Issue 5/2017

Remedial action

By Tim Altegör, 23 Nov 17
The Correctiv research centre is devoted to righting social wrongs through journalism. Its recent project on sea-level rise highlights just how serious the threat has already become in many parts of the world.

Fiji: 24.8 centimetres. Boston: 12.1 centimetres. Warnemünde: 3.5 centimetres. The numbers may seem small, but their significance is enormous: they describe the amount by which sea levels have risen at these three locations since 1985. The figures are taken from an interactive world map featuring sea-level data from 500 locations around the globe, ranging all the way from from Iceland to Antarctica.

In some cases, the data – collected by a UK agency founded in 1933 – goes back as far as the 19th century, as for the Dutch town of Den Helder; in others, such as the ports of South Africa, it only goes back to 1960. In a few places, like Oslo for instance, water levels are actually falling. But these cases are clearly the exception: at most sites for which reliable data is available, the trend is an upward one. And not just in south-east Asia or the west coast of the US either – large parts of Europe are also affected, including Warnemünde and Cuxhaven.

The map was created by the Correctiv research centre as part of an ambitious journalistic project on climate change – an issue which Annika Joeres feels is sorely neglected in the mainstream media, even in the run-up to Germany’s recent general election. It is nevertheless one of the greatest challenges currently facing humankind, believes Joeres, a reporter at Correctiv who has written for publications including Die Zeit, Spiegel and FAZ.

“Climate change is not some far-off horror scenario"

In an online video to mark its publication, she calls the sea-level project, which she oversaw, the most important research project of her life so far. “Climate change is not some far-off horror scenario – it is already taking a considerable toll on our planet,” she explains in a telephone interview. “That was the message we wanted to get across.” And sea-level measurements seemed to be an ideal way to drive this point home. Whereas satellite measurements began in 1993, the team was interested in historical data and a global perspective so as to make it clear that while rising water levels do not affect the entire human race to the same extent, no one is immune from their impact.

And this makes it precisely the kind of issue that Correctiv deals with: something is wrong, and it is being overlooked by the media despite having a real impact on the lives of a very large number of people. Ideally, the goal is for Correctiv’s reporting to change things for the better. Describing its work as “investigations in the public interest”, the newsroom operates under a model which is still relatively new in Germany. A nonprofit organization with a staff of around 20, it offers its mostly highly detailed research to other media outlets which might not have the time or the means to conduct it themselves.

The work is financed by donations – some from private individuals, but mostly from foundations. The first – and most generous to date – was the foundation set up by the former Essen newspaper publisher Anneliese Brost, which has contributed three million euros since Correctiv was launched in 2014. Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education, RTL, Google and Deutsche Bank were also among the centre’s patrons in 2016. All donations above EUR 1,000 are disclosed online, and according to the editorial charter donors have no influence whatsoever over the editorial team’s activities.

Editors in exile

This approach to financing journalism is more common – and has been around for much longer – in the US: California’s Center for Investigative Reporting, for instance, was founded in 1977. Another well-known example is Pro Publica in New York. Both also seek to put the world to rights by means of investigative reporting. The topics investigated by Correctiv in Germany range from payments received by registered doctors from pharma companies to the cancellation of classes in schools. A local newsroom in Essen focuses on the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, while a team of “editors in exile” led by acclaimed Turkish journalist Can Dündar reports on Turkey under President Erdogan.

However, perhaps the most controversial initiative so far has been the “Echtjetzt” project, devoted to fact-checking news stories and rooting out fake news. A key focus here, though not the only one, is on statements by the German right-wing political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Climate change was already on the group’s radar before the sea-level project. In 2016, it revealed how the pension funds run by Germany’s federal states were investing hundreds of millions of euros in companies with environmentally questionable business models, oil corporations and coal mines. More recently, it published a multi-part online series listing the failures of the black-red coalition in terms of climate action by sector, in collaboration with the online portal Klimaretter.

Journalists from seven countries involved

Like the investigation into the federal states’ investments, the sea-level investigation was a laborious undertaking, says Joeres. It took a team of around ten people almost nine months to evaluate the data and write reports on many of the affected areas worldwide. “It is of course an entirely cross-border issue, and that is how we wanted to investigate it,” says Joeres. Journalists from seven countries were involved, including a team from the Columbia School of Journalism. Joeres herself lives in France.

On a few occasions they met in Correctiv’s offices in Berlin, but communication mostly took place online and over the phone. The results were published in three languages: German, English and French. Asked how the results compare to her expectations, Joeres replies: “We assumed that the effects of climate change would be reflected in the sea-level measurements, but we did not know how great the impact would be.” After all, the threat already posed by rising sea levels to a number of Asian countries and island states is common knowledge, she adds. “What is perhaps less obvious is that the effects are making themselves felt on our own doorstep.” Ultimately, the results were “even more extreme than we had imagined.”

The complete cover story on the effects of climate change is available in issue 5/2017.

 

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