Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2010

On UNESCO’s behalf I was instrumental in organising the first ever International Conference on Broadcast Media and Climate Change in 2009 September at UNESCO Head Quarters in Paris. Nearly 250 broadcasting organisations participated in this event and subsequently we were able to establish a climate change related content exchange mechanism among broadcasters with the help of BBC which offered high quality content related to climate science and impacts from the different parts of the world, which the local broadcasters would normally not in a position to gather. Subsequently the German Public Service Broadcaster Deutsche Welle organised a follow up global media forum in June 2010. Below is the intervention I made at the closing ceremony of the forum.

Challenge of Climate Change and the Responsibility of  the media

May I take this opportunity to thank Deutsche Welle for having organised such a productive third edition of the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, and for having extended their kind invitation to UNESCO to take part in what we consider to be a momentous event, particularly taking into account the fact that it comes on the heels of the UNESCO-UNEP International Conference on Broadcast Media and Climate Change held in September 2009 in Paris, as part of UNESCO´s mandate to raise public awareness about the complexity of climate change and its implications for broadcast media organisations and other communication actors.

An important outcome of that meeting was the Paris Declaration on Media and Climate Change which, I am glad to note, mirrors many of the issues emerging from this summit. I am thus gratified to note that one of the issues this summit has acknowledged is the multidimensionality of climate change and the need to adopt a multifaceted journalistic approach in reporting it.

For example, some of your sessions have focused on conflict sensitive reporting to emphasise the fundamental human values that should underpin the work of journalists. Although we do not always agree on the subjective scope of journalism, the fact that this summit has for its theme climate change per se means that we all know that media professionals can play a more active agenda-setting role than they have done.

So, in these closing remarks, I want to focus on what I see as the key challenges facing media in reporting the complex issues that characterise the national, continental and global management of climate change.

But first, allow me to point out that research shows three tendencies in media reporting of climate change.

In a fascinating analysis of the reporting dynamics typifying the reporting of the climate change crisis, Anabela Carvalho refers to specific trends in news media reporting of the crisis.

Firstly, media reporting tends to be generally international in scale, lacking in local contextualisation. Here, the focus tends to be on the international politics underpinning climate change discussions and negotiations, usually associated with blocs of countries.

Secondly, largely as a result of such a narrow international frame of reporting, media coverage tends to be overtly concerned with sensational, conflictual and controversial stories. But, as I point out in a little while, there is much more to climate change reporting than just the sensational, conflictual and controversial. A more sensitive reporting of climate change is about enjoying our relationship with nature and creating a sustainable future. It is about making life better for ourselves and our children.

And thirdly, media reporting tends to be generally civically dispassionate in the sense that it does not empower the citizenry with the crucial information and knowledge they require to actively engage with their elected leaders and other societal power brokers, such as oppositional parties, trade unions and the business community. Although media reporting of climate change tends to be linked to governmental structures and processes, it must be noted that such structures and processes are confined to the life cycle of an elected government. As such, restricting media reporting to governmental behaviour alone may be short-sighted, as governments operate in a context where oppositional parties, trade unions and the business community play an important, and even defining, role.

In this context, then, what do I see as the key roles for the news media? The first point I want to make is that what we may call science communication or journalism should be underpinned by a strong ethical orientation. News reporting of climate change issues and events should be based on a clear distinction between reporting verified and unverified information. In this vein, should media reporting be shaped by adherence to a concept of balanced reporting where equal space or airtime is given to unequal arguments?

It is reasonable to differentiate between the peer reviewed scientific information – such as that originating from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – and the unsubstantiated opinions which are often made on the basis of vested interests with no peer review. Giving equal importance to unequal scientific arguments creates confusion. In reporting science in general and climate change in particular, it is highly ethical for media professionals to report and analyse peer-reviewed as well as non-peered-reviewed information. This is important because the peer review process generally proves that conclusions have been vetted by the relevant scientific community and that there is a general agreement based on scientific evidence, whereas claims made by vested interests are not subjected to such quality review.

Secondly, media professionals must actively play the age-old agenda-setting role. Here, the important issue to remember is this: In setting such an agenda, the media need to interrogate not only elected officials but also all other power elites in society, including oppositional parties, trade unions, businesspeople, and other sections of civil society. In this regard, it would be illuminating to question the view points of those who actually and potentially prevent governments from taking crucial policy decisions and actions on mitigating the impact of climate change.

Such a broad approach to reporting climate change does not mean that elected officials are absolved from their responsibility for policy inadequacies and failures. Rather, it is a recognition of the multifaceted and holistic nature of any climate change mitigation measures. In the end, it is an acknowledgement of the need to democratise science communication so that it can embrace the full range of societal views and opinions on climate change risk mitigation.

Finally, media reporting needs to emphasise the opportunities presented by the challenge of climate change risk mitigation. A sensationalist and controversialist reporting frame may well focus on gloom and doom, but an ethically responsive reporting style may reflect on the existing opportunities. Such opportunities may include how human societies can mitigate climate change by investing in carbon free markets, creating new ‘green’ jobs, and transforming economies, among other benefits. In the end, it is about solving several problems at once, reaping the co-benefits thereof, and implementing complementary climate change mitigatory strategies. Climate change management thus becomes a long-term process whereby human beings attempt to reorganise their existence for the present and future betterment of their societies.

But while we expect all these tasks from media, it is our task to build the capacities of media to undertake these tasks.  This, in the developing countries would mean supporting the development of investigative capacities of journalists.  Journalism is an intellectually challenging occupation. Therefore societies have an obligation to provide necessary facilities for journalists to obtain a comprehensive multidisciplinary education. It is for this reason UNESCO developed a model curricula in journalism education, which is now being adapted in 53 Journalism Education Institutions in 45 countries. In parallel to this initiative UNESCO has launched a Programme to develop 21 Centers of Journalism Eduaction in Africa – we need more investments on comprehensive education for journalists and to build local institutions capable of offering a credible multi disciplinary education for journalists at all levels.  It is high time to focus on building endogenous Institutional capacities in journalism education, beyond externally driven ad-hoc training events. UNESCO invites all of you to associate with its efforts to build the analytical and investigative capacities of journalists in the developing countries so they can place the facts in a well-informed context.

In conclusion, I would like to repeat just how pleased I am that this summit blends with UNESCO’s mandate to build the professional capacities of media professionals seeking to report more effectively on science in general and climate change in particular. It also ties in with our attempt to provide a network of support for enhancing media professionals’ capacities. For this reason, I believe that the Paris Declaration on Media and Climate Change offers something of a blueprint for conceptualising and operationalising news media coverage of climate change challenges.

The resolutions of this summit, read together with the Declaration, can become a powerful voice on behalf of all those who are working to mitigate the risks associated with climate change. We will thus continue to seek out new opportunities to work together with all of you in this noble cause.

I thank you!


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