Overcoming Zambia’s lack of environment reporting: Lessons from journalist training workshop

The need to make environmental issues interesting and understandable in Zambia's media houses.
Zambia’s media houses are not equipped or often interested in covering environmental stories.

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At a glance :

  • There is a lack of environmental reporting in Zambia because:
    • Journalists find technical environment stories difficult to understand
    • Business, political and sports stories sell papers and are guaranteed space
    • Media owners and editors do not take an interest in environment stories
    • Resources are lacking
  • With the right information and support, the media can indeed become better equipped and more interested in developing well articulated environmental stories
  • Research and aid agencies can help by building sound relationships with local journalists, providing access to information and experts, sponsoring media awards and supporting tertiary institutions

Zambia’s media houses are not equipped or often interested in covering environmental stories, according to some of the country’s leading journalists, having a negative impact on the level of public scrutiny of policy decisions affecting the environment.

“There is lack of education among reporters on issues to do with climate change. Most of us lag behind when it comes to topical environmental stories. We often rely on press statements because we don’t have the initiative to generate our own ideas and … we feel stories to do with the environment are difficult,” said Hellen Mwale a reporter for the Daily Nation, one of Zambia’s most read newspapers.

Journalists are misleading the nation with their level of reporting, said chief Ndake of the Nsenga speaking people of eastern province of Zambia.

“Most stories concerning land or forestry issues in the country don’t normally carry information that addresses key issues surrounding our forests,” he said, referring to the political angle that most environmental stories in his region take. “It is common to see headlines such as ‘Politicians differ over mining in lower Zambezi or Chief in trouble for awarding land to a mine‘,” he said.

Improving the quality and quantity of reporting on climate change in Zambia is exactly what a recent media workshop, organized by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), set out to achieve.

Held over two days in Nyimba district, eastern Zambia, 14 journalists from 12 media outlets were given the opportunity to interact with forestry and climate change scientists, national level policymakers and local people to learn more about climate change, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) and how the USAID-funded Nyimba forest project aims to inform Zambia’s national REDD+ strategy design to ensure the country’s dry forests are sustainably managed.

The media’s role in influencing policy change and public debate is crucial, said CIFOR scientist Davison Gumbo, citing a case where media reports on an environmental issue initiated debate between the government and the public.

“Zambia’s traditional communities have been using the Mukula tree (Pterocarpus chrysothrix) for hundreds of years – for firewood, medicine, dyes and facial powder and shelter. The tree has become prized in international markets and such, the illegal harvesting of the tree has skyrocketed.”

“The Zambian media raised the wider public’s awareness about the value of the Mukula tree so when illegal activities surrounding this species were reported, people understood why this was an important issue. The government’s response – increased patrols – were partially informed by media reports.”

Fight for #1

Located in the southern part of Africa, Zambia has a vibrant and flourishing democracy, with rights to free press fully recognized by the Zambian constitution (Article 20 (1)). This freedom is evidenced in the diversity of public and privately owned media houses currently operating in the country – 68 radio stations, 12 television stations, and 15 newspapers.

This growth has also led to much competition among media houses. The desire to be the number one continues to influence the kind of content that is either broadcasted or published.

Keeping informed about dangers in the environment was of vital importance to our ancestors in primeval society, which is the reason why we have a surveillance instinct that make us hunger for news about possible dangers

Agner Fog

In my experience as a journalist in Zambia, business, political, and sports stories are often guaranteed space in the media because of their ability to attract large audiences.

This is corroborated by a study by Panos Institute Southern Africa of Media Coverage, Community Perspective and Policy Response on Climate Change in Southern Africa:  A case study on Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia, as well as a UNDP study by Boykoff and Roberts.

In rare cases where environmental stories are given space either in the electronic or print media, these stories are either politically inclined and often lack in-depth articulation of critical issues at hand.

In addition, such stories rarely see the front page of a newspaper or get to be among the top stories in a news bulletin. It is common to see these stories buried under other stories making it difficult for readers or viewers to see them.

“What sells comes [into] play… if you are going to write a political story, even the editor will be excited … unlike a story on the environment,” says Kennedy Phiri, a reporter for Muvi Television, a satellite TV station that covers Africa, and Germany.

In 1999, Agner Fog put forward the ideas of psychological buttons and cultural selection, that still ring true in today’s media landscape.

“[News media] have to publish whatever makes people buy their newspapers, listen to their radio programs, or tune in to their TV shows and stay tuned through the commercial breaks. This is what newsworthiness really is about: catching the attention of the audience by presenting something spectacular, unusual, emotionally touching, and something that people can identify with,” Fog says.

“Topics like danger, food and sex make people pay attention. Keeping informed about dangers in the environment was of vital importance to our ancestors in primeval society, which is the reason why we have a surveillance instinct that make us hunger for news about possible dangers.

“Another pervasive psychological factor in the preferences of the audience is personal identification. A story is much more touching if presented in terms of personalities than if presented as abstract principles. A political conflict is perceived as much more interesting if it is framed as a personal battle between politicians than if framed as a clash between ideologies, and a crime story is more touching if vulnerable victims voice their anger and grief.”

A boring topic for editors

From early 2000, environmental reporting in Zambia has continued to take a nose dive, according to Newton Sibanda, news editor of the Zambia Daily Mail.

He also believes that environmental reporting is an area that has “a high value for boredom” and therefore calls for journalists to be innovative in how they approach stories.

“Topical environmental stories are too technical for journalists to understand. A journalist needs to have very good presentation skills to convince the editor that it is a good idea. This is an arena that lacks drama and intrigue – ingredients that are both exciting to a reporter and the reader,” Sibanda said.

“In politics you often find drama, conflict and intrigue. We are not saying journalists must create drama or sensationalize environmental stories but they should be able to put a human face to their stories to make them interesting to the readers,” adds Sibanda.

Climate change is a notoriously difficult subject for journalists to report on, for editors to maintain interest in and for audiences to grasp, said James Painter, head of the journalism fellowship program at the Reuters Institute.

“The science is complex and incremental, its worst effects are (probably) a long way off, and the topic is now fraught with controversy. Like many slow-burn but hugely urgent issues of the twenty-first century, part of the journalistic challenge remains that of conveying the importance of the science to audiences around the world – in short, ‘to make the significant interesting.”

Improving understanding

CIFOR’s recent media training workshop revealed some of the challenges that the Zambian media face in their quest to improve the quality and quantity of environmental coverage.

The first was terminology.

“Most of the time, I would … use degradation when actually talking about deforestation or vice versa,” said Brian Mwale is a reporter with the state owned Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC).

With over 20 years of environmental reporting experience up his sleeve, Newton Sibanda, senior news editor at the state-owned Zambia Daily Mail has come across his fair share of challenges, particularly when covering the national progress of a UN-backed scheme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+).

“REDD+ is one area of the environment that is quite difficult to understand. If journalists are not able to understand it, then it will be difficult to foster the necessary debate. If they don’t nurture the necessary debate, they will be doing a disservice to the people who are supposed to make informed choices,” he said.

The workshop went a long way towards making the jargon understandable, said Benedict Tembo, a reporter with the Zambia Daily Mail.

“Before coming here, REDD+ was just jargon … but my coming here [Nyimba] means I can relate with the project. I am going back with a clearer view of REDD+ and can now communicate [it] better,” he said.

The second challenge was the choice of story angle.

As a reporter who covered the issue of mining in the lower Zambezi National Park, Joy FM news editor Kunda Kunda felt “ashamed to realize that most of us concentrated on politics and not really on bringing out critical issues surrounding the environment and the nation. Had we done that, we would have probably helped government come up with the right decisions.”

“This has been an eye opener for me. As a news editor for my media institution, I will allocate more time to report on the environment,” he added.

The third challenge related to telling a human story.

The field trip component of the workshop intended to give journalists an opportunity to interact with traditional communities in Nyimba district who are facing in impacts of climate change and deforestation and forest degradation. Giving journalists this time and multiple sources so they could find a human angle behind the science was critical.

If all this information can be put out there for people to read and listen to, then we can create a much better and greener Zambia

Davison Gumbo

The workshop was a not just a learning experience for journalists, but also scientists who are often hesitant to interact with journalists.

According to Davison Gumbo, CIFOR scientist who participated in the workshop: “It helped us to know that there are journalists working on environmental issues in the country and took some of the fear away from interacting with the media. We have developed a link that we need to nurture.”
Role of research and aid agencies

Global research institutions and aid agencies have a big role to play in enhancing media coverage of environmental issues in countries like Zambia.

These organizations could better support Zambian media by:

  • Building sound relationships with local journalists: Research organizations and aid agencies implementing environmental projects need to ensure that journalists are kept abreast of latest research findings in addressing climate change.
  • Providing access to information and experts: Journalists need to be empowered with information that can help them identify and generate news ideas that critically address this sector. Training workshops, where journalists have the opportunity to speak directly to scientific experts, politicians and local people provides a good platform for this information sharing.
  • Sponsoring media awards: Every year, the Media Institute for Southern Africa offers awards for Zambian journalists in various categories of reporting, including environmental stories. We can foster a robust public debate where press cover a variety of issues by offering rewards for well produced and researched pieces.
  • Supporting tertiary institutions: Zambia’s Evelyn Hone College is where many of Zambia’s bright young journalists are trained. If research and aid organizations were able to support such journalist training centers – by sharing information on topical environmental issues with future reporters – this will help young reporters develop their interest in environmental stories (and perhaps fight harder to see these stories published) before joining the mainstream industry.

With the right information and support, the media can indeed become better equipped and more interested in developing well articulated environmental stories, like those can be seen with other sectors of the economy such as sports, business and politics.

“The workshop was very helpful in a practical sense. It helped in imparting knowledge in the participants thereby addressing the knowledge gap,” said Sibanda.

Activities like this will take us one step further in seeing Zambia’s environment better managed and regarded by the people and the government, says Gumbo.

“People need to be aware of the implications of environmental destruction and that progress can be made by government and agencies working in this sector. If all this information can be put out there for people to read and listen to, then we can create a much better and greener Zambia.”

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Topic(s) :   REDD+