TOXIC NEWS: VISUALIZING AIR POLLUTION IN PUBLIC MEDIA

Description

I’m interested in the abilities and constraints of “seeing” toxicity facilitated by public media, drawing on my training in communication, media studies, and STS. For this project, I will focus on air pollution and how it is visualized by public (online) media, such as newspapers, and their data visualization teams. The visualizations are interesting because they address a dispersed public. Further, the figures allow closer scrutiny of their production, e.g. which data they rely on and what kind of reading capacity they facilitate. Limits might be found in the structural absence of data, their contested preservation, and inadequate interpretive capacities. Images can be maps, graphs, and illustrations published by the newspaper, but also adaptations or remixes created on social media. Lastly, they can allow for juxtaposition with images already archived in the Asthma Files.

 

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Created Image: Freeway Pollution – How Close is Too Close?

This is a screenshot of an interactive map, showing a part of the city of Long Beach in Southern California. The map, created by the journalists Jon Schleuss and Tony Barboza at the LA Times, indicates how far a certain part of the city is from a neighboring freeway. The image reveals that the pinned place, ‘Country Club Drive’ is within the “500-foot zone", which is presented as a threshold for unhealthy exposure to traffic pollution. The information is accompanied by the claim that no houses should be built in this area.

The interactive map is part of a larger journalistic project called "Freeway Pollution", that combines housing and pollution data. The latter was collected by the journalists themselves using monitoring equipment and reviewed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the University of Southern California. The encouragement to enter one's current ZIP code is a renewed take on older databases such as Scorecard (see Fortun 2012 on the "informating of environmentalism). The visualization is interesting for bringing two different datasets (location and pollution) together and making claims to stop future housing developments.

 

Found Image: Beijing Before And After The Smog

This found image is a collage of two photographs. Both have been taken on the China Central Radio and Television Tower in Beijing. The left picture was taken as the city was enveloped in smog, while the one on the right was taken at a clean day. The image is part of a series of similar  juxtaposing pictures, which was used in a Guardian news piece to comment on air pollution in Beijing. The concern at time was the first announcement of a “red alert” due to hazardous levels of air pollution.

The toxicity in the image is presented quite bluntly by juxtaposing visuals of “dirty” and “clean” air next to each other. I also find the person using the telescope metaphorical for the attempt to deal with the palpable presence of toxicity which at the same time presents heavily obscured vision.

Found Image: 10 Days of Danger

This is a found image, created by environmental scientist Peter Gleick, which he posted to his Twitter feed on November 19. The image was retweeted about 200 times and was used by the online news website Vox. It depicts a series of maps that visualize the air quality in San Francisco from November 1-18, which have been added to a calendar-grid. The tweet was accompanied by the following statement:  “San Francisco Bay Area has had 10 continuous days of dangerously unhealthy air quality from the devastating November wildfires. This is an uncalculated cost of #climatechange.”

The image speaks to my topic on air pollution visualisation in the news for highlighting the circulation of scientific images in various media. It also emphasises the attempt of a researcher to visualize the progression and accumulation of environmental toxicity in a short period of time, partly by relating individual scientific images to the familiar temporal scale of the monthly calendar.

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Created date

November 24, 2018