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Megan Rowling, journalist for Reuters AlertNet.

Megan Rowling, journalist for the humanitarian news website Reuters AlertNet.

Megan Rowling is a journalist for the humanitarian news website Reuters AlertNet. The site reports on the human impact of conflicts, 'natural' disasters, and increasingly, climate change. It also offers tools to help the media cover crises.

The challenge of reporting on the environment and its impact on people's lives

There is a gap that exists between the scientific community and society. Scientists often say that they don't do a very good job of communicating research to the public, and the media are the intermediary in that respect. I think we in the media have a role to play in getting information from scientists, putting it into an understandable form and communicating it to the public. On the other hand, scientists have to realise that what they say or what their research reveals can actually make a difference, for example, to the people living in northern Uganda who have been badly affected by extensive flooding in recent months.

Rebuilding lives...

After the first chaotic days following a disaster, once aid agencies have sprung into action with their responses, it tends to be difficult for journalists to keep the spotlight on the area and the people, particularly rural communities that are in need of help to rebuild their lives. It takes diligence and commitment and it can be challenging for reporters to convince editors to continue interest in a story once the worst is over. Reporters may need help from aid agencies and researchers to feed them topical information on what is happening, what needs to happen, and how the people affected will be able to regenerate their livelihoods.

Most importantly, journalists have a responsibility to look beyond the basics - death tolls, the immediate response - and ask how those communities might cope if a similar disaster occurred in the future. Often the causes of a particular disaster are not given as much attention as they deserve in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. This may be partly because it can be difficult to pinpoint the reasons why something has happened. It can also be challenging to get across the complexities of disaster, especially with environmental events. There may be a claim that mudslides have occurred because of deforestation, for example, but there may be other factors involved. It is our role to investigate and tell the whole story for what it is - not what it appears to be.

Giving a broader perspective

There are always other angles to explore, and the more explanation of environmental issues there is, the less people will think of climate change and environmental disasters as apocalyptic events, which we're unable to do anything about. Many experts state that there is no such thing as a 'natural disaster'. There is a disaster that occurs as a result of an extreme event, like heavy rains or a hurricane. But what turns a hazard into a disaster can be just as much about poverty, lack of preparedness, and the vulnerability of poor people.

A major theme currently related to extreme events, like the recent floods in Africa, for example, is the issue of climate change. Attributing particular disasters to climate change is one of the difficulties that journalists face. Even though a disaster may fit with what scientists say the impact of climate change will be, when you ask a scientist, "Is this a result of climate change?", they are often very reluctant to say: "Yes." But by linking other events to the current situation, we can ask about the bigger picture. We saw floods in 2006, and again in 2007 in east Africa, for example. We can ask what's happening and most importantly, why is it happening?

The media can make a difference

After talking with a group of environmental journalists in Kampala, I would say Uganda is a good example of where interest in the environment and its impact on rural livelihoods has really taken off. This was partly as a result of a government plan to cut down an area of Mabira Central Forest Reserve for sugar plantations. Media attention to this issue and popular protest helped revoke the decision - an unusual occurrence in Uganda.

Environmental journalists in Uganda feel a growing responsibility to report such environmental concerns and the public is very interested to learn about them. But they lack the resources and capacity to report such stories as well as they would like - and they also feel that within their own newsrooms they are not taken as seriously compared to political or business journalists. Reporting environmental and agricultural issues is definitely something that these journalists feel they should be doing more of. But they would like more help in understanding and communicating the realities behind the headlines.

Date published: November 2007


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