Honing the green pen
Youths can highlight environmental concerns as citizen journalists who dig deeper into the issues.
LAST Saturday, I had a productive day where I conducted a session on citizen journalism to participants of #PowerShiftMsia, a 5-day workshop camp organised by a group of climate change advocates to cultivate young environmental leaders in Malaysia.
#PowerShiftMsia was borne out of the determination to create a national movement calling for climate action. It is the local offspring of a global initiative, Global Power Shift, a summit in Turkey held last June and attended by young climate leaders around the world. These climate leaders then took away new knowledge and skills to start their own initiatives in their own countries.
My one-hour session introduced them to citizen journalism – a new wave of journalism that is participatory and guerrilla and gaining ground all over the world, so much so that even CNN and The Guardian have micro-sites dedicated to citizen journalists.
To prepare for my session, I needed some examples of environmental reporting done by citizen journalists but it was harder to find than expected, especially new stories. After the furore over Lynas had died down, it seemed so too had the focus on the environment. News reports on the environment in general, are too few and far between.
It reminded me of a project that I was once a part of when I was attached to Wild Asia (an environmental advocacy group). The project was called Responsible Journalists and our aim was to see an increase in environmental stories by inspiring and encouraging practicing journalists to report more on green issues.
Part of this project was to conduct quantitative research to gain insight into the state of environmental news reporting in Malaysia.
Based on the research, we found that environmental news in Malaysia rarely makes it to the front page unless it is disaster-related. It’s only when there is a big flood, or a massive earthquake, or haze that seems to last forever, that the media produces more stories related to the environment or climate change.
Suddenly, there’s a surge of “experts” taking their cue to speak about the climate, sustainability, clean energy, etc. Then just as quickly, it all dies down. What I find lacking is a continuity of environmental issues in our media. Because, when something is no longer “trendy” or “significant”, environmental advocacy groups will find it harder to be heard and taken seriously.
But the media is a business and at the end of the day, news that sells is what really matters. Unless you are a media organisation that makes it a point to highlight issues of public interest, rather than merely reporting what he or she says. On a more positive note, I am beginning to see more local news agencies taking a risk and initiative to be more investigative.
Environmental news can sometimes come off as purely “press conference” or “push” reports, meaning that the reporter was sent to cover the story and an article was published because an organisation or government agency called for a press conference.
This practice needs to change to cultivate a culture of environmentally-aware reporting. Environmental journalism in the international media feeds off robust civil society movements, and greater exposure for these groups give them greater influence and enable them to grow and get more resources to conduct extensive research, which in turn benefit the media as credible sources of information. They are thus partners in generating news, rather than “environmental thugs”, as the authorities once branded a certain vocal, green advocacy group.
But environmental issues can be quite complicated and complex to wrap our heads around. Until today, there are still a lot of lay people who can’t really understand climate change and it does not help to have naysayers negating facts and evidence with their own muddled justifications of why natural disasters are getting more frequent and intense this past decade. Especially when these naysayers are authority figures!
In order for environmental news to appeal to the public, the complex issues need to be first understood by the journalists and then distilled for the reader. News stories with a strong visual appeal also buy the interest of readers. That is why I love the infographics at Good (good.is) which are interactive as they break down facts and figures in visually appealing tables, charts, graphs and other visual forms.
To make an issue or topic consumable, I really think there needs to be a combination of text, visuals and interactivity. We live in a highly-mediated world and our attention span is shrinking, so environmental journalism really needs to play catch up. Given the increasing prominence of environmental issues in our lives and public policy, it is important that we improve the quality and accessibility of environmental journalism to nurture an aware and informed public.
The beauty of citizen journalism is that you are not bound by media constraints – however it must be noted that a distinction must be made between a citizen journalist and a blogger whereby the former is, to an extent, still guided by journalism ethics and practices.
A strong citizen journalism movement in the country can fill gaps in our environmental journalism.
So, as young environmental leaders learn how to harvest and harness their passion for the environment into activism, they should not underestimate the power of the media. And, they definitely should not dismiss the possibility that power lies in their own hands.
Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society (ies). Write to her at star2@ thestar.com.my
Taking the initiative: youths can advocate green causes as citizen journalists. This is a file picture of ahmed al-Omran, a well known Saudi blogger.