The role of environmental journalism in climate change

The role of environmental journalism in climate change

April 05, 2019

The role of environmental journalism in climate change

Sometimes, environmental journalism can be a dangerous profession, as evidenced by the statistics provided by reporters who lost their lives after exposing situations of exploitation of the planet’s resources. But it is also constructive journalism, which encourages people to take action when reporting good practices for environmental sustainability.

Although many people associate environmental journalism with unspoiled wild landscapes, or with fascinating animals and plants, according to Eric Freedman, who runs the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, USA, working in environmental journalism is one of the most dangerous jobs in journalism. Between 2005 and 2016, at least 40 journalists were killed worldwide while working in investigative environmental journalism and investigating environmental pollution incidents. This is more than the war correspondents who died in Afghanistan around that time. The reason is quite clear: environmental journalism, which asks questions and attracts the public’s attention, is a threat to those who have decided to exploit our planet’s resources at all costs through illegal activities, with little concern for short-, medium- and long-term sustainability. 

A matter of awareness

Fortunately, these are extreme cases, although tragic: this profession does not only deal with uncovering the misdeeds of a few dishonest people, but above all, it now has the difficult task of helping to raise awareness of the factors that contribute to accelerating climate change, which is already underway

To do so, it must openly challenge an opponent who does not use weapons, but relies on our common tendency to get distracted, to think of something else, especially when faced with a global issue such as climate change, which calls for global solutions that for the most part have yet to be found. 

As pointed out in a detailed analysis made by the dean of American environmental journalism, Andy Revkin, in the July 2018 issue of National Geographic, the first press articles on global warming as a result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases produced to generate energy were published in the mid-1950s, yet this subject did not make its way into the editorial offices of major newspapers until the late 1980s. Unfortunately, today he concludes: “In the time it took to build the case that climate change is a pollution problem, it’s become unnervingly more than that.” 

A topic poorly covered by the media

But if the situation is this bad, as Washington Post columnist Katrina van den Heuvel recently asked herself, “why don’t the media talk about climate change every day, all day long?”. In a nutshell, her answer is that it is a slow-motion tragedy: or, to use another example, it is as if we were distracted by a great many shrubs and saplings that burn in the midst of frightening flames in the foreground, whereas in the background we can barely see the glow of the embers that slowly consume a forest of centuries-old trees. Sadly, people – and environmental journalism – sometimes place much more value on occasional catastrophic events than on phenomena that are so slow that they are almost imperceptible. 

Environmental journalism, constructive journalism

But even when the latest scientific report predicts a gloomy future, or perhaps an extreme meteorological phenomenon gives us a foretaste of what will come in the near future if we do not act quickly and effectively, the front page news stirs up an emotion that is as strong as it is fleeting, or even a reaction of rejection: after years of alarming warnings, many people are now crying wolf.

This is why environmental journalism first tried to break the vicious circle of an increasingly catastrophic approach, drawing attention also to what we are beginning to do, and to success stories: it is the so-called “constructive journalism”, also known as “solutions journalism”, which attempts to challenge the traditional use of striking headlines while awakening the public’s interest and providing encouraging examples that give hope for the future and encourage everyone to do the best they can.

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