By Lindokuhle Nzuza: Research commissioned by the Fojo Media Institute on climate change communication in Southern Africa has found that most reporting in media organisations is less aimed at ordinary every-day audiences, and most reporting is from foreign media.

Speaking at the Sustainable Journalism in Practice conference in Nairobi, researcher and lecturer at the Wits Centre for Journalism, Enoch Sithole, said his research also found a skills gap among journalists reporting on climate change issues and that many journalists are scared to tackle climate change reporting as they assume it involves a lot of complicated science. “Universities need to rush and offer short courses that focus on climate change reporting as they do with business, health and politics,” Sithole said.

Sithole said reporting at conferences is not the best way to report about climate change. He says this reporting is usually from a high-level perspective and often ordinary people miss important information.

“Conference reporting neglects the day-to-day reporting on climate change, 95% of the stories after COP17 addressed stories from a high-level perspective,” said Sithole. “If you live in Malawi, for example, and keep on reading about stories that state how you should be cutting emissions and Malawi produces less than 0.05% of carbon dioxide, yet it gets most of the wrath of climate, the story does not resonate with the Malawi audience”.

He found that climate change reporting has a bearing on the socioeconomic status of a country. Communities are more concerned about their daily issues than climate change. Sithole urged media organisations to consider their audiences’ access to information before placing climate change stories behind paywalls.

“My findings state that placing such stories behind paywalls puts vulnerable communities in a disadvantaged position”. Informing victims of climate change such as people in Malawi to “run away, a storm is coming” defeats the purpose if the story is behind a paywall. Discussing the financial sustainability of journalism by depriving people of important information needs to be examined closely.

Climate editor at the Nation Media Group, Zeynab Wandati, agrees with the research and says the organisation has been covering a lot of climate change stories due to the current drought in Kenya. “Once the drought ends, our stories are knocked out of the headlines, we have to fight with other editors to include climate change stories”. Wandati said it is unfortunate that most newsrooms are run by editors who think politics first and everything secondary.

“Climate touches every aspect of our lives including politics, we are sensitising journalists in order to change how they frame their stories, people start caring once they understand how climate affects their money, their health, etc,” said Wandati. She said that, unlike other news beats, climate change stories are evergreen and will always be relevant.

Sithole proposes a dialogue between researchers and media stakeholders to educate editors about the importance of the climate change story. “The literature I read suggests that in South Africa, climate change stories rank even lower than entertainment news. We need well-written climate change stories,” he said. He added that in some instances, media organisations are producing climate stories about the global north hence audiences do not relate. “We need well-written relevant climate change stories that resonate with people in environments they are in,” Sithole said. He notes that we need a dialogue to educate media players about the issues and importance of climate change reporting.

Dr Mateleena Ylikpski, a journalism researcher at Tampere University in Finland, said their organisation has started the dialogue in the global north with journalists and researchers. They also train journalists on how they should use and interpret climate change research shared.

“We have found that many journalists lack knowledge on matters of climate change but researchers can close that gap. But we also acknowledge that there is a lot of information about climate change and sometimes it can be a lot for journalists. Researchers can help journalists with details of the big picture,” she said.

Dr Ylikpski notes that it is important to prepare future journalists who focus on climate change reporting and media houses need to embrace these journalists.

Sithole said the Wits Centre for Journalism is fortunate to have a huge cohort of journalists who are already working in mainstream media and he believes that through working journalists attending short courses, the story of climate change will gradually enter newsrooms. He said we should be ready to break barriers between the researchers and climate reporters to ensure adequate reporting of climate change issues. “Even us as researchers need to learn how we should teach climate change,” Sithole said.

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