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Between 28 November and 9 December 2011, Government representatives, scientists, civic and non-governmental organisations, as well as a number of other stakeholders met in Durban, South Africa for the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17).(2) Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings are convened annually with the purpose of assessing the progress made in the preceding year, as well as to adopt new decisions and resolutions aimed at finding solutions to alleviate the challenges posed by climate change.
A number of other initiatives by Governments and international organisations at local, regional and international levels are currently underway to address the myriad environmental problems facing the world today.(3) However, it is obvious that for any of these programmes and initiatives to bear more fruit, wider public awareness and participation is required. Such participation and action requires that members of the public be adequately informed, firstly about the environmental problems, and secondly about how they make a difference by changing their lifestyles or participating more directly and actively in environmental remediation programmes. This means that there is a need for a medium to communicate such information from scientists and organisations generating it, to the public and institutions that would make use of such information. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the print, broadcast, and internet media is a very important and powerful ally in educating the public on environmental affairs.(4)
This paper discusses the readily accessible information in the media, and in the public domain, on environmental matters, particularly online news sources, social media and blogs.
Human populations and the environment
The United Nations (UN) estimates that the current world population has crossed the 7 billion mark and will continue to rise to about 10.1 billion by the year 2100.(5) This continued increase in the human population means that there is increased pressure on the Earth and its finite resources. As a result, today we are faced with a host of environmental problems. The African continent, on which most countries and people are poverty stricken, is the hardest hit by many of these environmental problems. These problems include deforestation, degradation of soils and habitat quality, desertification, a dramatic decline and loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution, and climate change.(6)
Many of Africa’s remaining natural forests are being constantly chopped down for timber and resettlement. Inefficient land management and agricultural practices result in widespread problems relating to soil quality and fertility, erosion and siltation of many river systems. Every aspect of human living is dependent upon the provision of clean and safe water. However, climate change-induced droughts, as well as water pollution mean that the provision of clean and safe water is another environmental challenge that Africa has to grapple with.
The role of the media
Even though some of these environmental challenges are local or regional to Africa, most are of global significance. Whilst Governments, national and multinational institutions such as the UN are at the forefront of trying to address these environmental problems, public awareness and participation will be crucial if any progress is to be made.
As such, one of the most important questions today is: Is the media affectively communicating the nature and significance of environmental problems in Africa? In addition, it is as interesting as it is instructive to know how much effort is spent on investigating and reporting on environmental affairs in relation to other facets of human life.
For most people, what they know about science and the environment is what they read in the press or watch on television.(7) Even though their lives are fully dependent and contained within their environment, people generally tend to rely more on the filter of journalistic language and imagery. For example, for some people, the word ‘environment’ relates more to their favourite wildlife show from the television rather than the water, plants and tress surrounding them. Yet, for others the phrase ‘environmental problems’ relates more to television and newspaper images of flood-hit countries, or smog-darkened city skylines, than to the waste in their dustbins or the water running through their taps. Therefore, it appears that the media is one of their only sources of information on what is going on in rapidly changing scientific and technical fields, as well as a major source of information about the implications of these changes for their lives.
It is, however, interesting to note that many newspapers do not have any sections dedicated to environmental affairs. This is despite the fact that almost every major newspaper has whole sections dedicated to business, sport, technology and even entertainment. This indicates that perhaps public demand for information on environmental affairs is nowhere near the appetite for celebrity gossip or latest market trends.
Another interesting trend in newspapers as well as in many blogs is the amount of negative reporting. In what is increasingly known as ‘environmental scare tactics’, bloggers, reporters and environmentalists often resort to reporting environmental problems as dire, painting a picture that it is all ‘doom and gloom’ as far as the environment is concerned. In some extreme cases, some reporters and bloggers even threaten that terrible things will befall humanity because of the environmental problems we have caused. However, there are doubts as to whether environmental scare tactics would actually be successful in transforming people’s attitudes towards environmental affairs.(8) Besides, inaccurate reporting of environmental issues means that, at the end of the day, the wrong information is put out into the public, causing misunderstanding of the environmental problems and creating unnecessary panic.
The ‘hottest’ environmental issues
Climate change, destruction of natural habitats, shortages of clean potable water, over-exploitation of resources and the introduction of exotic species, are some of the biggest challenges facing Africa in general and South Africa in particular.(9) The majority of these issues directly affect daily livelihoods, and, as such, one would expect them to be key topical issues in the news, and in blogs. However, most of these issues do not get adequate coverage in newspapers and blogs. Instead, there appears to be a somewhat narrow focus on some issues at the expense of others. Issues such as climate change, water affairs, wildlife and poaching receive wide media coverage, whereas issues such as the introduction of exotic species, biodiversity loss, destruction and degradation of habitats and soil quality are seemingly ignored.
Climate change, in the context of COP 17 was probably the most widely reported environmental issue in Africa, especially in South Africa. During the COP17 negotiations in Durban in 2011, most online newspapers actually had a special section dedicated to reporting issues of climate change and outcomes from the COP17 negotiations. However, even though many of the online newspapers still retain these dedicated sections, most of the reporting ceased with the end of the COP 17 negotiations. As a result, one is tempted to think that since COP 17 was a highly charged meeting, attended by hundreds of experts and delegates including heads of Governments, it ignited a lot of interested amongst members of the public. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that newspapers reported on it only as far as the public interest could be sustained. This is despite the fact that the key issue at the COP 17 negotiations was climate change, which is an on-going environmental concern.
Another potential reason as to why some environmental issues are not covered adequately in the media could be the fact that accurate and relevant information may not be readily available. Perhaps to understand the paucity of environmental news in the media, we need to know where news reporters, bloggers and other media practitioners get the information that they pass on to the public. How authentic and reliable is this information?
Information quality and accessibility
One challenge that might face the media is the accessibility of environmental information. A lot of environmental data is generated by scientific research, and, as such, most of the research findings are restricted to scientific or academic literature. Indeed, there is a growing consensus about the considerable gap between scientific research and the research findings being communicated outside of the scientific or academic literature. A good example is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment(10) programmes in which over a thousand scientific experts from different countries conducted ground-breaking environmental research. However, the impact and awareness of the findings of this research were, and still are, restricted to scientists within the ecosystems field. The emerging field of science communication seeks to bridge this divide.
Another challenge is that those who manage environmental health problems must rely on the collection, analysis, and use of reliable information. However, in most cases in Africa, good data, particularly solid baseline data, are difficult to find.(11) There is, therefore, a need for concerted efforts to be made between scientists and environmental practitioners who produce the data and information, to work hand-in-hand with media practitioners who will then be able to synthesise and package environmental information in ways that will make it accessible and understandable for non-scientific members of the public. A good example is the South Africa National Parks (SANParks). In the print newspapers, rhino poaching is one of the most widely reported issues. The reporting ranged from reports of rhinos poached and what the authorities (e.g. SANParks) are doing about it. Most of the information about rhino poaching originated from SANParks through their media releases.(12)
Africa experiences challenges in a number of environmental problem areas, the majority of which directly affect the livelihood of millions of Africans. However, the nature and extent of these problems are not very well understood as a result of, in part, the paucity of good quality information in the media. Perhaps a step in the right direction would be for newspapers to introduce dedicated environmental sections. In addition, the emerging field of science communication ought to do more to take hard environmental science beyond the ‘ivory towers’ of academic research into the public domain, through magazines, television, newspapers, blogs and internet sites. Only when the public is adequately and accurately informed about the environment will they be able to do something about it – whether it is changing behaviour that degrades the environment, or participating in environmental remediation programmes.
Written by James Chapangara Mugabe (1)
(1)Contact James Chapangara Mugabe though Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Enviro Africa Unit (email@example.com).
(2) ‘Working together: Saving tomorrow today’, United Nations Climate Change Conference 2011, Durban, South Africa, http://www.cop17-cmp7durban.com.
(3) UNEP News Centre, http://www.unep.org.
(4) ‘Manual on compliance with and enforcement of multilateral environmental agreements’, United Nations Environment Programme, http://www.unep.org.
(5) ‘Urban population, development and the environment’, United Nations, 2011, http://www.un.org.
(6) ‘What are the major environmental problems affecting the development of Africa today?’, http://wikis.lib.ncsu.edu.
(7) Nelkin, D., 1995. Selling Science. Freeman: New York.
(8) Barnes, R.A., ‘NASA’s green scare tactics won’t change environmental attitudes’, Yahoo! Contributor Network, 19 August 2011, http://news.yahoo.com.
(9) ‘Environmental problems in South Africa’, World Wide Fund for Nature, 2007, http://wwf.panda.org.
(10) ‘What is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment?’, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005, http://www.maweb.org.
(11) Clay, R., 1994. A continent in chaos: Africa's environmental issues.Environmental Health Perspectives, 102 (12), pp 1018-1023.
(12) ‘News at SANParks’, South Africa National Parks, http://www.sanparks.org.