Global leaders on climate change discuss media’s role

Feb 222008

ICFJ's Knight International Journalism Fellowships and The Energy and Resources Institute  recently brought together key leaders who shape climate change policies and the coverage of the topic to discuss the role of the media and the problems in reporting about the subject.

At the meeting in New Delhi on Feb. 9, the top global experts on climate change and development spoke about media, democracy, development and climate change. In this context, they said the main roles for media are:

  • As conscience-keepers of the political process;

  • To get people to think about what they can do about climate change;

  • To bring about change in democracies by getting scientific information to the grassroots

  • To provide consistent coverage, for example, by examining the impact economic developments will have on climate change.

For their part, the journalists outlined problems they face when covering the impact of climate change, such as the difficulty finding experts quickly when they are on deadline and access to data. Among their suggestions:

  • Developing fact sheets on latest environment issues and a constantly updated compilation of climate-change and environment terms to help demystify the issues and keep reporter abreast of developments. These should be available in English and in Indian languages

  • A database of experts available to speak on deadline about climate change and environment issues

  • Training in how to use the Right to Information Act to pry information from reluctant government agencies

The experts at the discussion – among global leaders shaping policy – were Yvo de Boer, the United Nation’s top climate-change official; Rajendra K. Pachauri, head of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Jeffrey Sachs, special adviser to the United Nations Secretary General; and Chandrashekar Dasgupta, a member of the Indian Prime Minister's Council on Climate Change.

The journalists included editors and senior journalists who make the crucial decisions at the frontline of daily coverage, and reporters on the environment beat. Among them were chiefs of (Delhi) bureau of Mint, a financial daily published by The Wall Street Journal and The Hindustan Times, and The Tribune; the Delhi editor of the Hindi-language Hari Bhoomi; the senior journalist who oversees environment coverage at the Hindi-language Dainik Bhaskar; the science editor of NDTV , the biggest 24-hour news channel; the associate editor overseeing the environment beat at the Indo-Asian News Service; the economics editor of the United News of India www.uniindia.com wire service, who also is vice president of the Forum of Financial Writers, a professional organization; and the environment reporter of Businessworld weekly magazine. Nik Gowing, the main anchor of BBC World TV, also attended the session.

The consultation was held on the sidelines of TERI's annual Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, which brought together people at the forefront of the climate change battle. They ranged from Prime Ministers and policymakers to scientists and activists.

Speaking at the consultation held in a roundtable format that I moderated, de Boer said a crucial role for the media is to bring transparency to how governments deal with issues and to act as the conscience in the political processes. He gave the example of a 15-hour discussion on a single sentence that held up the UN conference held in Bali last December to map future action to deal with climate change. He said he asked the conference president to get the dispute “out in front of the cameras” to show how politicians were wasting so much time on one sentence when there were more important issues. Once the word got out, the logjam was broken.

“The media in Bali were very much the conscience of the political process,” said de Boer, who is executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change. “And that, I think, is going to be vital in the future. ... The role of the media will continue to be to make the people aware how their elected representatives are representing their own countries.”

In dealing with impact of climate change in democracies, de Boer, who is from the Netherlands, said the media has to help the democratic process by getting information from scientists to the people. “You cannot have democracy without knowledge and understanding,” he said. “You might have the right to vote. But if you don't know what you are voting on, then your vote means nothing.”

Bringing a constructive approach was the theme of Sachs, who also is the director of the Earth Institute at New York's Columbia University. He said media should focus on solutions, not just problems. There often is an “imbalance” in the coverage because of the focus on the risks of climate change, he said. “After a while, people tune out because it is too discouraging and too frightening.”

On the other hand, “if what the coverage describes is not only the risks but also the possible approaches and solutions, the people tune in because everybody is interested in solutions and they would like not only to be reassured but find a place for themselves to play a constructive role in solutions.” Therefore, he said, journalists should “turn more attention to practical solutions right now and showing pathways, what it will cost to accomplish and how to go about doing that,” said Sachs.

Speaking as a scientist, Pachauri complimented journalists on a marked improvement in science writing: “I have seen a remarkable transformation of the ability of the media in being able to write about scientific issues, particularly as they relate to climate change,” said Pachauri, who also heads TERI.

About the role of journalists, Pachauri said that solutions to the problems of climate change “can only come about if the media is active, particularly in democratic societies.”

“Democracy is not merely going out and voting,” he said. “It is essentially means by which you involve the people” in making decisions and finding solutions. In any effort to prevent a worsening of climate change and deal with its effects, “unless there is the involvement of the community, you are not going to get anywhere,” he said. “This is clearly not an issue that can be solved by purely top-down approaches. There has to be a wholehearted momentum at the grassroots level to bring about change.”

Emphasizing the need for clarity in reporting about the science behind climate change, Pachauri said, “Change will come about only if the people understand the scientific realities of why we need to fight climate change. If you don't get that message clearly, then obviously you are not going to see any change whatsoever.”

Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace last year on behalf of IPCC,  expressed a contrarian view about the future of journalism: The competition among media will result in a competition for “quality” and lead to better coverage of important issues. Rape, murder and sensational news cannot alone continue to hold the interests of readers, he said. Recognizing this will make media seek “quality” stories that touch people more directly.

Echoing a general complaint about media's coverage of the environment, Dasgupta said, “In India, we have seen a significant increase in the coverage of climate change. But it still remains episodic in nature and news coverage is devoted to a special climate related event.”

“What we need is a more continuous coverage,” he said. The way to do this is for journalists to look “at the climate implications of any major economic development . What we need to do is to focus on impacts of climate change and on adaptation.” He suggested that journalists look at the government's next Five Year Economic Plan to see what's going to be done to help India cope with the impacts of climate change and how it will impact development.