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DEVELOPMENT: Is The Media Doing Enough?

Baher Kamal

THE HAGUE, Oct 24 2008 (IPS) - The media has a key role to play in effectively addressing the two major challenges of the 21st century – sustainable development and climate change. But is it doing enough?

Farah Karimi, director-general of Oxfam Novib speaking at the meeting. Credit:

Farah Karimi, director-general of Oxfam Novib speaking at the meeting. Credit:

The verdict was mixed – at least judging by the views expressed by a group of academics, journalists, scientists, government officials and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and U.N. agencies at a seminar held at The Hague in the Netherlands Thursday.

"Media has been focussing on the financial crisis; but what about the climate change crisis, what about the food security crisis?" asked Farah Karimi, director of OxfamNovib.

When climate change is an emerging issue of major worldwide concern to everyone on the planet, "how can the media help us to re-energise and re-organise ourselves to plan, coordinate and implement the necessary responses on a global scale?" asked Dr Mohan Munasinghe, director-general of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester in the UK, in a paper read out on his behalf at the meeting.

The panel discussion on the theme 'Strategies to Preserve and Increase the Support Base for Global Sustainable Development: the Role of the Media' was co-sponsored by OxfamNovib, the Netherlands' National Committee for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development (NCDO), and the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency.

Munasinghe, who is also vice-chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that global warming is a reality which the world has to accept sooner than later.

In Darfur, he pointed out, where several hundred thousand people have died in recent years in the political conflict, climate change has exacerbated water and land shortages due to growing desertification. This has undermined agriculture, and fuelled conflict for these scarce resources among the poor.

On the opposite side of the globe, he said, many Pacific islands, and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, are often only centimetres above sea level, and threatened with inundation by rising seas.

This is not much spoken of in the media, said Sabina Voogd of OxfamNovib. "When reporting on climate change, the media presents us more often with lonely polar bears on ice shelves than with all these people in developing countries that already suffer from longer periods of drought, extreme floods, and sudden cold spells.

"Climate change has a huge effect on agriculture and food security, and it will get worse when water will become really scarce, climate zones will shift, and a quarter of all animals and plants will be extinct," Voodg said. She called on "the rich countries, but also institutions like the World Bank, to stop doing harm, and to help farmers in developing countries become more resilient to external shocks."

The meeting explored ways these stories are playing in the media, specifically in some of the mainstream Western media, which still believes that climate change is mostly a non-story unless there is a major political twist to it.

Lynette Thorstensen, communications director at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said that when selling a story to the news media, one has to be a "consummate story teller."

She said "big numbers work with the media", as with the stories of the billions who suffer from a shortage of clean water or adequate sanitation in the developing world.

She acknowledged that some newspapers view climate change as "dull, tedious and technical", but it is left to the person pitching the story to make it more interesting and more human.

But "information is not a panacea," said Prof. Cees Hamelink, scientist at Amsterdam University. People have plenty of information, they often know what is harmful, but they also often do not act on what they know, he said.

Rather than information, what is needed is communication and a greater readiness to listen, Hamelink said. There are too many talk shows; what is needed are more "listen shows".

Mario Lubetkin, Director-General of IPS, pointed out that there is no single answer to the role of media in climate change. "It is part of a process," he said. The question, he said, was "how can we build the process for a final solution?"

Lubetkin argued that climate change coverage is undeniably better today than it was five or 10 years ago.

There is more and more of both the mainstream media and the alternative media coming on board, he said. There are also millions and millions of readers who now access stories on sustainable development.

At the same time, he said, there is now a widespread concept of partnership between NGOs and news agencies. "Five years ago, we would not have had these alliances."

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