A global view of a local beat
In the grand scheme of environmental affairs, journalism is almost always an afterthought. The media world seems to return the disfavor: the environmental beat is one of the least prestigious, and the journalists covering it seem to be among the first laid off during tough times; even journalism schools sometimes give it short shrift.
And yet of course, the environment not only needs covering if it is to be protected, it also can present some of the most compelling stories around. Climate change, with all its related issues, may end up being the biggest story of this century. Other issues - the loss of biodiversity, conflicts over fresh water, the long-term health impacts of environmental toxins - are also having profound impacts around the world.
Over the last two decades, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing this relationship from several angles: first as a journalist, editor and author covering the environment for a local newspaper and television program in Thailand; and now as the head of a non-profit Internews project that supports a network of over a thousand local journalists, mostly in developing countries, to cover environmental issues.
It was while working as a full-time journalist that I came to realize first-hand just how important a role the media plays when it comes to the environment - informing the public and policy-makers, serving as a watchdog, explaining difficult scientific concepts in laymen’s terms. This is even more the case in developing countries where other aspects of civil society, such as NGOs and the legal system, may be severely constrained.
The media, in essence, becomes the court of last resort.
For sure, it is not always a fair one. Obstacles, even where the press is thriving, beset coverage of the environment. A lack of resources - the time, money and technical know-how needed to cover a story accurately and in-depth - is probably the foremost problem. Pressure from vested interests - whether they be censoring authorities, influential corporations, or advertisers (and sometimes all three) - is another common problem and can sometimes even be fatal.
Even where such pressure is not overt, advertisers generally influence the media to cover issues of greatest interest to the middle class and the business sector - these are the audiences, after all, with the disposable income they seek. That is understandable, particularly in developed countries where such audiences generally form the bulk of the population.
But that can mean the stories of greatest interest to the rural poor - who still form the majority of the people in most developing countries - often go neglected. Indeed, such topics are often left to an overstretched reporter tasked with covering everything from environment to health to agriculture, or to under-paid stringers who struggle to get their stories into the news at all.
Other weaknesses stem from within the newsroom itself, or from how the media perceives it must cater to its audiences. The media is great at covering problems, but not as interested in reporting on solutions. It thrives on crises, and all too often ignores incremental changes, which is how most environmental change is characterized.
And yet, time and again, I’ve come across individual journalists who have overcome these obstacles to produce fascinating stories about how these changes are taking place, and the impacts they’re having on all of us.
In some cases, their stories have had a direct effect on policy, whether in protecting a national park in Vietnam or cracking down on illegally polluting factories in China. In others, they perform the seemingly more pedestrian role of informing us on a daily basis about the world around us. If you think about just how much of the information you receive comes from journalists - professional or citizen, through traditional newspapers or broadcasters or newer forms of digital media - you’ll realize what an important role they play.
The people who produce these stories are among the most inspiring I’ve ever met. My career is now dedicated to helping them. I’ve joined their cause of trying to explain the natural world and our interaction with it, in a way that is factually based, scientifically accurate, and as fair as we know how to make it.
Over the coming year, this column, appearing on the first Tuesday of every month, will take a look at the issues facing environmental journalism around the globe. It will try to add context to the environmental coverage you may already be receiving, perspectives that may not make it into your local press, and on occasion will be written by international journalists whose reporting may not have received enough attention.
With the crisis facing modern journalism, and a planet undergoing rapid environmental change, these voices are more vital than ever. We need them to help turn global issues into local stories, and to explain how local stories, whether near or distant, are now global.