When an Asian climate change report was launched in the Indian capital last month, it was presented by a big Indian television news channel that has no regular programming of its own on environment or climate issues, and that relies on imported Bollywood stars to attract viewers to its annual climate change gala.
Some media analysts say the slim coverage of climate issues by India’s local-language press is due more to commercial decisions and a shortage of trained science journalists than a lack of interest among readers and viewers.
One journalist who covered the launch of the report, reflecting the view of many Indians that they can do little about climate change, asked “What difference will it make if we write on such issues? So much has been written about the dangerous pollution in the River Yamuna in the heart of Delhi. Has any difference at all been seen? None.”
Solar power is seen as a toy for wealthy city folk who can afford the expensive panels. Energy-saving refrigerators sell only if the colour suits the decor of the house or the price suits the buyer’s purse – energy use has little to do with it. Replacing polluting car engines with compressed natural gas (CNG) is considered a bother, but has to be done because of a Supreme Court order.
The Millennium India Education Foundation, funded by the earth sciences ministry, reported that its two-year survey (2012-2013) of Mumbai and Delhi showed that while most young urban Indians were aware of climate change, 96.5 percent of them said they were “not getting aggressively involved in formulation or implementation of climate policies”.
Yet the number of journalists focusing on the environment and climate change has been rising. “Since the time emails have become pervasive, say since the 1990s, the number of registered environmental journalists has grown to about 500,” says Daryl D’Monte, chairman of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.
COMPLEXITY A PROBLEM
D’Monte says the field is dominated by English-language reporters, partly reflecting a lack of interest in the issue by the local-language press. “One of the key problems is the very complexity and uncertainty surrounding climate change science,” D’Monte said.
The bias towards English-language climate journalism has meant that “perhaps there is a sense that climate change issues are Western fads imposed on Indians,” he said.
The latest example of the Indian media establishment’s view on the importance of climate journalism came earlier this year, when top mandarins of India’s largest media conglomerate, Network 18 group, sacked well-known environmental journalist Bahar Dutt and her entire team of TV journalists working on climate and environmental issues.
“We do not need specialised journalists,” explained Raghav Behl, the owner of the group – even as the companies specialist business journalists, a lucrative source of revenue, kept their jobs.
On another occasion, a senior reporter who sought work as an environmental journalist at a Hindi news channel was told there was “no space for it.”
Joydeep Gupta, a senior journalist specialising in climate change and the Himalayas, has another perspective.
WRITING FOR POLICYMAKERS
“The basic problem is who do we write for? The people who write about climate change do so for policymakers. They write about the transport sector and power generation, about which the common people cannot do anything, so they are not bothered.
“The realities of climate change and agricultural yield fall and health crises have sunk in, but who will tackle them? The common person feels helpless in not having the powers to reverse the situation,” Gupta said.
Like D’Monte, Gupta believes that India’s vernacular media is largely ignoring climate change, but he says this is partly because of a shortage of science journalists able to explain climate change in some of India’s 22 official languages.
“There is quite some reporting about climate change in English medium news outlets, but nothing in vernaculars. Marathi, Bengali and a few other language newspapers still have some coverage but (in) Hindi (it is) practically nil,” he said.
Gupta, who worked previously at one of India’s best wire services, Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), adds: “For every (piece of) environment or climate change news released by IANS, the uptake and use was usually three times higher in Hindi newspapers than in English ones.
There is space for climate change news, Gupta argues, but there are no reporters, partly because it is hard for local language newspapers to attract science graduates.
“I have held training camps for media on climate change issues all across the Hindi belt. There has been an excellent response,” said Gupta. ”If the gap in lack of knowledge of the science is filled, there is no reason that climate change issues will not be acceptable to vernacular editors and readers.”
“We regularly make programmes on climate change and other environmental issues. We also get experts to explain the fallout of such environmental problems. People in the villages are interested in such programmes. They often come up with subsidiary questions which help us explain the problems better. Besides, people have responded by planting trees, (and) developing environment-friendly practices,” said Jagroop Singh Rana, a community radio reporter from Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh and one of those trained by Gupta.
Rana said that local media do not report such issues much because “they need a lot of research, which most vernacular reporters do not undertake.”
D’Monte agrees with Gupta on the need for training, but suggests a reorientation of focus.
“It is perhaps impractical for us to expect district-level reporters to train in the science part of the issue. But they can be guided into what to look for in the villages… excessive rainfall, impacts, yield falls - and trained to talk to the farmers and elders. They need not explain the reasons. But they can report the changes noticed and ask the specialists to write analyses of the whys and wherefores,” he said.
Archita Bhatta is a science and development journalist based in New Delhi.