Whose voices are not heard in climate change journalism in China, India, Thailand and Singapore?

The mainstream news outlets of the four countries were similar in their heavy use of government sources. The crowding out of voices that can provide alternative viewpoints could have major implications, researchers say.

ICIMOD journ training
A 2015 journalist training workshop by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which works behalf of the people of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region. Image: Utsav Maden/ICIMOD, CC BY-NC 2.0

Despite different news cultures, degrees of press freedom and levels of responsibility for global warming, the mainstream news outlets of four Asian countries are remarkably similar in their heavy use of government sources when reporting on climate change, a new study has found.

Scientists, activists, the public and business interests are represented to a much lower degree in the climate change reports of mainstream news outlets in China, India, Thailand and Singapore, the study found.

Given that climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable populations around the world, the crowding out of voices who could provide alternative viewpoints from public discourse could have major implications, said researchers from Indiana University in the United States and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

“We can’t always trust government voices to represent issues fairly. When it comes to environmental issues, for example, there can be a conflict between what the government or large corporations want and what local people will experience (on the ground),” one of the researchers, Assistant Professor Suzannah Evans Comfort of Indiana University’s Media School, told Eco-Business. “Regular people are relatively disempowered in these conflicts, and the news media doesn’t help when it won’t even include them in news stories that affect their communities.”

The researchers analysed the content of 3,781 articles published by four outlets—Chinese state news agency Xinhua, The Times of India, The Nation (Thailand) and The Straits Times (Singapore)—written over more than two decades.

Despite being a state news agency and not a newspaper, Xinhua was chosen because it holds an important place in the Chinese media system and sets the agenda for other news outlets in the country, said the study authors, who also included Mike Gruszczynski of Indiana University and Edson Tandoc of NTU.

The stories contained the terms “climate change” or “global warming”, and were substantially about the topic. They were published between 1995 and 2017, a period that “captured the emergence of climate change as a major news topic in those countries”, noted the study, Who is heard in climate change journalism? Sourcing patterns in climate change news in China, India, Singapore and Thailand.

We can’t always trust government voices to represent issues fairly. When it comes to environmental issues, for example, there can be a conflict between what the government or large corporations want and what local people will experience (on the ground).

Suzannah Evans Comfort, assistant professor, The Media School, Indiana University

Among the findings:

  • All four news outlets studied showed greater attention to climate change in more recent times. There were peaks in attention in 2007, 2009 and 2015, the years in which major United Nations climate change conferences took place.
  • Xinhua was least likely to feature business industry sources (only 3.3 per cent of the articles analysed), whereas the other outlets were three times more likely to feature business sources.
  • Xinhua used fewer members of the public as sources, compared to the other three outlets.
  • The representation of scientists was relatively low. The Times of India was most likely to feature both activist and scientist sources.
  • The Straits Times used the fewest news articles from foreign sources such as wire agencies, relying largely on its own staff.
  • Business sources were the only type of source that were more represented over time, suggesting they are “inserting themselves more into public discourse on climate change”.
  • Political voices denying man-made climate change, or climate denial, were virtually non-existent, unlike in places like the US.

Activists and members of the public were rarely represented in the Chinese, Thai and Singaporean news outlets studied, at less than 10 per cent. Coupled with the reliance on official sources, this suggests that “marginal or dissident voices struggle to be visible in public discourse on climate change”, the authors wrote.

“Journalists, even in freer press systems… are oriented to establishment sources, who are accessible and often are motivated to communicate their perspectives to the public. Government sources also have the authority and the resources to stage events, such as press conferences, to push their agenda into the media agenda,” they noted.

The researchers said their study is an early step towards a greater understanding of the relationship between journalists in countries among the most affected by a warming planet, their sources and a changing climate.

How are policy measures like the intended nationally determined contribution commitments getting translated to local action?  

S Gopikrishna Warrier, managing editor, Mongabay-India, on the need for more news reporting linking national and local issues

Countries with distinct media systems and that represented different levels of vulnerability to, and responsibility for climate change were selected. India ranked most highly among the four on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2018 (138th out of 180 countries, followed by Thailand (140th), Singapore (151st) and China (176th).

China is the world’s largest carbon emitter in absolute terms, while India is third. Per capita, low-lying Singapore’s emissions were highest among the four countries in 2017, at about 11.34 tonnes. This was followed by China (6.98 tonnes), Thailand (4.79 tonnes) and India (1.84 tonnes). 

Thailand was also ranked among the top 10 countries most impacted in 2017 by extreme weather events such as storms and heat waves, in terms of deaths and socio-economic losses, according to the Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index. The kingdom suffered heavy floods that year. 

Comfort said the authors would have wanted to include more countries in the study, but digital news archives are not always available for such a long time frame.

More field coverage, stories linking national and local issues needed

Environmentalists and journalists approached by Eco-Business felt the findings were true to a certain extent.

Keya Acharya, president of the Forum of Environmental Journalists in India, agreed that there is a primary reliance on official quotes for climate change reporting in the country.

While total reliance on foreign news reports by The New York Times or The Guardian are a thing of the past, “we still need more coverage from the field” on climate change, she said.

On the finding that The Times of India featured activists and scientists most among the four news outlets, Acharya said: “I could argue that it’s possibly because the Times of India has several news pages to fill (it owns many news outlets in English and in regional media), giving it more space than others have.”

S Gopikrishna Warrier, managing editor of environmental news site Mongabay-India, said there are two steady streams of climate change reporting—one at the policy level and the other, at the local level.

Many stories on climate change are related to national or state government policies and report the government voice. As for UN climate conferences, many stories before, during and after the meetings are on the negotiating position that the Indian government is taking, and rely on official voices, he noted.

However, there are many ground-level, local climate change stories reported by newspapers and media outlets in India, said Warrier.

“They do not necessarily depend only on government sources. In fact these stories are mostly driven by anecdotal evidence from villagers or local communities, and then the journalists check with scientists and scientific institutions,” he said. “The local non-governmental organisation or citizens’ group would have attracted the attention of journalists to the story, and thus their voice is also reported.”

It is the linkages between national and local issues that lack media coverage, he said. “How are policy measures like the intended nationally determined contribution commitments getting translated to local action? Is communication happening between the national government and the state governments? How are national targets communicated to district-level officials?”

While Warrier would like greater representation of women and poor and marginalised communities in climate reporting, Singaporean environmentalist and independent writer Kathy Xu said it is important to have more voices of scientists and the general public.

For Xu, The Straits Times is “hardly ever a first option for climate news” due to its focus on the government agenda, although there are well-read and open-minded journalists in its ranks. She mostly seeks out credible people on Facebook and the news they share.

The public’s voice is important in news on issues such as the preservation of climate-mitigating nature reserves, and whether state funds and taxpayers’ money are being invested in non-sustainable activities or fossil fuels, said Xu, the founder of eco-tourism business The Dorsal Effect, which provides alternative livelihoods to former shark fishermen in Indonesia.

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