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FEATURE: Gate-keepers of our news – the power and responsibility of editors to report on climate change

Elizabeth Colebourn, CDKN Asia Project Manager, reports from a CDKN supported retreat for influential editors from South Asia on the opportunities and challenges of reporting on climate change.

A couple sit watching a TV screen showing an image of a polar bear perched on a melting ice cap. The husband asks his wife “why don’t the greenhouse gasses escape through the hole in the ozone layer?”

The public are confused about climate change. In South Asia, the term ‘climate change’ features in the media, but in most cases in connection to doomsday predictions of the end of the world, to  disasters- including earthquakes , and to diplomats in suits in international conferences.

The media are a powerful filter on the information the public receive about climate change.  But, what responsibility comes with this power?  Should journalists be activists or neutral conveyers of knowledge?

CDKN has recognised that the media has the potential to play an important role in the policy-making process for climate compatible development. They can raise awareness and commitment among policy-makers via encouraging public debate and making it a political issue.  Policy-makers also rely on the media for stories from the ground, as well as the latest research and evidence.

As a result CDKN is supporting a Panos South Asia programme to enhance climate change awareness and understanding among journalists in South Asia. A retreat in Kathmandu, 23-24 August, was held for 12 editors from 6 countries in the region. They cover print, TV and radio – from English and local language media – including such influential outlets as The Hindu in India, the Kathmandu Post in Nepal, Geo Television in Pakistan, and the New Nation in Bangladesh.

The programme is unique in emphasising the important role of editors. They are gate-keepers to what is reported, and determine how much space and prominence climate change stories receive.

To make things even more interesting, Panos invited their 24 journalist fellows who are part of a year’s training programme, to join the editors for the retreat.

A.S. Panneerselvan, Executive Director of Panos South Asia explained why: “Journalists blame their editors for not giving them space to write climate change stories. Editors complain that journalists are not coming forward with good quality stories. So, by having them in the same room, they can’t blame each other and we have to find the real reason why climate change coverage is not up to scratch in South Asia.”

The result was a lively discussion on the challenges that both editors and journalists face getting climate change stories into the news:

–          Lack of space and opportunities to look beyond the disasters and deaths to the processes and trends related to climate change. However, the editors pressed the reality of needing to attract readers and viewers, as well as advertisers. As one exclaimed, “I am constantly being ‘reminded’ by my boss that it is an attractive woman on the cover which makes people buy my paper”. For journalists, there are financial constraints to going into the field to find a story. One Nepali journalist explained how he relies on fellowships such as this one to travel and study a subject. However, all editors pleaded to reporters to realise that they were also under pressure from those with a passion for gender, health, and other subjects who also complain about lack of space and resources.

–          The constant pressure to compete for the headlines. A crowded news agenda of terrorism, political intrigue and economic crisis pushes climate change stories to the inside pages in the region.  As one editor exclaimed, “bad news sells – fact. So, for climate change, it is disasters and deaths which will get on the news.”

–          Battling bias. Many media outlets have a political bias that influences the angle and content of a story. As the Pakistani participants complained, the aftermath reporting of the tragic 2010 and 2011 Pakistani floods took a political twist, with different papers blaming different parties. No one is talking about the climate change angle. For some Indians, the complaint was that the business department of the paper rules, with the paper itself under pressure to boost market confidence in the country.  For many, they felt a pressure to ‘beat the national drum’ when talking about regional affairs.

These are realities which cannot be changed overnight, but there are some strategies that the editors shared which can still help to increase the quantity and quality of reporting on climate change:

–          Look to social media, particularly online blogs, to find the extra space needed to dig beyond the sensational headlines.

–          Identify your target audience and select the medium that will reach them. For policy-makers op-eds are effective – something the Hindu has shown.  The Pakistan Express Tribune magazine editor explained his target was to show what actions can be taken by his readers, members of the general public.

–          Make the local connection. A powerful recent story is that scientists have given new evidence of the extent to which the melting of the Himalayas is caused by local pollution – called ‘black carbon’ – suggesting that local people themselves have the power to affect climate change.

–          Choose your language carefully. Avoid clichés, acronyms and jargons. Don’t blame everything on climate change. Be aware of the effect of your words. For example, in Nepali the term for natural disasters is translated as ‘god-made disasters’ suggesting humans don’t play a role. Nature India and the Economist show how to communicate complicated scientific ideas to non-expert audience.

–          Avoid ‘environmental’ journalism. To get on the front page, make the story a political or economic story. As one Nepali editor commented, ‘our concern should not be to save the planet, but to save ourselves and save the economy’.

–          Find the human dimension. The best example of this from the region is Palagummi Sainath, rural editor of the Hindu, whose articles provoked national attention and action on the agrarian crisis in India, by reporting that 17,368 Indian farmers killed themselves in 2009.

Both the editors and journalists leave the retreat pondering the role and purpose of climate change reporting.  Opinion differed – depending on the personal background of the participant, and the type of media outlet they came from – but there was consensus that the purpose was to have an impact. As Kunda Dixit, Editor of the Nepali Times and moderator of the session concluded: “The reason to communicate is to create movement forward. To create action.”

As the journalist programme continues, CDKN and Panos will be testing this idea. We will be showcasing the stories which the journalists produce and tracking the impact that they have. Watch this space for new stories from South Asia which connect the theory and science of climate change, to the reality on the ground.

Read Mairi Dupar’s blog on Gender and Climate Change: iconic stories from South Asia, also from the SACCA Fellows’ retreat.


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