Promoting media, climate engagement

While climate change has firmly penetrated mainstream media agendas, media practitioners should find new ways to sustain attention overtime to stay relevant.

CLIMATE challenges have spread their negative footprints globally and developing countries have been hit hardest for the usual reasons and stereotypes, like weak coping mechanisms, lack of serious technology transfers, failure to embrace renewable energy transitions and failure to attract foreign direct investment, among others.It is the role of media that has come under scrutiny, due to its essential role of disseminating useful climate information and effectively guiding public debate and understanding weather and climate information services.

Rural communities living in marginal areas are viewed as vulnerable, while also lagging behind in terms of media coverage, are often the least informed and covered. Africa is the most vulnerable continent to the adverse impacts of climate change, but it does not seem to receive adequate coverage by its local media. This is not to rule out the role of African media completely, but its media needs to be more visible and active in educating the public about climate change.

Media engagement is supposed to be ongoing rather than being circumstantial so that its role of helping to shape public policy remains key. Mainstreaming journalists at the heart of climate change reporting requires regular training and specialisation, while seriously considering the diverse nature of the subject of climate change.

Journalists’ competences need to be streamlined according to areas such as climate finance, adaptation, mitigation, communication, natural disasters, loss and damage, weather, droughts, circular economy issues, climate health and wellbeing, water conservation and agriculture, among others. 

This is significant in the sense that specialisation empowers journalists with context specific discourse tools of that area so that every word does not mean anything in climate change. Without these tools of engagement, journalists may not be comfortable to cover climate change and its related issues.

Climate-related discourses like increasing temperatures and sea level rise, changing of precipitation patterns, extreme weather events, water scarcity and moisture stress will soon become clichés if the media does not transform its reportage as these phrases have repeated over and over again. Media roles should help the public understand both the science and policy implications of climate change. Communicating climate information to the public in versatile and empowering ways is key and the media comes in as an important player in climate change communication.

This is where visuals, digital tools and storytelling, photographs of climate change impacts help to tell the climate story. Climate change participatory techniques like drama, dances, role-plays, simulations, music help to form engaging climate narratives as propagated by the media.

These pathways become instrumental and transformative even when the public is not in a position to read scientific reports, climate websites and blogs. The other key component is that the media storylines should narrow the information gaps between public perception and the media reporting of climate change. No matter how complex climate change can be, the public will always have its expectations from the media hence it is the duty of the media to tone down and communicate appropriately and effectively using the people’s local experiences as they apply to climate change.

Media houses need to stitch local experiences together so that people can connect them to their everyday lives. By so doing the media would play key roles in shaping public perceptions and climate policy agendas. 

Therefore, communicating climate information according to how users understand and apply is a critical resource to support adaptation in developing countries.However, journalists are faced with numerous challenges in their attempts to cover complex issues of climate change. Climate change is not even a prerequisite for many countries’ educational curriculum hence it comes afterwards as separate training. Furthermore, very few countries have schools or institutions offering climate change media reporting as diploma or certificate course. Journalists, who are lucky can attend short courses, summer schools or boot camps which normally require travelling whose cost their media houses cannot afford unless these are fully funded. Some journalists lack basic knowledge of scientific issues to interrogate climate change and tackle complex technical scientific concepts.

Many journalists are not able to calculate and quantify damages caused by the impacts of climate change.

The other worrying issue is that journalists are employed by media houses which have their house policies to be followed hence they should toe the line lest they find themselves out of work. Media is a critical agent in the way the climate change issues are framed in public opinion. In climate change political frames, journalists have no choice but to praise sing those in authority not taking into consideration any climate action on the ground. Although the media is a powerful tool, it must operate within the interests of the media organisation or government of the day, if the media house is a public broadcaster.

While climate change has firmly penetrated mainstream media agendas, media practitioners should find new ways to sustain attention overtime to stay relevant. Furthermore, media affords people, the right to information which is critical to help countries and communities to make informed decisions, important in changing their attitudes and behaviours accordingly to avoid actions or policies that compound the climate crisis.

Journalists in developing countries have lots of catching up to do in terms of keeping abreast with the vast and rapid global climate change landscape.  They should research, read widely and orient themselves with fast changing discourses and linguistic tools used to communicate climate science information. Journalists need to have vocabulary depth and diversity to present climate change information in cross-cutting and empowering terms.

  • Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on: [email protected]

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