The media's role in the climate change story

From acting as a watchdog on errant corporations to raising awareness, the media has an important role to play in fighting climate change and environmental degradation. But its potential remains largely untapped, say experts.

Journalists have the unique ability to help accelerate climate action through advocacy and education, but their potential to help achieve the global climate goals agreed in Paris last year still remains largely untapped, said media and environmental experts in Singapore. 

Speaking at the inaugural Asian Environmental Journalists Forum, organised by non-profit Singapore Environment Council and media organisation Eco-Business, panellists said that shrinking budgets, a lack of public interest and the ever increasing complexity and geographical scope of climate issues are just some of the challenges that journalists face when trying to report on environmental issues today.  

As Adam Hunt, media and communications director at global media agency Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, put it: “Environmental news can be boring, scientific, complicated and full of gloom and doom.” 

But these issues are nevertheless important, and “journalists have to make sure the audience finds these topics interesting”, he told the 160-strong audience at Orchard Hotel. 

Fellow panellist Prerna Suri, a Singapore-based broadcast journalist, echoed this, noting that environmental reporting often does not garner as much attention or interest as topics like politics or business. A stark reminder of this was the widely-lamented closure of media giant New York Times’ environment desk in January 2013, she added. 

“But if we make the climate and environment a top priority in business and politics, then environmental journalism will be given the same status as economic reporting,” said Suri. 

Another key reason that climate and environment are not hot media topics is because they are difficult to relate to, added panellists at the discussion, which was held as part of SEC’s Asian Environmental Journalism Awards initiative, now in its fifth year.

Ang Peng Hwa, professor of the Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information, said that a key difference between climate news and faster-moving beats like crime, business or politics is that environmental issues are often a series of incremental developments that lead up to an occasional disaster. 

Not only are these gradual incidents seen as less newsworthy than one-off events by audiences, they can also be difficult to relate to because of the complex subject matter, he added. 

The key, then, is for journalists to find ways to centre climate and environmental issues on human stories, said Internews’s Hunt. A compelling example of this is a September 2016 piece by New York-headquartered magazine Vice, which explored deforestation in Cambodia by narrating the story of a journalist who was murdered for his investigations into illegal logging in the country. 

“This is a good way to get people to care,” said Hunt, adding that framing climate data—which is often on a scale that is too large for people to understand—in more relatable terms can also help. Common examples of this include equating the area of forest loss to cities, countries or even football pitches; and comparing energy information to the amount of power used by homes. 

Yuen Sai Kuan, director of Corporate Affairs at the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS), added that another way for journalists to engage people on climate issues was to share positive stories about solutions being developed by individuals, communities and businesses.  

“This helps cut through the pessimism and brings the issue to wider attention,” said Yuen. 

But if we make the climate and environment a top priority in business and politics, then environmental journalism will be given the same status as economic reporting.

Prerna Suri, broadcast journalist

Untangling the science

But public awareness is just half the battle won, said panellists. Perhaps the most challenging task of all was grappling with the subject matter itself, as environmental and climate issues often involve complex facts, terminology and policy language.  

“Journalists often lack the training to understand scientific knowledge thoroughly, and editors today do not have the time and resources to nurture their reporters like they used to,” said Hunt.  

While panellists agreed that news organisations must invest more in capacity-building workshops for environmental reporters, newsmakers themselves can help the journalists understand the issue by explaining the complex science and policy considerations of climate change, said NCCS’s Yuen. 

“This is why NCCS holds regular briefings for journalists to explain policy positions, research, and how climate change will affect Singapore,” he added. 

Without an accurate understanding of climate facts, reporters run the risk of misrepresenting issues and causing undue panic among readers, noted Yuen, citing a November 2015 online news report which claimed that 745,000 Singaporeans would be forced underwater by climate change-induced rising sea levels, as water levels would rise by as much as nine metres. 

However, an analysis by the Centre for Climate Research Singapore has shown that even if no action is taken to curb global greenhouse gas emissions—which are seen as a key driver of polar ice melt—the maximum sea level rise would be about 1.02 metres by 2100.  

“This is where we need to challenge myths and misconceptions, as climate change is a widely misunderstood issue,” said Yuen. “Responsible journalism matters, and ensuring facts are accurate is essential.” 

However, even while journalists strive for accuracy, climate change is one area where they can ignore the rule that requires them to present both sides of the story, he added. “There is no need to balance the reality of climate change with climate denial to avoid perpetuating inaccurate and misleading scientific coverage.”

Even as public and private sector organisations step up efforts to help journalists report on these issues more clearly, journalists also need to reciprocate by giving them as much time as possible to respond, said panellists. 

Belinda Ford, public affairs and communications director for Malaysia and Singapore, Coca-Cola, noted that the company has in recent years taken numerous measures to reduce its power use, improve energy efficiency and cut greenhouse gas emissions. But data on these initiatives and their effectiveness is often complex and requires time to collate, she explained. 

It may therefore not be able to provide all the data necessary with a deadline of just a few hours, said Ford, urging reporters to give newsmakers as much time as possible to respond to queries. 

Cross-border issues; cross-border collaboration 

In coming years, journalists covering the environment and climate change can only expect the issues to get more complex and far-reaching, said panellists. Issues like climate change are inherently global in nature, and trends like regionalisation and globalisation will intensify the cross-border nature of the scientific, economic and political factors that environmental journalists will have to cover. 

“Hence, journalists also have to find the resources to go to more countries to chase stories, and grapple with more complex issues,” said Hunt. 

The good news is, a vast range of resources can help them overcome this, he noted. These range from social media and citizen journalism—where virtually anyone with a smartphone can document issues or become a source—and journalism networks, where journalists can pool resources and ideas, or simply use the organisation’s clout as an inroad to conversations with difficult or evasive sources. 

“Finding new sources of funding can provide journalists with more resources to tell powerful stories,” said Hunt, adding that increasingly, non-profit organisations that are committed to environmental issues are beginning to fund and publish coverage on these issues. 

“It is going to take all of us pushing as much as we can to get our stories on the front pages, and on the social media feeds of regular people,” he added. 

This article was originally published on the National Climate Change Secretariat website. Subscribe to their newsletter here or like their Facebook page to receive regular updates on new articles.

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