Poor countries’ media must tackle climate change

Cycling through polluted air in Lanzhou, China Copyright: Flickr/anssel

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Climate-change reporting is woefully inadequate because too often editors lack interest and assign writers without expertise, says James Fahn.

When Zhang Ke, a Beijing-based reporter for China Business News, traveled to Liupanshui in 2006, he was surprised to hear the deputy mayor tell visiting inspectors that the city had no coal or chemical plant, and the best air quality in all of Guizhou Province.

He did some independent checking and found that the city had actually launched a power station project without due process; that there were water pollution hazards, even for drinking water; and that there were more than 30 coking plants emitting lots of pollutants, including greenhouse gases.

Zhang Ke informed the inspection team, which, after its own investigation, ordered that the deputy mayor be fired and the illegal factories cleaned up. And he wrote a story for his paper that earned him a national award for environmental journalism.

Media coverage is crucial

Improving media coverage of climate change issues is critically important for tackling the challenges of global warming, and Zhang Ke’s piece is one of many worldwide that have led to a policy response.

For instance, Andy Revkin’s 2004 New York Times story, "Bush vs. The Laureates"and Dan Vergano’s 2005 USA Today piece on "The Debate’s Over: Globe Is Warming" are said to have shifted the stance of the notably skeptical Bush administration.

Unfortunately, in the developing world, which includes the countries most at risk and least able to cope with climate change, coverage is woeful.

In one of the worst examples, a TV journalist in Indonesia last December actually reported that the greenhouse effect was the result of too many glass skyscrapers being built.

At a climate change workshop held earlier this year in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta — a vital agricultural zone projected to be hard hit by rising sea levels — most of the local journalists admitted they knew little or nothing about the issue. A two-month study of five major Vietnamese newspapers in late 2007 found that only two or three stories on climate change were published per month, and these largely consisted of dry quotes from officials, with little or no explanation of how a changing climate would affect readers.

Inexperience and vested interests

The reasons why climate change issues are poorly covered or go unreported are many and complex, as I’ve discovered in heading a programme that provides environmental journalists with training and networking opportunities. Environment, science and climate change are not considered prestigious beats, and are often assigned to young and inexperienced journalists, or to staff who are also asked to cover a huge range of issues from health to agriculture. They don’t have the time or budget to research stories in-depth, and often lack scientific expertise.

Yet the most formidable obstacles may be their own editors — many of whom aren’t interested in or don’t understand climate change issues — or vested interests. For example, energy companies are major advertisers and many would prefer such issues were downplayed. Recent studies suggest climate change coverage is improving in developing countries as editors (and governments) are taking more notice of it. But progress is slow.

Journalists and media organisations in the developing world who want to cover climate change deserve more support — from research institutes, who could do a much better job at outreach; from national and international climate-related agencies, who should try harder to accommodate the media’s need for locally relevant information; and, in particular, from multilateral, bilateral and private aid agencies.

Donors who fund climate change work usually treat media and communications support as an afterthought. But the research and action plans they fund will have limited effect if they are not communicated to the public and policymakers. The media has both the reach and credibility to make all stakeholders take climate change issues seriously.

Ways to help

There are plenty of ways to assist. Journalism schools in developing countries can be helped to cover science and the environment in their curricula. Research institutes can develop better outreach programmes. New media organisations can be established to focus specifically on climate change and its impacts, particularly using digital platforms. Working journalists can be trained, and senior editors persuaded, to improve their coverage.

Just ask Zhange Ke. It was his experience at a workshop on environmental journalism, organised by China’s Capital Youth Journalists Association and Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, that emboldened him to investigate the claims of Liupanshui’s deputy mayor.

"I was inspired by the workshop and learned how to do investigative reporting," he explained, "So when the deputy mayor told us that there were no coal and chemical plants in his area of jurisdiction, I thought it was time to try what I had learned."

There are thousands of journalists out there eager to do just the same. It’s time to help them.

James Fahn is a Thailand-based journalist and the executive director of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.