Telling Climate Change Stories: A Journalist Perspective

By: Mercy Njoroge

A little over a decade ago, a substantial global story broke. Wangari Maathai, the woman of trees, is dead.
This sad incident happened precisely two years into my journalism career. The story was huge, and as a junior sub-editor, I felt the pressure editors in my newsroom faced when a story of such magnitude landed on their desks, complete with the desire to eulogize such a phenomenon figure. 

Many years later, reflecting on Wangari Maathai’s demise un-knowingly thrust me into the front-row seat of climate change at a time the world and journalists were possibly not quite alive to human activities and their implications on mother nature. A month later, I read ‘Unbowed’, a moving and inspirational memoir of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman, and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Today, climate change is the most defining phenomenon of our times, and journalists have found themselves on the frontline in shaping discourse and reporting concerted global actions by communities and individuals on this complex and dynamic topic.

But what is the role of journalists in climate change? 

For the last year, Journalists for Human Rights-Kenya has been working with local journalists to train and empower them to objectively cover climate change with a human rights lens, mainly focusing on how climate change impacts women differently. These journalists embarked on a month-long journey to uncover diverse human-interest stories around climate change from a gender perspective, to create awareness of adaptive mechanisms communities and individuals are engaging in on climate action, and to educate the public on efforts to address changing weather patterns. The stories reported by these journalists come from different parts of Kenya and range in topics from the impact of droughts on access to education for girls, climate change impacting access to food, to flooding displacing a whole community from their homes. Marie Yambo, a journalist with the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation story, showcase how families in some parts of Kenya forcefully remove their daughters from school and marry them off to make up for lost cattle to the drought. The impact of climate change goes beyond the loss of food but leaves at its trail underreported social consequences on women and girls. 

Serfine Achieng’, a reporter with Citizen TV story on the impact of climate change in Turkana, an area known to be vulnerable to drought, shows how the lack of nutritious food in the area is leaving many children malnourished. As a journalist, Serfine must recognize the power of indigenous knowledge in tackling the impact of climate change. She explains that interacting with community people for her story revealed more than she had researched before going to the field. “People know a lot about nature, and no matter how illiterate they seem, they may teach you something that even science and geography has not discovered,” she says, adding that communities appreciate when you acknowledge the role they play in addressing climate change and how their efforts impact their livelihoods. Serfine, a multi-award-winning journalist, appreciates that there has been momentum in the efforts to support initiatives and programs on climate change but emphasizes that there is a need to finance climate change reporting projects.
Dan Kaburu, an environmental journalist, says some of the stories he has covered have informed policymakers and have been highlighted in key global meetings such as the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA).

“In 2018, I covered a story on the Single Bags Ban in Kenya, about how cows were feeding on plastics, and experts warned of the dangers of eating meat and drinking milk from such animals. My story was highlighted during the UNEA 3 Assembly in Nairobi, and it was quite a defining moment for me,” says the K24 TV reporter. Dan has gone further to document stories on illegal logging that led to the ban on logging in indigenous forests in Kenya.

Recently, Dan produced a story with the support of JHR on the displacement of a community due to flooding, resulting in Climate Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The displacement caused by the flooding exacerbated Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and deepened challenges in accessing education and other social services.
Moraa Obiria, a reporter for Nation newspaper, says a story she did late last year on ‘A Day in The Life of a Turkana Woman prompted the county officials to dialogue with Tullow over water distribution. “Following my story on bare land worsening Marsabit women’s water ordeal, some readers offered to buy the affected households’ water and food,” he says.   In pursuit of these life-changing stories, journalists face insurmountable challenges. “In the newsroom, there is a lack of goodwill because it is tough to pitch a climate change story successfully unless your editor is trained and has developed a passion for the subject. But usually, most editors feel climate change stories are not newsworthy unless it’s about drought, where many people are starving or dying. Climate Change, unfortunately, starts and ends with drought. Many people think climate change is drought,” says Serfine.
Lack of financing is another challenge journalists face as newsrooms continue limiting budgets due to changing media trends. It has compromised good journalism because the reporters are unable to travel to the ground to collect information and are sometimes forced to engage correspondents, who may not tell the story as envisioned by the reporter.

Additionally, language and buzzwords around climate change which journalists need to become more familiar with, make it harder for journalists to interpret this jargon to a local audience in a language that makes sense. It is hard to explain some of those technical terms in the local language to a grassroots audience, for example, words like carbon footprint, carbon neutral, Anthropocene, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and greenwashing. Even more challenging is attempting to translate these words whenever reporters work in an alternative language, not English. The danger of this is that there could be misinformation or a complete misunderstanding by the target audience. 

Unfortunately, climate change experts are guilty of not making it easy, as they keep escalating the jargon, explains Serfine.  To address some of the challenges, JHR has run a training workshop that empowers journalists with the knowledge and skills required to tell compelling stories on climate change with a human face. JHR has also brought CSOs working on environment and climate change together on a roundtable to discuss and share ideas on how to best report on climate change. 

Professional and ethical reporting remains instrumental in bridging the information gap and mobilizing communities to act on climate change. 

In the words of Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, “Mother nature is unforgiving”; therefore, journalists have a cardinal duty to empower climate action through their reporting to save the world. 

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