’t connected the dots there. And that there was also a sort of sense of fatalism around that,” he said. “‘You think it’s bad now, in 20 years, when the researchers project the number of very high heat index days will triple or in Baltimore’s case increase by six times by the middle of the century. What are you going to do?’ And it was like, ‘I don’t know what we can do, just deal with it, I guess.’”

But when it comes to climbing temperatures in cities, there are several possible solutions — planting trees in neighborhoods like McElderry Park that have significantly less canopy coverage than wealthier neighborhoods. 

The reporters behind Code Red made sure to emphasize solutions — as well as the steps that city officials have (and haven’t) taken to implement them — in the final installment in the series, titled “Seeking solutions.” 

“What we learned in the course of our reporting was that the problems Baltimore was experiencing were not unique to Baltimore. And that there was a lot of good experimentation going on in cities across the country,” Mussenden said. “And I think the age of, ‘Let’s just tell people what the problems are’ is kind of over. Like if we aren’t saying, ‘Here are very real problems you’ve identified, but here’s what people are doing that could potentially fix it,’ putting options on the table, I feel like we haven’t completely done our job.”

People are also more likely to be motivated to pursue those options when climate change coverage is presented through a local lens. 

“In order for people to come to the conclusion that it is urgent to take action on that problem, you have to make people understand that it is an issue that affects them acutely,” Mussenden said. “If it’s just sea level rising 3,000 miles away, or it’s affecting some sort of endangered species, that’s not going to really drive people toward change.” 

(Photojournalist Amina Lampkin on assignment in Baltimore | Photo by Timothy Jacobsen)

 

• The kids are alright: Code Red is just one example of student journalists utilizing innovative methods to produce in-depth, localized climate coverage. (Check out the “Want to know more?” section to read up on other university and college-led projects.)

Mussenden has noticed a trend forming, and attributes that to a simple fact: younger journalists just seem to care more about climate change — especially since their generation will suffer most from it. 

“All students I’ve talked to between this and racial and economic inequality, these are the two driving issues for many of them and motivated them to get into journalism,” Mussenden said. “So it may be that there’s just more of an understanding about the urgent need for reporting on this at the university level.”


The Future

Mussenden said that he and Kathy Best, director of the Howard Center, have been planning future projects, including climate-focused ones. One of those climate-focused stories isn’t about extreme temperatures, droughts or natural disasters. It’s about housing and homelessness. 

“I’m seeing potential climate change angles there,” Mussenden said. “It pervades every beat pretty much.”

As for how the Howard Center plans to spend it’s $50,000 prize, Mussenden and his team intend to stay true to the collaborative nature of the project. 

“The plan is to take that money and use it to help other journalists build on our work,” he said. “For people next summer who are interested in doing similar stories with sensors and temperature and localize that. We provide code and coaching and sensors and things to get people going.” 

The plan is still in the works, but the team is currently preparing materials with instructions on where to acquire the parts and how to build the sensors, a package of code, and tutorial videos. They may host webinars, or conduct more one-on-one consulting, setting up calls and shipping out sensors to interested journalists and organizations around the country. 

Though certainly altruistic, part of the motivation for this plan purely practical. 

“We got a lot of sensors sitting around,” Mussenden laughed. 


Want to know more?

Since publishing our introduction to climate series, people have sent us a ton of resources that have been created to help newsrooms cover the climate crisis. There were too many to list here, so we created a Google Sheet listing all the toolkits. 

You can find the sheet here

Check out this behind-the-scenes look, published by CNS, into the reporting process behind Code Red. 

Learn about other university-led climate reporting projects, like: 

  • This collaboration between colleges and universities in New Jersey that are pledging to dedicating substantive time and energy to climate coverage. 
  • Indiana Environmental Reporter, an environmentally-focused publication out of Indiana University. 
  • AdaptNY (which served as inspiration for Code Red!), a publication on climate change adaptation policy supported by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. 

Anything to add?

Do you know of any other resources that can help folks covering climate change? Let us know! We’ll add it here to our ongoing list of toolkits and best practice guides for climate reporting. 

See you next Thursday for the last installment in our climate change story!