Where are stories about the environment in our media?

Author: Odoobo C. Bichachi is the Nation Media Group (NMG)-Uganda public editor. PHOTO/FILE.

What you need to know:

  • Mr Odoobo C Bichachi says: This would not be a problem if the “production pipeline” in journalism schools was churning out journalists with these specialized skills.
     

Sometime this week, I got a call from Erisa Weraga Kiggundu, a graduate student and researcher at the Uganda Management Institute (UMI). His question was why Uganda media has seemingly relegated environmental journalism to the back.

The first thing that came to my mind was to wonder if indeed it is true Uganda media is not paying much attention to the environment. I couldn’t say yes or no! 

Why? Because there have been great reporting projects on the environment in the recent past, especially highlighting the destruction of swamps around urban areas, the degradation of forests, attempts to grab environmentally critical public spaces by private interests, and the menace of plastics.

These stories still dot the different media from time to time. Anyhow, there should perhaps be a lot more reporting on environment issues today considering the continued degradation as well as ordinary folks complete disregard of environment protection right from the household level to the village level and urban centres.  

More importantly, perhaps, there should be more cause-and-effect reporting to show that particular actions will have a specific effect on the environment as well as framing disasters from the prism of environment degradation or protection.

For instance when reporting on flooding in Kampala, the media tends to lay responsibility squarely at the door of Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) and yet a primary cause of blocked drains is siltation and blockage caused by wanton disposal of plastic bottles and polythene bags. This to a large extent is perpetuated by us ordinary folks that sweep garbage into the drainage channels, throw empty water and soda bottles into the storm drains, or dig away the grass near the road to exposes soil which is eventually washed away into the drains.

For environment reporting to have impact, it needs to be more consistent and sustained; not event-led and spasmodic as we see today. Which brings to the fore the second issue Mr Weraga raised; the capacity of the newsrooms in terms of skills and manpower to deliver quality and sustained environmental journalism. 

News reporting is generally organised around beats/themes. Politics, crime, business, sports, etc are among the most popular beats attracting many journalists as well as taking up a lion’s share of space in both print and broadcast. This is perhaps a reflection of the audience preferences. 

Yet, as is well stated in the preamble of the NMG Editorial Policy Guidelines, “It is the duty of the Press to publish information that should be in the public domain, on what goes on in society and to uncover and disclose matters that ought to be subjected to public debate, analysis, scrutiny or criticism in keeping with the universally acknowledged principle that the media’s primary responsibility is to the people.”

The environment is the air we breathe, the neighbourhood we live in, the source of our food, the determinant of our health, etc so in many ways it should be of singular focus by the media and the public.

However, environment reporting requires specialised skills and outlook. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of these in the newsrooms which is not helped by the fact that as soon as reporters perfect their environment reporting skills, many are usually whisked off to serve as communication officers in the NGOs whose conservation programmes they have been reporting about!

This would not be a problem if the “production pipeline” in journalism schools was churning out journalists with these specialized skills. Dr William Tayebwa, the immediate former head of Mass Communication Department at Makerere University, informed me that the post-graduate diploma in environmental journalism programme once offered at Makerere University was scrapped around 2006 after donor funding stopped. It had only run for four years – on donor money!

Some environment modules were then incorporated in the syllabus but that’s really a polite way of saying there is hardly any focused environment reporting training at the main journalism training school in the country. This is likely the same scenario at other journalism training schools.

The result is that there is a very small crop of journalists that think and breathe the environment and are therefore always on the lookout for stories that impact the environment. The public too seem to see environment stories as boring and far away from their day to day lives. Sadly, this is the perfect environment for the abusers of environment!

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