Interviews by Anne-Sophie Garrigou
“The media need to put the climate crisis on every headline, on every front page,” says Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old who started an international School Strike for Climate.
This really resonated with us here at The Beam, as we reflected on the privileges we enjoy to be able to do so independently of any economic or political forces.
Reporting on climate change is essential. While most individuals know about global warming, addressing the issue requires collective action. As Alice Hoffman writes in Incantation: “Once you know some things, you can’t unknow them. It’s a burden that can never be given away.” The more people become aware of the state of our environment, and our responsibility towards it, the more chance we have to address the issue globally.
To highlight the work of journalists from all over the world who are contributing to raising awareness for climate action, we met with Sharon Tsipa, a freelance journalist from Botswana, where climate change and its impacts became a topic of discussion for the general public, and Eyong Blaise, a TV journalist from Cameroon, where the population and the media are barely acknowledging this global issue. Their experiences covering climate change couldn’t be more different.
As a student, Sharon Tshipa first pursued journalism as a way of gaining experience to fill her resume. Sharon started her career as a Lecturer at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Malaysia, and it’s only after a year of teaching journalism courses that she decided to pursue journalism, hoping that would make her a better lecturer in the future. “I suppose that the future hasn’t arrived yet, considering I’m still in the field.” From Botswana Guardian to Agence France Presse and Thomson Reuters Foundation, Sharon is now covering climate change for the international press.
As a TV journalist from Cameroon, Eyong Blaise’s passion for telling stories and informing the public comes from his love of reading, watching and listening to the news. “I did not have the opportunity to go to journalism school but I pushed my way through by working with the best in the industry and learning from them,” he explains. Deutsche Welle, Reuters TV: how does one learn to become a TV reporter today without access to training? “The internet, of course.”
What does it look like to be a journalist covering climate change and climate science in your country today?
Sharon Tshipa: Covering climate change in Botswana is fulfilling now that people see, and are experiencing, the dire effects of climate change. My interest in climate change started in 2012. Climate change still sounded surreal to most people at that time. They knew the problem but just couldn’t translate that to climate change as the global issue that humankind has the greatest potential to solve. In 2014 and 2015, Botswana’s temperatures rose, we experienced regular severe heat waves which claimed human lives, and dams started drying up. In cities and villages alike, we had no access to safe drinking water for months and water rationing and water bowsing became part of our daily lives. Animals were not spared, many farmers lost cattle to the drought, and with that the potential agricultural produce capable of reducing Botswana’s import bill.
“People cannot fight for human rights they don’t know they have, so communication is imperative.” — Sharon Tshipa
In short, covering climate change no longer feels like a shallow pursuit of the topical issue, but a necessary effort in helping with mitigation and adaptation, while contributing to policies; trying to ensure they speak to the burning issue at hand. It’s really great to interview people in rural villages now because they respond like people who are part of the problem and part of the solution. But more awareness work needs to be done so no one is left behind. People cannot fight for human rights they don’t know they have, so communication is imperative. Communication that is not technical.
Eyong Blaise: It’s difficult to work as a journalist covering climate change and climate science stories in Cameroon. People have so many other problems here, they don’t see why a journalist would report on climate change in a country where unemployment, poverty and healthcare are the main concerns. As a result, it’s sometimes a challenge to find both public information as well as from the government.
Reporting on climate change and climate science isn’t cheap, especially for those of us who report for television. The biggest challenge is to get resources to keep telling good stories. Getting funds for media projects in Cameroon is difficult and getting funds for environmental reporting is even more difficult. It’s a constant struggle to get funds to travel far and wide to tell stories, do research and get the required equipment for some particular stories.
How do you overcome these challenges?
Sharon Tshipa: My role as a journalist is to communicate, so I try to write articles that are not too technical. I write stories of ordinary people that are battling the effects of climate change. Climate change stories do not readily drive media sells, so to do what I love, I am constantly on the lookout for grants and fellowships that can afford me the opportunity to play a significant role.
Eyong Blaise: As an environmental reporter in Cameroon, I need to partner with media outlets from outside the country. That’s how I can get the necessary funds to work on a story and it’s the best way to secure a platform to air my stories. I have come to discover that a lot more media organisations in Europe and America are willing to support environmental reporting in Africa. Working as a freelancer has equally helped me to have the flexibility to do the kinds of stories I want to do.
What do you think of the treatment of the information on climate change by the mass media in your country?
Sharon Tshipa: Climate change does not readily sell ‘newspapers’, but given Botswana’s experiences with climate change, editors are now accepting climate stories. It helps that COP is a high profile event, the involvement of high government officials means more coverage. A deliberate pursuit of climate change stories is necessary though. We can’t afford to sit back and wait for climate change conferences to cover, there are many stories to cover outside conference rooms, real stories. But again, funds are necessary and most media outlets do not have a tangible budget for coverage. It’s time media owners saw the need for this type of budget.
“Our society has too many problems, to a point where the media are no longer interested or worried about the planet.” — Eyong Blaise
Eyong Blaise: The treatment of information on climate change by the mass media in Cameroon is very, very low. Not much attention is given to this topic and even journalists who dare to bring that issue to the forefront are almost doing this on their own. The media doesn’t really care about climate change reporting at all. The subject only comes up during international events but it’s not really a big deal for the local media here. Again, this is Cameroon. Our society has too many problems, to a point where the media are no longer interested or worried about the planet. This is very dangerous, as those who are supposed to inform the public about climate change and to also hold authorities accountable have now turned a blind eye.
What shapes the debate around climate change today in your country?
Sharon Tshipa: Heatwaves (temperatures can reach up to 44 degrees Celsius), incessant droughts, and floods are really shaping the debate here. As a country, we have no choice but to dialogue and engage one another as these climate change issues are unbearable. Just a simple ‘how are you?’ greeting will give you a frustrating response concerning the unbearable heat, and a subsequent wish that it should rain. This has become the norm.
The lack of a climate change policy also comes back a lot in the discussion, limited access to electricity and the country’s plans to increase its coal plants, and the adaptation and mitigation burden that climate change has brought onto a government which is also caught up in pursuing poverty eradication and sustainable development.
Eyong Blaise: Nothing is shaping the climate change debate in Cameroon. The signs of climate change are visible everywhere in the county but there is no real Cameroonian discussion on the topic both at the public and private levels. There are some local NGOs and individuals trying their best to raise the issue but how much this has impacted the larger Cameroonian society is still to be seen.
When reporting about climate change, do you think it’s more important to focus on the impacts or the solutions? And why?
Sharon Tshipa: In the context of Botswana, I advocate for focusing on both impacts and solutions when reporting. I believe good reporting is one that gives people hope (we honestly have enough problems in the world) after highlighting problems. Here is a problem, but here is how others (in the same country, or beyond borders) are tackling it. It’s not always practical when you take your client or your employer’s word count, or crazy deadlines into consideration, but as climate change reporters, we should try. If countries could just deliver on their Nationally Determined Contributions, if they could just significantly reduce their GHGs emissions, if renewable energy could take over, life could become bearable once again for humans, ecosystems and biodiversity. The fact that solutions exist should be preached. With hope, the masses will stand up and take their governments to task.