Dec 032011

In an effort to crack the challenging task of communicating climate change, yesterday there was the first Climate Communications Day.  The event brought together journalists, communications specialists, editors and even scientists to get the bottom of a long lasting conundrum: how do you effectively communicate about climate change.

Presentations covered the uses of different media – newspapers, film, social media, radio, theater and even games.  But it all came back to one strong point—there needs to be a story.

At lunch, I was able to speak to a couple of Tanzanian journalists to interview them and try to peek inside the challenges and obstacles of climate change reporting in Tanzania.  Is it just the story, or is there more to it?

While the story certainly matters, and recent great coverage of the compelling stories shared at the climate change hearings in Dar es Salaam proves that point, it’s not just what we’re up against.  Instead, the journalist believes that climate change and environmental knowledge more generally, is very low in Tanzania, even in comparison to our neighbors.  Journalism schools typically don’t value environmental reporting, so at the core of learning as a journalist, climate change and related issues are being ignored.  Yet those that are interested, tend to lose enthusiasm after their stories get buried on page 12 or cut down to 250 words.

One of the journalists felt very strongly that editors, due to a lack of understanding and a lack of political will, don’t adequately prioritize climate change and environmental issues.  The other journalist felt that editors are less to blame, and it goes back to the journalist –they need to sell the story to the editor, pitch it right and make it Tanzania relevant.

Certainly, there is some learning to do.  As COP 17 moves on, we have seen little actual coverage in the papers.  But, one of the journalist pointed out, it’s not quantity, it’s quality and if we can see some in-depth coverage that “makes the average Tanzanian feel like their here in Durban” (as one of the journalist said) then that is success.

So, we need to find the compelling story, one with conflict, emotion and resolution if possible.  But we also have a bigger task, which is capacity building at many levels—from academic institutions, professional journalists and even editors.  Climate change needs to be realized as an ongoing but urgent story, and we need to make sure it has a face and that the face looks Tanzanian.