BY IMELDA V. ABAÑO

Published at the Asia Media Report 2011: Media in the Era of Climate Change produced by the Asia Media Forum (www.theasiamediaforum.org)

“Most often, climate change as a news subject in the Philippines, is treated as part of ‘disaster reportage’ or ‘doomsday scenarios.’”

For a country literally at the doorstep of typhoons and natural disasters, the Philippines, a low-lying archipelago of 94 million people, is a perfect laboratory of stories to humanize the impact of climate change.

In his 2007 research, ‘Crisis or Opportunity: Climate Change Impacts and the Philippines’, Dr Leoncio Amadore, one of the country’s top meteorologists, described the Philippines as a “climate hotspot, vulnerable to some of the worst manifestations of climate change.”

Dr Amadore said that in the Philippines, the “adaptive capacity of human systems is low while vulnerability is high… largely due to its geographical features, low level of economic development and exposure exacerbated by poor access to resources.” Indeed, across the archipelago, Filipinos have noted evidence of the impact of climate change – higher than normal temperatures, severe droughts, unusually large volumes of rain triggering devastating floods and landslides, increasingly severe storms and rising seas.

Yet, despite the country’s vulnerability, the Philippine media had paid little attention to reporting climate change and its related issues. As a news subject, climate change is deemed complex; it requires a basic understanding of science and how its technical aspect would relate to the larger concerns of society.

But it took two deadly storms that hit the capital region of Metro Manila and the northern part of mainland Luzon in 2009 to shake the Philippine media out of its complacency. In an instant, climate change became a real issue for Filipinos.

The Philippines was caught unprepared for what experts say were the unexpected impacts of climate change when tropical storm Ketsana (called Ondoy in Phillipines) and super typhoon Parma (or Pepeng in Phillipines) battered the country in 2009.

Flash floods submerged heavily populated communities and business centres in eastern Metro Manila and Southern and Central Luzon as Ketsana dumped large volumes of water, which was equivalent to a month’s rain, on September 26.

Barely two weeks after northern Philippines suffered the brunt of Parma, coastal communities were flooded and hit by storm surges while upland settlements were buried by landslides. Washed out roads and bridges complicated the suffering of typhoon victims as food, clothing and medicines took days to reach them.

According to the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment jointly conducted by the Philippine government and a team of local and international experts, the official death toll from Ketsana and Parma was 956, with 84 people declared missing and 736 injured. More than 9.3 million people suffered the direct impact of floods and landslides, representing 21% of an estimated 43.2 million population in the affected regions. The typhoons destroyed US$ 4.38 billion worth of crops, roads, bridges, public buildings and homes.

The widespread devastation provided an unlikely stage for Philippine media organizations to dig deeper and explain why such disasters, never experienced by the country in its recent history, happened and would likely to occur in increasing regularity in the future.

AN IMPROVED COVERAGE

Joseph Voltaire Contreras, desk editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, says the Philippine media, touted to be one of the freest in region’s democracies, have been criticized for its scant coverage of climate change-related issues.

“I would not say there is poor coverage, although environmental advocates would probably look forward to a time when climate change becomes regular fare in our newspapers or broadcast news, the way there are regular sections for sports or showbiz (show business or entertainment),” Contreras says.

Most often, Contreras says, climate change, as a news subject, is treated as part of “disaster reportage” or “doomsday scenarios”. Declining farm yields and health issues traced to extreme weather also put climate change in the news, he says.

“But in terms of promoting public awareness, whether through daily coverage or investigative reports, I think our media by now have adequately shown the big picture and delivered the core messages,” Contreras adds.

Lourdes Molina Fernandez, editor-in-chief of business daily, BusinessMirror, says the Philippine mass media have improved a lot in its their coverage of climate change since Ketsana and Parma hit the country in 2009.

“They’ve become more aware of their crucial role in covering the weather bureau and the work of scientists, especially the need for constant, up-to-the-minute updates,” she says.

Fernandez says media reports have started putting more focus on government policies in terms of funding priorities for agencies at the forefront of disaster management and response by hiring the right people.

“They’ve lent more focus to privately-led initiatives for disaster risk-reduction and mitigation… and to climate’s impact on agriculture, which is important since many of the traditional strategic farm areas were visited by typhoons, frost and extreme weather in the past year,” she says.

Diego Cagahastian, news editor of the Manila Bulletin, says media practitioners are realizing the importance of reporting climate change. “They are starting to read, research and report based on available materials and sources. Discussing this issue in the media is an educational [process]. Understanding and reporting climate change to the public is needed to make us aware of what is happening in our environment,” Cagahastian says.

STARTING LATE

The Philippines has a fairly vibrant media. According to a 2008 report from the National Telecommunications Commission, Phillipines has 42 daily newspapers, 297 television stations, 383 AM and 659 FM radio stations scattered across 80 provinces in the three major islands. However, most of the major broadsheet and television and radio stations are operating in the capital metro Manila, where the seat of government power is located.

Henrylito Tacio, a journalist based in Davao City, in the southern island of Mindanao, notes that climate change coverage in the Philippine media has been reactive and is several steps behind. “I think we started a bit too late… Reports increase significantly only when there are disasters,” Tacio says.

Pia Faustino, a researcher and writer of the television network GMA7, says climate change stories have had to compete with political and sensational crime and corruption stories that take top news priority.

“We have to find ways to make [climate change] sexy [and] bring down the science to a level that can be easily explained on television [using] Filipino [language],” Faustino says.

Journalists, she says, need support to pursue enterprise stories that have compelling content.

Prime Sarmiento, a reporter of the Chinese news agency Xinhua, says climate change is underreported because it is “too technical, something that only scientists and analysts can understand.” Contreras agrees. “But then, a public informed doesn’t always mean a public engaged. Which brings me to what I think is the underreported aspect of the issue: policy or behavioural change (law enforcement).”

He says green campaigns are launched left and right, but few are revisited later for their outcome. “While it may take years or decades to reverse the course of global warming, there may already be results worth celebrating in terms of long-term, sustained actions and decisions made by individuals, communities or corporations. And if there’s still none, then we should assess and ask some more hard questions — and ultimately put our leaders to test,” adds Contreras.

Failing these, Contreras says the media “might just be stuck in ‘awareness campaign’ mode and just rush to the next press conference or fun run where a celebrity, politician or star athlete is being hailed as the next ‘hero’ or ‘crusader’ against global warming.”

Christina Gabrillo, a radio commentator from Leyte province in the eastern Visayas region, says she barely reports on climate change issues because of lack of knowledge and adequate information on the issue. “It will be very difficult to report stories on climate change if I don’t have a good grasp of the technical aspects of climate change,” she says.

For Beverly Natividad, a reporter of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, reporting climate change requires new learning and understanding. “I see this as a continuing challenge because a problem as rooted on science as climate change also requires continuing education. But apart from that, an overall lack of data seems to be the tougher challenge,” she says.

Natividad and Sarmiento agree that journalists need continuing training and education if they are to tackle climate change stories head on. “We need not only training for raw data interpretation, but also training on how to communicate stories into something more palatable to people who may not always appreciate science,” Natividad says.

UNDERREPORTED VOICES

Head of environment programme, Panos United Kingdom, Rod Harbinson says climate change reporting in developing countries tends to rely on opinions of government officials and as experts.

“Opinions and quotes from lay people such as farmers or city workers are fewer. The small amount of analysis that has been done suggests that few voices from women appear in articles in developing countries,” says Harbinson, whose organization gives training support for journalists in developing countries.

Mike Shanahan, press officer of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), says there is generally less coverage of climate change in countries like the Philippines partly due to other pressing policy priorities such as poverty and development challenges.

Another reason for the dearth of coverage is the fewer centres of scientific excellence that are producing important research about climate change and its effects, he says.

“Investigative journalism about climate change is very rare. Press releases are often republished without any actual reporting that would add local relevance, context and quotations. Journalists based in cities very rarely get to visit rural areas where people are on the frontline of climate change, so vital reports on impacts and adaptation to climate change are lacking. There also are some big gaps in knowledge,” Shanahan says.

But many journalists in developing countries have become what Shanahan calls as “climate change specialists.”

“These journalists have taken the time and effort to familiarize themselves with the science, politics and economics of climate change and they are becoming leading experts in what climate change means for their own and other countries. Increasingly, governments in developing countries are actively involving the media in their plans for adaptation to climate change,” he says.

NEW MEDIA

A bright light in disseminating information about climate change lies in the new media in the Philippines. Some journalists have turned to new media platforms and tools (social networks, blogs and websites) to reach wider audiences and tell stories about climate change in an interactive way, especially with the increasing Internet usage in the country (about 30 million or 30% of the population as of 2009).

Taking advantage of technology, Faustino and her colleagues at television network GMA7, created in September 2010 an interactive flood mapping for Metro Manila to assist the public and journalists alike in reporting situations in disaster-risk areas in the metropolis.

“We have been looking at new ways to practice data journalism — that is not just storing data, but presenting full ranges of data to the public in an interactive, visual manner that is meaningful to people’s daily lives. We’ve been especially focused on trying to maximize geo-specific data,” Faustino says.

She says these pieces of information are useful to help prepare users for the rainy season. She says the map is mainly designed to help ordinary citizens, as well as nongovernment organizations and government officials involved in disaster response planning.

“Long gone are the days when people are satisfied with just reading text articles on the Internet. Internet tools make it possible to present information in new ways… beyond the typical story structure. More and more people want access to broad sets of data that they can manipulate and use for their own purposes,” Faustino says.

Howie Severino, a GMA7 reporter and considered one of the Philippines top environmental journalists, considers the contribution of his television network, GMA News and gmanews.tv, to climate change coverage as “substantial”.

The network produced the climate change documentary Signos which was aired to a wide audience and distributed via DVD. “It’s being shown in schools in the Philippines,” he says.

Severino says gmanews.tv sent a two-person team to the climate change talks in Copenhagen in 2009 and produced text and video stories. New media can stimulate debate better than conventional media, says Harbinson “because they are generally more open, inclusive and invite and encourage participation.”

The development of mobile phones and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter or even e-mail listservs can help once isolated journalists disseminate their stories to varied audiences, says James Fahn of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. “Journalists need to learn how to spread their stories across different platforms,” adds Fahn, who has been assisting journalists in developing countries like Philippines.

“Take advantage of these opportunities to form networks that let you share information and stories quickly and cheaply. Keep up-to-date with the advances in digital media; it can be difficult sometimes but it will pay off in the long run,” Fahn says.

New media can pave the way for people to seek information that they need, says Shanahan. “If local and national newspapers are not telling the climate change story well, they can find trustworthy sources online. This could actually drive better media coverage in developing nations if journalists can get better informed and get more relevant information, sources and comments via online social networks,” he says.

Social networks have the potential to transmit vital information to a huge number of people very quickly. “This can be crucial in saving lives and preventing harm when any kind of crisis strikes,” says Shanahan. “We know from earthquakes, armed conflict and disease outbreaks that things like Twitter can suddenly become hugely valuable. The same applies to climate-related disasters. But social networks also provide a way for people to share important information before a disaster strikes, and this means that Twitter, Facebook, etc are going to have an increasingly important role,” he adds.

MORE CHALLENGES AHEAD

During the long and exhausting UN-backed climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010, it is fair to say that journalists from developing countries, including the Philippines, covered the summit with due importance. Journalists saw the need to create the much-lacking awareness in climate change in their own countries.

“ While it is difficult for us to communicate climate change in an effective way, understanding the issues affecting our countries during such an international summit like this is leading to government action,” said journalist Prime Sarmiento, who was able to cover the Cancun summit for the first time with assistance from the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists (PNEJ).

Sarmiento admitted that attending the Cancun summit for the first time was challenging as it was both coverage of the summit and a “crash course” on climate change. “Coming from a poor country with so little resources and opportunity for journalists to attend an international event like this, I can’t imagine what we are really missing. Important side events on issues such as on forestry, biodiversity, water, women and children are all significant to developing countries like the Philippines.”

Further, Philippines’ Climate Change Commissioner and head of the delegation Lucille Sering said the Cancun climate change has helped the government delegation to reach out to journalists to communicate the urgent need for climate action, considering the fact that it is an issue about lives that has to be conveyed immediately and effectively to the people.

“We need to penetrate society more deeply to adequately educate people and respond to climate change effectively… and that is possible of course with the help of journalists. I think the media in general is fair in covering climate change but we need to highlight more that climate change is about people’s livelihood and the future generation,” Sering said on the last day of the summit.

WAY FORWARD

There is much room for improvement in the Philippine media in terms of reporting climate change, says Business Mirror’s Fernandez.

She says coverage of the weather bureau Philippine Atmospheric and Geophysical & Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) and meteorologists “sometimes suffers from needless, distracting questions from reporters who simply can’t seem to understand what the scientists are saying, and sometimes create their own erroneous spins.”

“Media still need to learn to do ‘framework’ and policy types of stories in a more animated manner, especially to show the stream of climate issues pertaining to policy gaps, funding shortfalls vis-a-vis lip service pronouncements of politicians; vaunted “green” and “clean” practices of business that runs contrary to their actual carbon footprint. When they do framework stories, they’re sometimes mired in dull, bureaucratic pronouncements that readers can’t understand or relate to,” observes Fernandez.

But Fernandez acknowledges that not all blame falls on the lap of journalists. “To be fair, part of the problem is the lack of more articulate talking heads. Only a few… can very clearly show the stream between policy and practice, and don’t spew out statistics just for the sake of it,” she says.

With the Philippines ranking sixth among 170 nations in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index compiled by the United Kingdom-based global risks advisory firm, Maplecroft (October 2010), the issue has become big enough not to be ignored by the media.

Harbinson says the challenge to Filipino journalists is to make climate change stories relevant, interesting and influential for their audiences. “Therefore defining one’s audience is essential from the outset,” he says.

“Often in developing countries, the local affects of climate change are more relevant to people than the status of the negotiations at the international level, though this might be important in a newspaper aiming to reach policy-makers,” he adds.

Shanahan says while climate change is a new and strange concept to many, issues like the health, wealth and future prospects of the younger generation are familiar and what most people are concerned about on a daily basis.

“These are the lenses through which climate change will make sense to people and these are also the things that climate change threatens in the most obvious sense. Journalists don’t need to write ‘climate-change’ stories to influence decision-makers and public opinion,” Shanahan says. “They can write business stories, health stories, economics and politics stories — even sports and entertainment stories — and use these regular forms of journalism to introduce the concepts of climate change. After all, almost every activity, every policy and every choice we make comes with a carbon cost or carbon saving.”

Fahn says in terms of content, it is important to emphasize that climate change is not just an environmental issue, but cuts across all socio-economic issues and sectors.

Heherson Alvarez, Climate Change Commissioner, acknowledges that Filipino media organizations and journalists are becoming aware of climate change issues.

“Although it is not an appealing coverage for them, they should continue to engage in the country’s environmental challenges. We need more journalists to understand and report climate change and other issues that come with it — poverty, economics, health and security, among others,” he says.

“We are a low-lying country with a rising population, slow economic growth and devastated by natural calamities. We need to address these challenges and we need the media to raise awareness on climate change issues,” observes Alvarez.

Imelda V. Abaño is correspondent with national daily, Business Mirror and President of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists, Inc. (PNEJ).

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