Challenge of change in reporting climate stories

Published December 3, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Johannes Chua


Johannes Chua

Reporting about the environment and climate is not an easy task — it is not a walk in the park, so to speak. There are a lot of technical details, extensive studies, and sensitive issues to look into. In fact, a few weeks ago, I even underwent a series of intensive workshops on proper climate reporting to learn more. This was conducted by WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers) and supported by Singapore’s Temasek Foundation.

During the workshops, environment journalists from all over Asia “met” online to share the challenges we encounter in our profession. In one of the sessions, a trainer from the UK asked me about my personal experience and I remembered mentioning the challenging task of transforming hardcore environmental data into stories that would attract the readers of Manila Bulletin, most of whom are capable of understanding the usual news or features, but may find it hard to digest an article full of technical or scientific details.

It turned out that my predicament was not alien to the other journalists who are in the same position as me. One editor shared that it was difficult to make climate stories “sexy” or to make it viral unless it is an alarming development, such as forest fires, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. An editor from Malaysia even noted that environment stories are not given the “front page” treatment when in fact, we are talking about the (only) world that we are living in. During the conclusion of the seminars, most of us agreed that we are losing the audience to whom climate change should matter the most — the youth.

The recent COP26, held in Glasgow, was one example. The event, which gathered world leaders and decision makers, was dubbed as “mankind’s last hope to alter the course of climate change.” It was the biggest and most important climate conference of our recent times. Of course, the Philippine media had the event covered, with the Manila Bulletin publishing a front-page story about it and giving the event a series of editorials. Other newspapers, online sites, and broadcast news featured the event, too, with some highlighting the stand of the Philippines as delivered by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III in Glasgow.

But what I’ve learned from the WAN-IFRA training is not just to report an event or to do a feature for the sake of saying that we had it covered. The most important part is not us but our audience. The pandemic has shifted the media landscape and changed how people consume news and entertainment. Thus, it is not about “us” as media dictating what needs to be read or seen, but it is now the audience declaring what he or she wants. And clearly, what they demand from media is not just reportage, but a host of information, which may now include videos, social media art cards, graphic design, and even surveys or games. The youth may learn more about climate change if we “speak” to them via social media platforms such as TikTok rather than a full written feature of what a rise in the temperature to two degrees would mean for coastal towns and climate-vulnerable countries such as the Philippines.

Finding the perfect balance could be the right solution. Technical issues could be mixed with some entertainment. Hardcore topics could be lightened up with visuals and colors. Interviews with environment experts could be turned into quote cards for easy reference. A story on the impact of climate change can include, for example, a video clip of a survivor’s testimony. We are not changing our job description, but transforming (or enhancing) it to become relevant to the times.

This kind of “balancing act” will not only be faced by environment writers and editors but also by those in other “beats,” such as food, fashion, health, motoring, or even sports and entertainment. Like what I’ve said, the pandemic is a game-changer for the media industry, and as we move closer to a semblance of pre-pandemic times, there are norms that will be totally forgotten, habits that will be permanently dropped, and routines that will forever be changed.

(Johannes L. Chua is the editor of the Environment and Sustainability Section)