OPINION: The Media, Climate and Society-The African Story

By Patrick Luganda
NECJOGHA Secretariat Kampala

Africa , has had her fair share of empty granaries and starvation, wars, ignorance and disease as well as widespread poverty. These and other descriptive phrases paint a gloomy picture of the African continent. Most of the disasters hitting Africa are climate related. However, the media, which has an important influence on society, has failed to clearly link climate, disasters and society.

“Over 70 percent of the disasters that affect us are directly or indirectly related to the climate. If people got climate information well in time it could help them develop mitigation strategies to cope with the looming danger,” says S.A.K. Magezi, Commissioner of Meteorology, Uganda.

If the important connection between advance climate information and the negative extreme events that take place thereafter can be established and relayed to the end users, intervention strategies could be taken in the available lead time. Looking over our shoulders, we clearly see the need to develop the capacity of the media to achieve this goal.

In 1984, the late Amin Mohammed Amin, the famed Kenya photojournalist catalyzed Africa’s most documented climate story. His camera captured heart-breaking pictures of the effects of drought on the starving masses in Ethiopia. These pictures hit the TV screens in millions of sitting rooms around the world and triggered a massive humanitarian reaction, pouring into the region thousands of tones of food and other material aid.

It is perhaps Africa’s best-known climate story. From that time onwards, the African media, led by the global networks has generally associated the continent with starvation, death, poverty, and many other attendant social evils.

For a long time the media has made a fantastic job of reporting the effects of droughts and floods with footage of people and animals dying. In the East, Central and Southern Africa regions stories of empty granaries, malnourished children as well as infant and maternal mortality dominate the pages during these times. This scenario in most cases is linked to the climate. In many ways these are what are considered to be the African climate stories by the media.

Although a lot of useful climate information exists within the science community, it has been rendered of little significance to the ordinary public because dissemination channels are not well developed. Even where the dissemination has kicked off in earnest, there is still a lot of need to make the connection between the public and climate science.

The media, it can be demonstrated, is an extremely useful, meaningful and cost efficient sector to bridge the gap between climate and society. Although the media, as a distinct sector within the climate information for development strategy, has been recognized, it has not been catered for in the investment portfolio. Its inclusion needs to be developed from the initial planning stages, to avoid fire fighting or crisis management approaches.

During all these years, there was little meaningful interaction between the media and the climate science community. While the media was described as being ignorant about the weather and climate, the scientists were in turn accused of working in isolation and often talking to themselves. The complicated language aside, most of the climate information is often considered boring and unexciting, as practicing journalists have testified.

The Climate Media story 7 years ago (in GHA)
In 2000 representatives of the media from 10 countries of the Greater Horn of Africa , were invited to attend the Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum(GHACOF) in Arusha, Tanzania.

Since then, the media has evolved into a strong partner in mitigating climate risks at various levels. The dissemination of weather and climate information influences decision making as the individuals, communities or governments whatever the case may be, make informed decisions.

It was not long before the media in consultation with the then Drought Monitoring Center and other National Meteorological and Hydrological Services representatives agreed to form a Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa (NECJOGHA) to coordinate the climate media activities in the region. This marked the birth of climate journalism and the emergence of the climate journalist.

Following the successful launch of NECJOGHA, it was decided to form country chapters in the ten countries of the GHA. A similar network was launched in the South African Development Community (SADC) countries known as the Network of Climate Journalists in SADC. Similar networks ought to be formed for all the regions of Africa. Asia, through the Asia Disaster Prevention Center in Bangkok in collaboration with the IRI has brought together the media in that part of the world to explore possibilities of setting up a similar network.

Mr. Donald Kamdonyo , the Director of Malawi Meteorological Services stresses that the media and the climate scientists need to nurture a strong relationship to make useful information disseminated to the public which is the largest end users of climate information.

“The media and the climate scientists must work together so that information about the climate and meteorological products can go out to the ordinary people in our nations who need it most,” says Kamdonyo.

But that is easier said than done. One of the inner secrets of successful journalism is being able to get out to the audience and live through their experience. The climate story would come out clearer, better and bear close relevance to individuals if the reporters could bring out the graphic details of climate incidents such as floods, droughts, tsunamis, cyclones etc.

In addition, armed with useful climate information, the media can help to add value to this information by getting more relevant input from related sectors and provide a wealth of useful information that can help decision making. Unfortunately this is not taking place with the climate reporting and related stories coming out of Africa. Several reasons, volunteered by practicing journalists interviewed in many countries on the continent suggest that the very nature of the subject matter is predominantly boring and uninspiring

“We find it an uphill task to sell climate stories to our editors,” many journalists have owned up.

Insufficient exposure to the subject is big hindrance that can be addressed through conducting of regular capacity building programs. Our snap survey brings out the voices of journalists who have attended some of these training workshops in the GHA and SADC.

IN Summary they contend:

  • We need better drilling on terminologies used in the climate information dissemination. End users have always complained of the complicated jargon used in the media and training to journalists needs to handle this issue urgently.
  • • Need more training from senior journalists who have had exposure about climate reporting on how to get the stories put together. Develop trainer of trainers program.
  • • The courses so far conducted in general are too short. They should be for at least 3 weeks or more with the objective of journalist obtaining a driving/operator’s license in the field of climate and media communication to society.
  • • In future training workshops should include editors and other senior journalists who can influence the type of stories that are published or broadcast
  • • Let training schedules involve the schools of journalism in the region so that an appropriate training curriculum can be developed.
  • • The media training courses should rotate to cover all the countries so that as many journalists as possible get the benefits of the media networks.
  • • There should be sourcing for the network secretariats in the GHA and SADC to enable continuity of development programs for the media.
  • • The ICPAC Nairobi and DMC in Harare should continue to play a leading role in getting the media networks provide dissemination and outreach service.

Joram Nkhokwe, a senior meteorologist with the Malawi Meteorological Services underlines the fact that journalists need to learn how to craft the stories to bring more public benefit.

“The media needs training that can open their eyes to link climate stories to other important sectors like agriculture, health and others that are of benefit to the ordinary person on the streets and in the countryside,” says Nkhokwe.

This brings to the fore what could be done in the obtaining circumstances on how to improve the performance of the media in climate reporting. Journalists themselves provide innovative suggestions that can be implemented with minimal expenditure yet reaping immense benefits to science and society.

Marie Goretti , of Radio Television National of Burundi says that radio is the most commonly used means of disseminating climate information and is a rapid ,effective avenue of risk management over a wider area especially in the rural settings.

“Radio is the most common means of information dissemination and is more useful for farmers and illiterate people than any other type of media. Radio sets are cheap and can be operated on batteries thus able to inform most people who have no access to electricity in Africa,” notes Goretti.

Advantages with radio include ability of listeners to be organized into radio listening groups where further discussions can take place and informed decisions can be made collectively. It is possible to listen to the radio at all times with listeners able to move with small radio sets anywhere including in the fields where they work.

Joseph Warungu of the BBC Africa Services based in Nairobi Kenya says that the weather and climate information broadcast on television and indeed other forms of media needs radical reforms because it is uninspiring leading viewers to switch off their television sets to other stations.

“Weathermen on television do not talk to the viewer but seem to address some other weatherman behind the viewer who understands their language better. Weather reports are dull, dry and sometimes unbelievable. Weather reports in the media are not analyzed,” says Warungu.

Warungu advises that: “It is therefore important to deliver the climate information and news well in a creative, natural, interesting, professional yet flexible and authoritative style. We need to make reports relevant to the viewer.”

All the journalists interviewed note that the climate story gains prominence only when there are disasters. This is when the news becomes juicy. This they say explains why El Nino news in 1997/98 was so prominent due to the flooding and the attendant calamities

Peter Wamboga, The Chairman of the Climate Media Association in Uganda says: “The media in Uganda is poor at gathering, analyzing and disseminating information on the seasonal and daily weather forecasts. Most media houses are not eager to air climate stories, except when there’s a disaster such as prolonged drought, too much rain leading to landslides, destruction of infrastructure, death of people and wiping away crops.”

He explains that the media is not doing enough in depth analysis of the weather/climate factors that may be causing the disasters.

“Neither do they deliberately and as a strategy, develop specialized reporters on climate/weather issues, let alone science writers. The media mainly focus on what the politicians are saying; they do not seek scientists’ input. During EL Nino and its aftermath, is when probably Uganda had the highest ever media attention on climate-related issues. May be because of the negative effects that hit businesses including the media houses themselves,” says Wamboga.

Many of our interviews among journalists in the region concur with a recently concluded report by the Panos London Environment Programme. 'Whatever the Weather: media attitudes to reporting climate change' surveyed journalists in Zambia, Honduras,
Jamaica and Sri Lanka. It profiles the attitudes of journalists towards climate change and their understanding of it. The findings highlight those obstacles that journalists in these countries encounter in reporting on the subject. These range from lack of access to reliable information and low levels of awareness, with few resources available to address such problems.

Obstacles found by Panos that hindered climate change reporting in Zambia included lack of in depth knowledge or understanding of climate change issues, lack of interest from or motivation by journalists and lack of specialized training for reporters. The reporters also have limited access to information and consider climate change and environmental issues to be boring. Scientists on the other hand fail to simplify the language of climate change to enable everyone to understand their findings. Journalists do not understand the jargon used in climate change issues.

Judith Akolo, a Nairobi based climate journalist says there is need for bridging the gaps between the media in general and the meteorological services for effective dissemination of climate and weather information.

“The recent development of positive interest in reporting on weather and climate in the GHA is a move in the right direction. Previously the media was always critical of whatever was generated by the meteorological services,” says Akolo.

Akolo adds that climate scientists just like the media practitioners have never been fully understood by the public when reporting on the climate.

“Whereas the media is deemed to be alarmist when reporting on weather and climate, the weather people are seen to be always incorrect in their predictions. The media is a major stakeholder in the dissemination process of information generated by the climate science community. “Bridging the gap between the media and climate scientists will ease the flow of information to the public,” says Akolo.

Although there is widespread agreement of the growing importance of the media in the dissemination of climate information, the potential of the role of the media is yet to be exploited to the fullest.

Evidence of the influence of the media on decisions taken by individuals and governments can be adduced from testimonies at the COF meetings in the GHA. All national presentations have repeatedly stated that the main channel of communication of seasonal climate outlooks has been the media.

Information relayed by the media is instrumental in management of risks at all levels. It has continued to be the standard practice that affected sectors meet soon after the COFs and involve the media to work out strategies on effective dissemination.

How does personal communication fit within media?

“Did you not hear the radio last night. It said there would be little rain this season. The minister of agriculture advised us to plant early maturing maize, beans and clear our gardens quickly. I am planting lot of beans this season and that is why I have come to buy improved seeds,” said Sarah Ibanda a farmer in Iganga district of Uganda.

Sarah Ibanda explained to her inquisitive friend that she was stocking seeds early February, so that as soon as the rains begin she would plant straight away.

“That way I will be sure that by the time the rains end my beans will have got enough rain to see them mature. I always pay attention to the climate information on radio and plan my planting accordingly,” Ibanda explained.

What she was doing was giving a multiplier effect to the climate information and advisories that had been released by the meteorological department and the ministry of agriculture in last year’s second season.

Person to person communication in Africa is perhaps the most effective form of information dissemination. This type of information influences important decisions.

In Africa, the greeting that cuts across the continent regards the weather or climate. “How is the weather that end? Is it raining? How are you coping with this never ending rain?”

Probably due to the heavily rain fed agricultural systems; the people literally thirst for weather and climate information. Climate variability is common point of discussion in many rural homes with many questioning the changing trend in rainfall patterns, intensity onset and cessation.

“These days the rains are tricky,” says Kisakye Naomi a farmer in Nakasongola district in Uganda.

She sums up the whole picture for millions of farmers all over Africa who are learning to cope with the changing climate around them. Ironically although they cannot do much about the changing climate, at least they can talk about it.

Talk, talk and more talk makes Climate change less puzzling. This illustrates the power of communication as a cheap but powerful development tool. Consistent communication by communities about climate change is the first step to developing coping mechanisms and increasing the dissemination process from the media to a wider region by person-to-person exchange of information.

Indeed communication in itself is a coping mechanism for disaster risk management. This powerful coping tool has already been demonstrated by the HIV/AIDS war in Africa, where consistent communication has helped to stem the spread of the AIDS scourge with tremendous success.

As public inquiry on climate variability and climate change take center stage. People are talking. People in the market, in the gardens and in the countryside are talking. Fishermen are talking. Children are talking. When women go to collect water at the well and go out in search of firewood, they are talking. Actually everybody is talking about climate change.

Communities are not sitting back. Climate is major part of the emerging challenges. Developing coping mechanisms and interventions against a background of diminishing natural resources and changing biodiversity. It therefore shows that climate concerns are not a preserve of scientists and experts. Ordinary people are observing the dramatic shift in the climate. The media can play an accelerating role in helping to disseminate useful climate information that can effectively guide public debate and understanding for development.

The role of the media in climate information dissemination (in GHA, for example) : Kabineh Konneh, the Program Coordinator for Africa at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) underlines the fact that the media obviously is critical vehicle for disseminating climate information in the African Region. It is out of the recognition of this critical role that several organizations have pooled resources to build the capacity of journalists in the region.

“The Drought Monitoring Centers and international partners such as the USAID, NOAA has contributed to the capacity development of the media, especially in the Greater Horn of Africa. There was the Dar Es Salaam Workshop, (2001), The Kampala Media Workshop and various media Workshops at the Nairobi's Drought Monitoring Center now called IGAD Climate Predictions and Applications Center (ICPAC),” recalls Konneh.

Many of the training sessions have ran as part of the capacity building process at the Climate Outlook Forums for users challenges faced by reporters and media houses have been tackled. Capacity building has been for both the journalists and the scientists with a view to looking for ways of formalizing relationships between the media and various sectors such as agriculture, health, disaster management and various end users of climate information including policy planners.

“What is not still clear, whether the media's interaction with various economic sectors, such as agriculture, health, water, energy and livestock, has contributed to the changing decision environment of the stakeholders in these economic sectors?” inquires Konneh.

Konneh further suggests that for the media to have substantial influence on decision making in the various sectors it is necessary to address whatever deficiencies exist in the efficient functioning of the media.

“What are the critical challenges, if addressed will improve the role of media that would contribute to increased societal resilience and reduced vulnerability to climate stresses, such as drought, malaria, floods etc.,” says Konneh.