Asia-Pacific Analysis: Is media reporting of climate change adequate?

Development workers provide aid to people affected by Typhoon Haiyan in Tolosa, Philippines in 2013 Copyright: Adam Dean/Panos

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  • Coverage of climate change is inadequate in the Asia Pacific region
  • Reports generally stick to traditional disaster coverage without context
  • Media training can equip journalists to deal with climate change better

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With climate change an undeniable fact, there is a need for better media coverage of the phenomenon.

Climate is changing, whether US President Donald Trump believes it or not. What used to be inconvenient truths are now incontrovertible facts.

Some facts according to the US Global Change Research Programme Climate Science Special Report (2017): The global average surface air temperature has increased by about one degree Celsius over the last 115 years (1901—2016). This period is now the warmest in modern history.
World average sea level has risen by about 17-20 centimetres since 1900, with almost half of the increase (about 7 centimetres) happening since 1993. Thousands of studies by researchers around the world have documented changes in surface, atmospheric and oceanic temperatures as well as melting glaciers, diminishing snow cover, shrinking sea ice, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and increasing atmospheric water vapour.

“Local media coverage is largely confined to traditional disaster reporting of casualties, physical destruction and damage to property, as it should be. But there is little contextual reporting and explanation of why these natural disasters are happening more often and more violently”

Crispin Maslog

Human activities, especially greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions, are the main cause of global warming since the middle of the 20th century. Climate change, if left unchecked, threatens the survival of humans, especially the mini island nations of the Asia-Pacific region, some of which are only three meters above sea level.

Abundant disaster reporting, insufficient context

What is the role of media, science media in particular, and journalism schools in general, in addressing this problem? What are Asia-Pacific’s mass media and journalism educators doing about this threat?

It is heartwarming to note that mass media are aware of the climate change phenomenon and its implications for the region and the planet. Media organisations do report extensively on the problem. There is abundant and competent coverage of climate change events like typhoons, floods, droughts and forest fires by international media organisations like SciDev.Net, Pacific Media Centre in Auckland, CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.

Specifically, local media coverage is largely confined to traditional disaster reporting of casualties, physical destruction and damage to property, as it should be. But there is little contextual reporting and explanation of why these natural disasters are happening more often and more violently. This is a sentiment shared by CNN Philippines senior editor and journalism professor Jose Carlos.
“I tend to agree,” Carlos tells SciDev.Net. “There are more disaster narratives, fewer stories on how people in various strata of society are being affected, and how they are adapting or finding solutions. There is also less focus on the Philippines’ role and responsibilities under UN climate change negotiations. Most often, climate change as a news subject in the Philippines, is treated as part of ‘disaster reportage’ or ‘doomsday scenarios’.”
Carlos adds: “Journalists, academe and NGOs have varying verdicts on media reporting. The Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists says coverage is generally poor, but it’s improving.  Academe is unhappy.  (They say) media coverage on disaster risk stories is mostly event or incident-oriented, lacks backgrounding, has insufficient contextualisation.”

A media educator from Indonesia, Hermin Indah Wahyuni of the Centre for South East Asian Social Studies, also tells SciDev.Net: “Climate change issues have been shaking up countries worldwide, but Indonesia is among the least concerned. The coverage by the country’s mass media of environmental problems occupies only a small proportion of total media reports, regardless of the fact that Indonesia is facing some serious environmental problems, such as deforestation, haze disaster, droughts, floods. . .”

Journalism education and climate change

Disaster reporting, which focuses on deaths and casualties for the benefit of local readers, is understandable. However, the mass media also need to explain in depth the causes of climate change.  Contextual climate change reporting can be taught to journalists by journalism schools if they have enough trained faculty and resources.
But Asia-Pacific journalism schools are not able to do this, to cite a paper we published in the Pacific Journalism Review (2017), which was based on a small survey of 20 schools in the region. (1)

The impression we got from the survey and based also on our experience is that formal science and environmental education and training in the region are thin and limited. In our experience, journalists who have taken formal courses in science and environmental journal­ism are rare, and schools offering courses or programmes in science and environmental reporting are even rarer.
Some of them are Beijing Normal University, East China Normal University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China; and University of the Philippines Los Baños and Silliman University in the Philippines

.Furthermore, the schools offering science journalism courses lack qualified faculty. There was awareness of climate change as an important issue but the capacity to offer science journalism courses was missing.
The schools we surveyed agree that enough attention is being paid to the status of climate change refugees and the human rights issues involved. They also agree that Asia-Pacific mass media are keeping up with science, “but this is not a particularly dramatic story to cover except when there are disasters”.

There is a vacuum in formal science and environmental education in the Asia-Pacific region. In the absence of formal science education for journalists, we have noted the phenomenon of non-formal or non-degree trainings on science journalism and climate change reporting conducted by international communication organisations/NGOs and development agencies such as the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) and the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC). National governments’ departments or ministries of science and technology, and of environment and natural resources, also engage in such training.
In addition to this, we have seen a trend for the mass media industry itself to conduct training programs which are more tailored to its needs. In the short-term, this is probably a more practical way to go in terms of climate change journalists’ training. Formal degree programmes require too much time and resources.
But for the long-term, there is a need for a wide-scale, systematic upgrading of the science communication/science journalism training programmes in the universities with the help of UN agencies like UNESCO.

1. Maslog, C. Asian journalism education and key challenges of climate change: A preliminary study, Pacific Journalism Review 23 (1) 2017
2. Wahyuni, H.I. Mainstreaming Climate Change Issues: Challenges for Journalism Education in Indonesia
Crispin C. Maslog, former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and former science professor, Silliman University and UP Los Baños, Philippines. He is a founding member and now Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Manila.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.