Change is afoot in the number of international journalists in developing countries reporting on global climate change.
With a yearly budget of $1 million, the Earth Journalism Network, EJN, has become a leader among nonprofit organizations actively building networks of environmental journalists and communicators in the poorest of nations. In the past five years, the group has trained 1,000 journalists who have produced some 2,000 stories on the environment.
Media reporting on climate change has emerged as EJN’s main focus in the last two years.
“People most vulnerable to climate change generally also have the least information about it,” said Earth Journalism Network Executive Director James Fahn in a telephone interview. “Climate change is the biggest story of our time and we’re trying to help developing countries understand what is happening and what is projected to happen.”
A project of Internews, an international nonprofit media development organization based in California, EJN’s activities include training workshops, fellowships, climate summits, preparation of briefing papers, and the development of online courses on climate change. Fahn and his group have helped create regional journalism networks in South Asia, East Africa, Mexico, Peru, and India along the lines of those of the Society of Environmental Journalists in North America.
Experienced journalists teach younger journalists how to cover the environment. This mentoring approach has enriched the environmental journalism networks, which also bring together in-country science and policy leaders to talk with journalists in an editorial roundtable format. “Senior journalists have clout to get the attention of VIPs, who younger journalists can’t talk to very easily,” said Fahn. “Our methodology is, work with journalists where networks exist and help create journalism networks for them where they don’t.”
Fahn says his organization primarily boosts capacity of local reporting with a premise that “one good story rightly placed can have a big impact.” EJN supports training workshops for environmental journalists in local languages and fellowships for enterprise reporting on big issues. These environmental journalists have had fellowships in biodiversity, land use change, environmental health, and water, among other topics. EJN fellows also have exposed scandals, including the uncovering of an international wildlife smuggling ring in Viet Nam and illegal factories in southern China.
Fahn, author of A Land on Fire (2003), worked in the 1990s as a journalist in Thailand for the country’s English-language daily newspaper The Nation. He was the founder of the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists. More recently he was a program associate for the Ford Foundation before taking the job with Internews.
Fahn said that his work with international journalists involves building partnerships with a range of organizations. For instance, EJN’s climate-related reporting activities are administered through the Climate Change Media Partnership, CCMP, a joint project of Internews, Panos, and the International Institute for Environment and Development, IIED. For the last three years, the Climate Change Media Partnership has sent 114 journalists to the UN Climate talks. Another 40 international journalists are to be selected to attend COP16, in Cancun, Mexico, this December. About 600 journalists apply for the fellowship annually.
The CCMP offers varying degrees of support for international journalists covering the UN climate talks. “Just the logistics of visas and air travel are a lot of work,” said Fahn, who has a staff of four. “Once the journalists arrive at the summit, we review how summits work, go through summit coverage 101. It is important to do the basics. There is a big disparity. We accept experienced journalists. Some have been to summits before, some have not.”
Fahn said his group actively examines ways journalists can localize a global issue.
“How do you find key topics your audience cares about and then tailor news to a local audience? That’s what we do, we try to gather information sources,” Fahn said. As a result, fellows have produced climate stories that cover impacts on water in Namibia and an adaptation plan for indigenous people living in Columbia, among many other topics.
Rob Taylor, a veteran environmental reporter and now consultant for science and environmental programs at the International Center for Foreign Journalists, ICFJ, in Washington, D.C., said he witnessed the work of CCMP journalists at the UN Climate talks in Copenhagen last December. “They had the best advantage. They were working together, helping each other,” he said. “They were all sharing tips on each others’ delegations.”
Taylor said his organization has been both a competitor, competing for the same pool of grant money, and a collaborator with EJN. “We have worked with the same journalist in Indonesia, Harry Surjadi, on our climate change project,” said Taylor. (The ICFJ in November 2009 embarked on a year-long project to boost media coverage of climate change in Indonesia, with a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.)
One future goal of EJN involvess further involvement with U.S. media. “We want to help them cover climate change and other environmental stories,” said Fahn, who recently moved to the Washington, D.C., area after living in Thailand for many years. He has noticed a difference between how the U.S. media covers climate change and how media elseshere tell the climate story.
“In the U.S., there seems to still be debate in media about whether climate change is happening. Denialists get more play in the U.S. media than in other places. The rest of the world generally accepts it is happening, and they can see it happening in their countries. When you go up in the Himalayas, you see the changes,” said Fahn. “In developing countries, there is more coverage on impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation.”