Letter 2 – Reporting on the environment ethically, responsibly and humanely—and safely?

Painting of a scale: on one side is a home on a shore, on the other is a massive pile of money
Source: Fritz Ahlefeldt

In doing environmental reporting about vulnerable populations from certain privileged perspectives as a Chinese-American university student, I find that it’s critical to constantly question if I am giving full dignity, voice and worth to every person I interview. None of us—no matter how educated or well meaning—can escape that we grew up in societies where colonization, brutality, capitalism, suffering, inequality and corruption are the norm.

Brave reporters who have questioned this status quo have often ended up in danger. The topics that environmental journalists are investigating involve wealthy, powerful organizations and leaders who are driven by retaining power and profit—retaliating snooping with violence. War and corruption journalists are the first beats that people think are the most dangerous. But, environmental journalists are perhaps even more so on the front lines with frequent investigations into risky stories of resource and animal poaching, corporate practices or various criminal activities—not to mention the physical exposures of being out in the wilderness.

Before he was executed by the Nigerian government for his environmental advocacy, Ken Saro-Wiwa said: “I’ve used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni People to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or a businessman. My writing did it …” (Agbo, 2018).

In standing up against the Royal Dutch Shell Company and standing for his people, he was hanged by a military dictatorship. Environmental harm and degradation is violent in every way. When we think about stories of the environment, we tend to want to think about the flowers and rainbows, naively believing that some combination of education and science will bring about environmental justice. From the power structures that dictate whose environment and livelihoods matter to the erasure of entire communities’ land, resources and existence to fuel those in power—manipulation and violence is at the root of the environmental beat.

The privilege that most environmental journalists, especially those from wealthy nations, must grapple with is that as much as we want to help prevent exploitation of the environment and advocate for sustainable, ethical usage, we probably don’t actually care as much as we’d believe. It’s likely that the sources that we’re interviewing for many of our stories care and know much more than we do. It’s also likely that our own ways of living directly contribute to the violence that we are shedding light on. For example, I have covered stories of fracking exploration and harm, but I know that I consume far more fracked energy than the people whose livelihoods are being destroyed by the extractives industry.


Outside of mainstream media

What’s interesting about environmental journalism is the relatively greater independence it has from the mainstream media, which covers more international climate change reporting rather than the stories closer to home and is also more easily influenced by powerful interests. Canadian Miles Howe who was working for a small independent online news reported on the protests of gas exploration in New Brunswick where violent arrests were made and “the mainstream media was showing up late or getting it wrong.” In Bhutan, bloggers on the environment like Phuntsho Namgyel were setting much of the dialogue on environmental reports that questioned the government’s stances in a country with strict media censorship. “Bloggers sometimes do the best reporting especially when traditional journalists are silenced,” the handbook says.

Many environmental stories are unreported or underreported which is where innovative NGOs like Oxpeckers and many others step in. The stories that are reported are often ones that many people and organizations don’t want to know about or actively suppress.

In the U.S., there is an intentional effort for environmental journalists, and journalists in general, to distance themselves from activism. As I had the opportunity to do environmental reporting in South Africa and Bhutan, I’ve found that many other nations tend to not worry as much about blurring those lines. From what I have experienced, the line between advocacy and journalism is a privilege that is not necessary for quality reporting.

It’s not about seeing both sides, but about navigating our own biases to tell true stories that lead to accountability. Environmental journalism to me is a way to stand up for the most accurate accounts of truth in stories relating to the environment. It’s not easy or straightforward, but when a journalist sees truth that doesn’t have voice and power, it’s our profession’s responsibility to advocate for those stories.

Letter 1 – A Deep Dive into Environmental Journalism

Earth during a special solar flare event
Source: NASA

Around the world, environmental journalism tends to be a neglected beat compared to the rest of the media landscape. But stories on the environment are investigations into our most pressing and important issues that serve as both reflections of our history and culture and evidence of our values and politics. If we don’t have healthy environments that sustain our livelihoods, we have nothing.

What I love about the environmental beat is that it forces journalists to encompass science, policy, corruption, systemic inequities, colonialism and exploitation in their reporting. Not much of environmental reporting would make sense without looking into the current and historical forces that have led to the story in the first place. As an environmental reporter, you look at a landscape and witness the changes to physical space, physiological conditions, community wellbeing, ecological connections and cultural evolution brought on by or driving changes to the environment.


Learning in a pandemic

In my sophomore year at Duke University in fall of 2018, I somehow knew that I wanted to intern for an environmentally-focused investigative media outlet and Oxpeckers was the perfect fit. Summer of 2019 was spent in Durban, South Africa where I had the opportunity to immerse and learn about how the government, oil and gas companies and communities were grappling with fracking exploration in the region.

Even though summer of 2020 hasn’t allowed the same kind of in person interactions that taught me about environmental advocacy and policy in South Africa, I have created an independent study course through my university for the summer called “Environmental Journalism and COVID-19.” In reading the “Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism” as my course textbook, I’ve gotten to both reflect and build upon my experiences last summer in KwaZulu-Natal and this summer in Ohio and Colorado where fracking has boomed in the past decade.


The flow of environmental journalism

“The myth that no real environmental movement or journalism existed in the developing world… as if environmentalism and reporting on the environment were the exclusive preoccupations of the wealthy,” writes chapter three of the handbook.

Whether it’s Eastern Ohio or the Eastern Cape, the people who do the most for environmental advocacy are the people who rely most directly on their environment for their health and wellbeing. There’s a pervasive idea in the Global North that poor people are destroying their environment and don’t have the education to understand what they’re doing—even though this is continuously disproven and exploitation of vulnerable populations in the Global South is largely driven by consumption in the Global North.

“The idea of protecting nature and public health had deep roots in Asian, African and Latin American religious and cultural traditions,” chapter three of the handbook says. “Many preceded the North American and European reform movements for environmental protection.”

The legacy of colonialism, exploitation and racism around the world is scarred into the land of where resources and wealth have been taken from the lands of the vulnerable to far-away pockets of power and privilege. A driving force behind this South to North exploitation of resources is the media itself.

After WWII, dominance of US, British, French and Russian wire services meant that a globalized world had a “structural imbalance in global information systems” (chapter three). The handbook highlights how news always moves from North to South, but there must be an increase of news flowing South to South and South to North. Not only does this empower voices in the South that have been largely ignored, but this also brings valuable, creative and innovative ideas from South to North.


The value of examples from lesser known parts of the world

“In other countries journalists have struggled simply to bring their stories out to the rest of the world,” the handbook says.

One story that I think would be greatly beneficial for Western and westernized nations to learn from is traditional clothing in Bhutan. I interviewed dozens of Bhutanese people about their ghos and kiras—the Bhutanese dress. Although western consumption inevitably is taking hold in the small kingdom, the country mandates the gho and kira during business hours and in schools. Different residents had all kinds of history, mythology and family stories to share about their clothing.

Most of the people I talked to had less than 10 sets of ghos and kiras, and that’s mostly all they wore. Even farmers who had little money would have ghos or kiras priced in the thousands of dollars because they only have a few handwoven sets that last a lifetime and most people had a weaver in the family.

Instead of outsourcing clothing production to pollute and harm people in vulnerable regions of the world, traditional Bhutanese clothing was made in the backyard with vegetable dyes and months of intricate weaving.

This tells a story of knowing the meaning of your consumption and knowing all the labor and resources that go into it—finding true value in yours and others’ livelihoods.