Relevant environmental experts and media professionals, in September, converged on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to discuss some of the challenges bedevilling coverage of environmental issues (climate change effects) in Africa.
The experts spoke at a one-day symposium organised by Ogadimma Emenyeonu, the coordinator of Mass Communication English Programme at the College of Communication, University of Sharjah, and hosted by the university’s College of Communication during the Spring Semester last month.
The conference, which was themed:“African Environmental Communication,” brought together academics, journalists, and communication leaders from different countries including South Africa, Ghana, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zimbabwe, Malaysia, Malawi and Nigeria, among others.
The findings of their research and the symposium recommendations, relayed recently, showed dissatisfaction with the news coverage of environmental issues in Africa, urging mainstream media and news agencies in the continent to adopt better strategies and prioritise inclusive coverage.
According to the organisers, the recommendations and the participants’ research reveal that Western news agencies such as Reuters, Bloomberg and the Associated Press are almost the sole source of news on environmental issues in the continent while local African context of reporting the stories is missing.
In today’s world, they said anyone with access to modern digital gadgets can be a source of information for the media, from a lorry driver to a professor in journalism.
However, scientists at the conference hinted that Africa’s news landscape has developed journalistic practices which hinder rather than facilitate coverage of environment crises in the continent.
In his remarks, Mr Emenyeonu said the symposium “x-rayed environmental issues in Africa” including how best to report them.
Given that environmental issues have become prominent and monumental in Africa, the Nigeria-born mass communication guru said it is necessary for African journalism to respond to the rising environmental issues by offering innovative ways to effectively and efficiently report the environment, especially in this digital age.
“The symposium sought to update knowledge of environmental journalism in Africa, provide an opportunity to deliberate some conceptual developments in African environmental communication, and encourage journalists to rise to the challenge of reporting the environment adequately and appropriately,” Mr Emenyeonu said.
He emphasised that symposium’s recommendations highlight the participants’ research findings which mostly focus on how mainstream media cover the environment across African countries and the journalism practices, ethos, and ideologies they pursue in selecting their stories.
On his part, Julian Matthews, a lecturer at the University of Leicester, explained that researchers examining coverage of environmental issues in the continent currently “share a big frustration on how media coverage is avoiding seriousness and immediacy of climate change.”
Mr Matthews’ research and his keynote speech delivered at the symposium, further demonstrated how digitisation is impacting journalism as practiced with advertising royalties, the financial mainstay of mainstream media, migrating to internet companies.
He revealed how news values that have traditionally helped newspapers select stories and make the headlines are changing, with blogs and social media setting the agenda nowadays.
“The digital revolution is likewise transforming the concept of gatekeepers who have traditionally been believed to be newspaper owners, senior editors, or senior journalists,” he said.
At the symposium, participants identified “multilingualism” as an obstacle constraining efforts to shed light on voices so far left out of news coverage and the reporting of environmental issues as they happen.
Speaking, Binyam Mendusu, an Associate Professor at The Africa Institute, said multilingualism in Africa presents an inherent problem in communication and journalism strategies.
“Languages are a societal memory bank and a communication system that is worth considering by practitioners across the continent,” Mr Mendusus said, adding that “government officials in Africa believe managing multilingualism to be problematic and costly.”
Africa is home to nearly one-third of the world’s languages, with the continent hosting between 1,000 and 2,000 languages, estimates from Harvard University’s African Language Program reveal.
Mr Mendusu believes that the diversity of Africa’s languages has prompted African news organisations and the mainstream media to follow “Europhonic Legacies of colonialism”.
“A situation like this exacerbates the gap between consumers and producers of knowledge,” he said, adding that with the elite preferring complex news stories in European languages, the mainstream media is left in the dark about environmental events in their backyard.
For Blose Maud, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, news organisations in Africa are more focused on elite languages.
She said American or Western social issues and events are more likely to be reported than problems with the environment.
“There has been a call for the adoption of journalistic practices drawing on local African cultures to increase awareness of environmental issues in the continent,” she noted.
On his part, Mwaona Nyirongo, who is a lecturer at Mzuzu University, refers to the case of journalists in Malawi whom he says employ a “hierarchy of truth” when reporting on climate change.
He said Malawi reporters mostly lean on Western journalistic practices, overlooking the benefits local communities’ cultures can provide to enhance reporting of environmental issues.
The lecturer also lamented that Malawian journalists lean on government officials as sources for their environment-related stories, excluding local and indigenous perspectives.
Experience from South Africa
While presenting her findings from a study she conducted on the news coverage of Kwazulu-Natal floods in South Africa, Ms Maud explained how her research found that the news reports about the floods used as data for her analysis are mostly in English even though the language commonly used in the region of Durban is Zulu.
“Her other findings are more shocking as she reveals that news publications in Africa usually pay lip-service to environment and climate change, and that the aim of those covering such events is merely to inform and not educate,” the organisers noted.
In her submission, Thandi Bombi, a Doctor of Philosophy candidate at Rhodes University, said mainstream news organisations in South Africa “piggyback” on the same story with the same sources, denying their readers the chance to glean information from more than one source and depriving them of news content with a local touch.
Akwasi Boateng, a Postdoctoral Fellow at South Africa’s North-West University, urged the introduction of indigenous communication strategies such as folklore, folk music, and theatre performances in communicating environmental issues to the public.
“Indigenous media are useful in addressing information deficit about environmental challenges like climate change because of their capacity to address issues in unique ways and languages that resonate with the culture and traditions of people of Ghana,” Mr Boateng said.
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