Linking ‘weather’ to ‘climate’: Journalists’ big challenge then…and now!

L to R - Nalaka Gunawardene, Jesper Zolk and Bahar Dutt
At IFEJ 2009 Congress on 28 Oct 2009: From L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene, Jesper Zolk and Bahar Dutt

I used to describe my job as one where I try to make sense of our topsy-turvy world. But I’d happily settle for the simpler description ‘connecting the dots’. This is what we as journalists covering development issues must do everyday in our work:
• link the macro with the micro; and
• find inter-relationships and inter-dependencies that aren’t always very self-evident.

This reminds of me a piece of advice given by the late Tarzie Vittachi (1921-1993), the Sri Lankan-born journalist and editor who was a pioneer in development journalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Long before climate change became an issue, he was speaking metaphorically to fellow journalists when he said: “Ordinary people live and work in the day-to -day weather. Most can’t relate to long-term climate. It’s our job, as journalists, to make those links clear.”

When Tarzie made this remark, some three decades ago, he was speaking metaphorically. Times have changed and now we are literally dealing with weather and climate issues.

Making those links is not always easy, especially if we want to avoid sensationalism, scare-mongering and other excesses that often characterize media coverage on climate change.

I made these observations when chairing a session on the North-South differences in the electronic media (television) coverage of climate change in New Delhi, India, this week. It was part of the latest international congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), held at India Habitat Centre from 28 to 30 October 2009. Its theme was “Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change: Journalists’ role in Reaching an Ambitious Agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen”.

Participants – over 100 journalists covering science and environmental issues, from all over the world – recognised how climate concerns have extended beyond strict environmental (or ‘green’) issues to mainstream political, business and even security coverage in the media.

Joining me on the TV panel were two experienced journalists from news and current affairs channels — Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of TV2 News, Denmark, and Bahar Dutt, Environment Editor of CNN/IBN, India.

As it turned out, they were a great panel – they knew a lot, and being TV journalists, also knew how to say it well and concisely. This was the second time that Bahar – one of the best known faces on Indian television today – and I have been on a panel together: almost four years ago, at IFEJ Congress 2005, also in New Delhi, she joined me to discuss ‘Does TV do a better job on environmental reporting?’

I opened my panel by showing this cartoon, one of my favourite when it comes to climate coverage in the media:

Can we blame him for the confusion?
Can we blame him for the confusion?

We cannot assume much more knowledge and understanding in our average TV viewer than the confused guy in this cartoon, I said. So just how do we reach out and engage millions like him (and also the better informed viewers like his fellow viewer)? How do we tell this complex, still unfolding story within the time limits of 24/7 news television, I asked.

We didn’t find all the answers in 75 minutes of our session, but at least we clarified and agreed on a few points. Bahar Dutt’s observations were particularly relevant, especially since India now has over 500 news and current affairs TV channels broadcasting to a billion plus audience in over a dozen languages.

At a time when mainstream media elsewhere in the world are struggling to stay on in business, the Indian broadcast media remain ‘chaotic but robust’, she said. “But editorial filtering is not always very strong in some of our channels, which sees climate coverage ranging from no coverage at all to hysteria,” she added.

According to Bahar, much of the climate coverage in the Indian media overlooks the links with broader development issues. “Focus is often on climate treaty negotiations, or what individual experts or politicians say. These elements are only part of the bigger picture, and we need to look further and dig deeper.”

Bahar Dutt
Bahar Dutt at IFEJ 2009
“Environmental journalists are not green activists, and our role is to be watchdogs – keeping a sharp eye on government, industry and even civil society,” Bahar said. “But sometimes I find this watchdog role lacking in our media.”

Her advice to fellow journalists: stop seeing environment as simply a green and ‘cuddly’ sector, and move it into the political arena.

Jesper Zolk, Climate Editor of Denmark’s TV2 News, said his biggest challenge was how to get the pampered western viewers to change their lifestyles to be more climate friendly.

He urged journalists to focus not just on problems, but also on viable solutions. He expressed a concern that some journalists covering environmental issues sound more like green activists — a point that Bahar Dutt also agreed on.

She made another perceptive observation: people who have the least carbon footprint are the most keen to take action to mitigate climate change. That’s because they realise they are often the first to be impacted.

Our genial and erudite host Darryl D’Monte, chair of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI), had earlier asked participants to reflect on whether the media is part of the problem or the solution in the current crisis.

On the road to Copenhagen and beyond, we have our work cut out for us. As the Danish Ambassador to India, Ole Lønsmann Poulsen, quoted John F Kennedy in his opening remarks as saying: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”