There has been an uptake in environmental reporting and climate change as more reporters and newsrooms turn their focus to the climate crisis. According to the Reuters Institute predictions for 2022: “building on the experience of reporting on Covid, the news industry will turn its attention to the complexities of covering change this year”.

The report states that “climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity but only around a third (34%) of publishers think that news coverage is good enough, with a further third (29%) saying it is poor”.

But what about Africa? Are there enough African journalists reporting about the environment and climate change? We interviewed environmental journalists from across the continent to ask them about this growing beat and their experiences on reporting on the environment in Africa.

“We need to mainstream environmental journalism more; we need to train and encourage more journalists to be working in the environmental beat,” says Fiona Macleod, the founder of Oxpeckers, an Investigative Environmental Journalism centre. “There is a realisation that environmental journalism is not just a nice to have but an essential to have,” says Macleod.

Oxpeckers aims to improve the quality and impact of African environmental journalism by providing a platform and funding for African journalists with an interest in environmental issues. The organisation combines investigative reporting with data journalism by using geo-mapping tools to expose eco-offenses and track organised criminal syndicates.

Oxpeckers currently focuses on #MineAlert, which monitors the mining sector, and #WildEye which tracks illicit poaching activity throughout Southern Africa and East Africa, and its links to other parts of the globe.

But can environmental reporting fight climate change? Macleod says she has become cynical about the impact of reporting on climate change. “It’s almost like it’s too late, it’s the same kind of reporting that has been done for so many years.”

She explains that the angle of climate change reporting should now focus on adaptation rather than mitigation. “For several decades, journalists were covering climate change from the view of mitigation, trying to stop climate change, raising awareness of the impacts. Unfortunately, now climate change is happening, the focus is now how can we adapt to live in that world, now that the climate crisis is upon us,” says Macleod adding that “the world didn’t do a good enough job to prevent what’s happening [climate change] now”.

Afedzi Abdullah, a sustainable ocean and environmental journalist from Ghana, says climate reporting creates awareness about the environment and plays a key role in informing policy-makers about the climate crisis. “The purpose of environmental stories is about the survival of the human race. Environmental issues are a threat to human life and need to be reported on,” he says. Abdullah’s work focuses on ocean and environmental justice, as well as the sustainable use of fishery resources in Ghana and ocean conservation. He says that his work aims to help push and shape policies that will regulate marines and ocean ecosystems.

“Our survival is dependent on the well-being of the environment. Research has shown that human activities are increasingly destroying the environment and ecosystem. When we talk about environmental sustainability it is advocating for right practices where the environment will be resilient to continue to sustain human life,” says Abdullah.

What are the challenges of environmental reporting?

“With environmental reporting, you have to constantly keep researching and building your capacity,” says Diana Taremwa Karakire, a freelancer for East Africa and the Great Lakes region. Karakire, an environmental journalist for five years based in Uganda, reports on environmental issues that intersect with human rights and gender. Her articles focus on how environmental changes affect women and children, however, she says that she struggles to find women experts in the environmental and science field. “I make a conscious effort to have a gender-balanced story.”

Karakire says that being a woman journalist is challenging: “It is very easy for them [male journalists] to go on the streets and interview people but for me as a female journalist, there are certain things I must be conscious of before I can go interview people”. She adds: “I must think about how I am dressed, while I am thinking about that my male counterparts are already interviewing people”. Karakire says that sources or interviewees will hit on her which sets an uncomfortable tone for the interview.

Karakire says that though there has been some growth in environmental journalism, “there still is a gap in terms resources. Some organisations will write these huge reports and throw them at journalists, without dissecting them. Environmental journalism is science, so sometimes you need someone to break down the issues and dissect the issue for you”.

Macleod and Karakire both said that “there is a lot of science involved” with environmental reporting and it can be challenging to break down these complex, technical topics so that they can be easily understandable to the public. “As a journalist, we need to constantly build our capacity to understand the science, build capacity in making the science easy,” says Karakire. Macleod and Karakire also highlighted the importance of focus as environmental stories cut across many issues therefore it is important to identify what beat you want to report on. 

Madeleine Ngeunga, a data journalist specialising in human rights and the environment says: “We need to be trained to really understand the link between science and human life so our reader can have a better understanding”. Ngeunga is an editor at InfoCongo a news platform that uses data and interactive maps to capture ongoing positive and negative changes in the Congo Basin Rainforest.

Ngeunga says there is an increased interest in environmental reporting however, journalists still struggle to combine journalism and science. She says that journalists don’t know where to find the data, analyse it or how to link the data with storytelling. At times journalists will wait for months for a response from government authorities which delays news articles. “Government authorities are not open in sharing information, many journalists need information, however, are unable to receive it,” she says.

Funding and support are needed in order to help journalists to cover these environmental stories. Abdullah said that most of the work he has done was at his own expense. In Ghana, Abdullah says there is only a handful of environmental journalists. “The media landscape in Ghana is structured in a way that it does not encourage localisation, if you want to specialise you do it at your own expense, you have to commit yourself. It is a personal commitment,” says Abdullah. He also says that the lack of access to data and information in the environmental field makes it challenging to report accurately.

Abdullah says there needs to be a collaboration between environmental experts and journalists. “Most of the environmental beats are dangerous. As journalists, we are often vulnerable because some of these environmental beats involve economic power, political power, corporate greed and corruption, sometimes your life is in danger”. He says the lack of safety for journalists in Africa is concerning.

Environmental journalists need funding, support and security to be able to effectively report on the environment, it is a critical beat within journalism that needs to be prioritised.

Karakire says reporting on the environment is important as it informs policy-makers on an issue that they can then take action on.

“Our survival and livelihoods are dependent on the environment and the ecosystem, so if we destroy it, we are destroying humanity,” says Abdullah, adding that “there is still more that needs to be done and the work that lies ahead is huge”.

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