Many investigative reporters are recreational data users, but data alone cannot be trusted.

“You can’t take what is in those databases for granted,” said Kate Golden, a reporter and multimedia producer for WisconsinWatch.org. At the panel “Environmental analyses for any newsroom,” she emphasized the importance of speaking with the lead agency to find out what the data actually means.

During the panel, Elizabeth Lucas a data reporter for The Center for Public Integrity and Golden highlighted a variety of investigative environmental stories such as “Despite lone inspector’s efforts, persistent haze envelops Iowa town” and “Under legal pressure, Wisconsin coal-fired power plants curb emissions.”

Their presentation was chock full of environmental sources and story ideas. To learn about geography, they encouraged journalists to look at shapefiles (used for mapping) published by state or federal agencies, croplands, railroads and plat maps. Journalists could also look into permits for air and water pollution, stormwater and high-capacity wells to build environmental stories. Old industrial sites that are now contaminated or digitalized old maps could be useful for historical stories. View their presentation to get more ideas.

They also reviewed ECHO, which provides searches of EPA and state date for approximately 800,000 regulated facilities. Another popular source was the toxic release inventory site, which was built to “inform citizens of toxic chemical releases in their areas.” To learn more about these and other sites visit these panelists’ tip sheets on EPA data and ways to work with environmental data.

“I almost guarantee that if you take some time and look into this and do some on-the-ground reporting you are going to find a story,” Lucas said, referring to environmental data.

Johanna Somers is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.