Climate change, environmental journalism and better media ethics

16 Mar, 2015
Science communication specialist Dr Jan Sinclair speaking at last night's climate change media seminar. Photo: Del Abcede/Pacific Media Centre.

Conservation issues, loss of land, enforced location and culture and language erosion are a few of the worries troubling low-lying Pacific communities, and for indigenous communities, relocation will ultimately lead to culture and language loss.

A seminar on the ethical reporting of environmental risks, particularly in relation to the Pacific, was hosted by the AUT University’s Pacific Media Centre this week, bringing together students, teaching staff, members of the public and influential climate change advocates in a forum of open dialogue and debate.

The seminar featured Science communication specialist Dr Jan Sinclair of Massey University; whose focus is on analysing science issues and the challenges of communicating complex stories and policy and empowerment; and AUT University Doctoral candidate and Kiribati Independent editor Taberannang Korauaba who has recently conducted field work researching what it is like on low-lying atolls and islands of Micronesia.

Both gave refreshing insights into the issues.

Dr Sinclair – “Dangerously political: News framings of the risks of climate change.”

Dr Sinclair began reporting on climate change in 1987 for The Dominion newspaper, and in the early 1990s for The Observer and New Scientist in the United Kingdom.

Her extensive science communication expertise has included drafting popular versions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate change impacts reports for the United Nations Environment Programme, and working with Pacific Island countries to reduce climate change risks.

Dr Sinclair addressed the breakdown in communication from the experts to the public.

“People get most of their information about science from the news media.  With climate change and sea level rise, the news media have not adequately informed people of real risks to life, health, property and economic security,” Sinclair argues. 

“Nor have they passed on readily available scientific advice about how to reduce or prevent these risks.  Instead, climate change has been represented as an issue which is political but not physical, and global therefore not local.” 

“It seems to me that journalists have a responsibility to tell people, number one, you actually are in danger, and number two, 'Oh look there are things you can do so start thinking about them'."

“I say, look you know all these things about climate change, people need to know about them, why are you not talking to the news media?”

“And they say, 'No, our role is simply to advise policy makers'."

Taberannang Korauaba - “Media and climate change in small island nations in the Pacific.”

Korauaba calls for better training in the Pacific, training that is geared for the countries themselves and by their own in-country trainers, especially the low-lying countries of Micronesia that are in the front line of climate change.

Pacific people are linked to their land in a cultural and spiritual way, which makes messages about their changing environment hard to receive, according to Korauaba.

“First, they belong to the land, their land is theirs, they really have a strong connection there."

“So when the media is trying to work to cover the story, people don’t want to hear that because they don’t want to hear stories about 'they’re sinking, they’re going to die'."

Korauaba has encouraged journalists to approach their climate change stories in a different way with his newspaper.

“They are putting people as victims, of course they are the victims,” he said.

“But they need to come up with a different approach, a different style to tell the people that their country is in danger”.

Science communication specialist Dr Jan Sinclair of Massey University, who also spoke at the seminar, gave detailed information showing that the media favour the political factors of the issue, rather than “telling the public what they need to know”.

Media responsibility

Both Korauaba and Dr Sinclair suggested a collaborative approach to informing the public in the correct way.

Korauaba believes pushing the message through respected community leaders to communities in the Pacific is a way for people to realise “something’s going on”.

“It’s people’s own identity, their land, their culture, it’s very hard to remove people from their roots”.

The Director of AUT’s Pacific Media Centre, Professor David Robie, says there needs to be better reporting of risks and remedies from the science reports for communities to be informed.

“Failure to report adequately about the risks and remedies is an issue of journalism ethics,” says Professor Robie.

“Ironically, the role of some Pacific government offices and how they project the climate change story globally contrasts with how they are framed and packaged locally – or not at all, with the local media often left out of the picture completely.”

Watch a recorded livestream of the seminar here
Read Professor Robie’s more detailed account of the issue on the Café Pacific blog here.
Read Pacific Media Centre student journalist Alistar Kata’s report and listen to her audio interviews on PMC Online here.
The Action Plan - view the seminar’s recommendations on ethical reporting of environmental risks here.

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