Wanted: more good reporters

Darryl D’Monte examines the reasons for a decline in environmental coverage in the media in developing countries

The print media in the South tend to take their cue from their Western counterparts in this globalized world. The coverage of environmental issues is no exception, and there has been a backlash over environmental stories in developing countries, just as in the North. Environmental journalists are increasingly seen as do-gooders who wear green badges on their lapels and lack the objectivity their craft demands.

New priorities
Business is now the most coveted beat in newspapers, thanks to a heightened media perception of the interconnectedness of economies and the pervasive belief that economic liberalization is the key to unleashing a country’s productive force. The emphasis is on hardheaded pragmatism. In practice, this often means that the concerns of politics or developers take precedence over long-term social and economic processes which have an environmental base – such as virtually perennial drought.

This is a far cry from the 1980s, when mainstream dailies in countries like India – which has some of the South’s most independent media – had designated environment correspondents. Press attention reached its climax during the Earth Summit in 1992. Due to the extensive coverage at the time, the environment began to be taken seriously as a subject in its own right, rather than being regarded as a ’soft’ beat, like health, generally given to women reporters.

Now print journalists in the South are discouraged from campaigning on issues like the environment, part of a worldwide trend against radicalism of any kind. This is particularly true of the fierce controversy over the Narmada Dam in central India where editors have often pilloried reporters for not presenting ‘constructive’ alternatives to the project. With the increasing moves towards the privatization of infrastructure projects, the media take the view that these big development projects should go through, as long as any adverse impacts – including the displacement of the local people – are mitigated.

A lonely furrow
Environmental journalists are being seen as a somewhat suspect specialized breed whose commitment to a cause is often stronger than to their profession. It has been left to a few small, but influential, journals and news services to plough a lonely furrow. These include Down To Earth, a fortnightly brought out by the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi; the Penang-based Third World Network, which syndicates features throughout the world; and Suara Sam and Utusan Konsumer, popular multi-lingual journals produced by Sahabat Alam (Friends of the Earth) Malaysia and the Consumers Association of Penang. Although based in Western cities, the Interpress, Panos and Gemini news services are also heavily oriented towards the coverage of environment and development issues in the South, and maintain bureaux in Southern capitals.

Some seasoned journalists remain sceptical of the bona fides of many scribes who cover the environment. Nalaka Gunawardene, the Colombo-based regional head of the Television Trust for the Environment in London, says: ‘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 licence to indulge in sloppy journalism, or to peddle conspiracy theories or half-truths.’

Nevertheless the environment beat is still treated as a crusade in many countries in the South with a shorter history of an independent press. Nguyen Diep Hoa, an environmental journalist in Hanoi, says: ‘Journalists’ reports have contributed significantly to raising public awareness among the public, including policy makers and local authorities. However, the press seems unable to tackle big environmental problems (for instance, building a highway and its impacts) since it is difficult to obtain information which is hidden within the top government agencies.’

Ongoing struggle
Despite some doubts, the print media in the South will have to continue to grapple with covering the environment; the degradation of the natural resource base is so severe that newspapers and magazines cannot but take notice. The shortage of water and air pollution are already staple themes in every newspaper throughout the South – and will continue to feature in the news pages for many years to come. But the more professional the coverage is, the more space it will attract, and the more effect it will have on public opinion and policy makers alike

Darryl D’Monte, who is based in Mumbai, is President of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.

PHOTOGRAPH: Ron Giling/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century

Complementary articles in other issues:
Judi Conner: Through a slanted lens (Disasters) 2001
Tom Burke: The greening of Goliath (Beyond 2000) 2000
Sanjoy Hazarika: Bhopal blinded us all (Chemicals) 1997