OPENING REMARKS: Four wishes for environment journalists

by Tina Malone

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/11 March) — I wanted to start us off today by taking a step back from Mindanao for a moment, to take you up a bit higher in the earth’s atmosphere, to look for a while at the global context, within which we all — as journalists, and as people who study the media for a living — coexist.

I read recently that for the past several years, media analysts have observed a continued decline in the frequency of reporting on climate change around the world.

Weird weather, rising gas prices, and monster tornadoes and typhoons do not seem to have been dramatic enough to stem this decline in interest in, or perhaps tolerance for stories focused on climate change, or global warming, if you will.

The world recently witnessed  “Climategate” — where, in the run-up to the 2010 Copenhagen climate change conference, someone — and we still don’t know who — got hold of and made public thousands of emails between scientists at the U.K.’s Climatic Research Unit and dozens of other scientists throughout the world discussing and debating the science of measuring climate change.

Regardless of the fact that there exists more than 100 years of research involving hundreds, if not thousands, of scientists working across multiple disciplines, critics of climate change — and even media — interpreted this moment to signify weak science, rather than healthy academic inquiry, which some say has had a persistent negative effect on public acceptance of the “inconvenient truth” of global warming.

In my own country, the United States, public debate about climate change continues.  During this election year, the issue takes on even stronger political overtones, as rhetoric sharpens, and voters align themselves with politicians and their platforms.  The science of the matter, is somehow lost in the shuffle.

In this moment, consumers of media are confused by a plethora of opinions and at times conflicting information about issues of environment and climate change.

And to top it all of, we have the reality of the media industry today.

Journalism today, as all of you know, is going through some tough times.  Smaller budgets,  fewer staff, coupled with the reality of a 24 hour news cycle, severely reduce the capacity of journalists to produce balanced, thoughtful reports on any complex topics, let alone the  science-heavy topics of environment and climate change.

While we can rejoice in the fact that online news and social media are spreading more information more widely and rapidly to far more people, I believe that one inevitable by-product of the information age, is that the uncertain fortune of traditional journalism organizations is killing investigative news.

Specialization in reporting is becoming a luxury, as science and environment sections are removed and reporters become generalists by necessity, not out of choice, as their regular reporting duties are expanded.

Balance in reporting often goes out the window, because gathering those differing points of view takes more time than the average journalist has at his or her disposal.

Many global news organizations have closed their foreign bureaus. I have heard bureau chiefs of news agencies around Asia, for example, bemoan the management decisions to cut positions, and downsize their staffs. To cope, they resort increasingly to the “parachute journalist” approach, sending reporters on brief trips to cover breaking news in situations, and in places where they frequently lack the background, sources, or the cultural insights necessary to provide a fully contextualized story.  It even happens here in the Philippines, when a trip from Manila to Mindanao is beyond budgetary means –and the resulting story may be published with inaccuracies, and even assumptions that can belie the reality on the ground.

Along with what I perceive as a generalized and progressive decline in the attention span of the public at large, these days readers, and viewers increasingly vote with their fingertips — and seek out free online content over studied, authoritative reporting.

For anyone who is concerned about the environment, these trends should cause more than a few concerns.

These hindrances have a direct effect on public understanding of how governments and industry are responding to our global environmental crisis.

So this is the global context that we find ourselves in, as we embark today on a three day journey into environmental reporting.

I wish that I could paint you a prettier picture, but I think you might agree with me, that it’s not a great time to be a journalist.  And even less of a great time when you call yourself an environmental journalist.

But the world, at the same time needs journalists more than ever.

And because of this, I want to offer you three wishes, before you begin your work today:

Wish number One, is that you remember the science of the matter..

Politics, and the policy making process is certainly important.  You certainly need to tell our audiences what the political leaders are trying to accomplish, whether they are trying to speed up development, or champion reforestation. They are a big part of the story, and they should be part of your coverage. But don’t forget the scientists.  Seek out scientists who have credible authority to speak on your topic. Interview sources who can help you understand what’s happening.  Find a geologist, an engineer, a chemist with a track record of conducting research in the area, who publishes in the peer-reviewed literature, and who has had a recognized impact on contributing to new knowledge in his or her field.

When partisans present information that they claim is scientific, do not take it at face value.  Subject it to scrutiny. Was it the result of research conducted by a recognized expert in the field? Who funded the research that produced the information?  Was it a private company? A reputable research institution?  Was it published in a peer-reviewed publication? If so, what about other research in the same area of study? And are there truly impartial experts you can speak with? What do they have to say on the subject?

And don’t shy away from seeking wisdom in the primary literature, such as scientific papers and reports. It takes some time, yes, but looking it up yourself can help you when you are trying to weed your way through partisan, or conflicting results and opinions –and help you put these into proper perspective.

Wish number Two, is that you play neither judge nor jury…

Don’t simply pass judgment on who is right and wrong. There are always at least two sides to a story.  Your reporting should analyze the conflicting claims, and subject them to independent scrutiny.  Your role is to help your audience weigh the merits of the varying positions, and to alert them when one side in a debate may be “selecting” their data, or perhaps exaggerating, or downplaying certain facts.  Try to help them understand and distinguish between legitimate analyses and what may be beautifully produced, or presented compilations of information that may also be baseless.

And wish number Three, that you use you power of the pen to effect change…

You as journalists, possess skills that can help change happen.  Environmental activists have long relied on the power of prose to influence society.  But don’t sacrifice the balance of a story in order to carry out your advocacy.  There are other outlets for activism and advocacy, that you as journalists can lend your talents to.  Perhaps by spending some of your own time writing copy for the website of local NGO, or by drafting correspondence to your congressional representative, or for those of you who wield cameras instead of pens, by  producing a video in support of a local fundraising campaign.  But, save your opinions for your private blog, or if you are lucky enough to have one, your weekly column.  News,  investigative reports, should be as balanced as they are well-researched — if your reporting is going to be credible.

And with that, please allow me to make one final wish, number Four, which is that you will all grow as journalists, and as global citizens through the learning that you have accomplished together through this series of trainings.

Five regional media conferences, started in March 2011; the Mindanao Media Summit held in December 2011 in Gen San; and today’s Environmental Journalism Workshop here in Davao.
I look forward to reading and watching the fruits of your labors, as you make use of what you have learned about reporting on the environment, on science and technology, and on risk reduction and disaster management.  

(Opening Remarks of Tina Malone, Press and Information Officer of the US Embassy in Manila on March 10, the first day of the three-day Mindanao Journalists’ Training on Environment Reporting at El Bajada Hotel,  Davao City).