A, B, C and E of good journalism: Reporting as if the planet and people mattered

Candid weather reporting?

Candid weather reporting?

“Environmental journalism would be a whole lot better if it had more of the three Ss: science, substance and (good) stories. First and last, it has to be good journalism, and that requires accuracy, balance and credibility. Trying to save the world – as some environmental journalists claim to do – does not give them a license to indulge in sloppy journalism, or to peddle conspiracy theories or half-truths.”

This has been my view on environmental journalism for sometime. Several years ago, my good friend (and former editor, The Times of India) Darryl D’Monte quoted me as saying this in UNEP’s Our Planet magazine while surveying the environmental coverage in the media in developing countries.

I reiterated these views today in a talk given to an international group of environmental journalists. The occasion was the 18th APFEJ Congress of Environmental Journalists being held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 19 to 21 October 2009.

My topic was a familiar one: Changing climate and moving images. I used it as a spring board from which to explore some broader issues that concerns every journalist who cares for life on Earth.

I returned to the time-honoured core values of good journalism – Accuracy, Balance and Credibility – and suggested we need one more letter, E – for Empathy. Without this latter attribute, our reportage and analysis would remain clinically cold while the planet warms up, I cautioned.

I also reflected on what it means to be an ‘environmental journalist’ in our troubled times.

For several years, I proudly called myself an ‘environmental journalist’. But I now question whether the growth of environmental journalism as a media specialisation has, inadvertently, ghettoised environmental issues within the editorial considerations of media organisations.

This is not to argue against media professionals specialising in environment or other development sectors such as health, gender or human rights. As issues become more complicated, journalists require sufficient background knowledge, sustained interest and some specialisation to do their job well. But it’s poor strategy to leave sustainable development issues entirely in the hands of ‘environmental journalists’.

At best, they can only weave part of the much-nuanced, multi-faceted tapestry of sustainable development. To grasp that bigger picture, and to communicate it well, we need the informed and active participation of the entire media industry -– from reporters, feature writers and producers to editors, managers and media owners.

Climate change, rapidly emerging as the charismatic mega-issue of our troubled times, could become a rallying call to unify the media and communication industries for this purpose.

Already, there is recognition of climate change’s far-reaching impacts. the UN’s Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change urged a couple of years ago for the global issue to be ‘re-branded’ as a development problem rather than an environmental one.

In this scenario, we urgently need more good journalism that covers sustainable development concerns as an integral part of the mainstream of human affairs. Noble intentions of saving endangered species or ecosystems do not give anyone the license to engage in shoddy journalism.

The pursuit of plain good journalism will make us:
• rigorous in our field investigations and amassing of facts;
• balanced in our analysis of issues, impacts, choices and alternatives;
• committed to staying with evolving, fast-moving stories; and
• adaptable to accommodating new perspectives and knowledge.

It will also give us the courage of our convictions to question conventional ‘wisdom’, challenge established notions and take unfashionable positions when we have to.

April 2007 blog post: Can journalists save the planet?

Wanted, urgent: Reporters Sans Labels!

DW GMF 2009
A top European Union official recently cautioned against the concept of ‘peace journalism‘, under which journalists actively promote peace as part of their coverage of conflicts. His views resonated much with my own reservations about this particular brand of journalism.

Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, made the remarks in a written contribution to the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, held in Bonn, Germany, from 3 to 5 June 2009. I wasn’t there in person, but have been reading up some of the presentations and media coverage of the event.

Javier Solana

Javier Solana

In his wide-ranging talk, on ‘Conflict prevention in the multi-media age – The EU’s role in the world‘, Solana asked: should we incorporate peace journalism into our conflict prevention strategies? Yes, he said, “if this means striving to give as much impartial, quality information as possible to the press and media, in all their forms”.

The Spanish physicist-turned-politician added: “We all want to promote peace, reconciliation and conflict resolution and we want the media to help us in this. The best way in which they can do this is to inform us. This is the journalist’s fundamental task.”

He then sounded a word of caution: “The reporter is there to report. We should be careful not to weigh down the media with additional responsibilities over and above their primary task of providing information. A healthy media environment is diverse and plural; it is there to explain but not take sides. The profession of journalism needs no justification and no sophisticated qualification.”

Solana also referred to the early notion of ‘development journalism’ that was promoted in the 1970s, which called upon journalists in the developing countries to always support their governments’ development efforts. Such uncritical cheer-leading, which resulted in many ‘sunshine stories’ that glossed over problems, eventually did a lot more harm than good: development journalists became mere propagandists for governments pursuing wrong development models that squandered natural resources and brought misery to millions.

In fact, after having been part of the media and communications profession for over two decades, I no longer like to box myself into any category. For some years during my first decade of working life, I proudly called myself an ‘environmental journalist’. I still cover environmental issues with the same interest and passion, but now question whether the growth of environmental journalism as a media specialisation has, inadvertently, ghettoised environmental issues within the editorial considerations of media organisations. I also feel that at one point we became too ‘green’ for our own good.

Show things as they are!

Show things as they are!

This is not to argue against journalists specialising in environment or other sectors such as health, gender, peace or human rights. As issues become more complicated, journalists require a great deal of background knowledge, sustained interest and context to do their job well. But it’s poor strategy to leave sustainable development issues entirely in the hands of ‘environmental journalists’. Or coverage of conflict to ‘peace journalists’.

At best, such specialist journalists can only weave part of the much-nuanced, multi-faceted tapestry of sustainable development. To grasp that bigger picture, and to communicate it well, we need the informed and active participation of the entire media industry -– from reporters, feature writers and producers to editors, managers and media owners.

What we lack – and urgently need – is plain good journalism that covers development, conflict and other issues as an integral part of human affairs. Noble intentions of saving the planet, or making world peace, sound good at beauty pageants. But these catch-all lines don’t give anyone the license to engage in shoddy journalism that lacks accuracy, balance and credibility – the core tenets of the profession. It applies equally to mainstream and citizen journalists.

So it’s time to take a few steps back, grasp the bigger picture ourselves, and then show it as is to our audiences. We need Reporters Without Labels.

The only label worth aspiring to is a good journalist. May their tribe increase!