Albion Monitor /News

Media Just Doesn't Get the Message

by Thalif Deen

Newspapers, radio and television have not responded to rising public interest
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- With the end of a five-day summit on the environment and development, U.N. officials and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been left to ponder the value of international news media as ecological watchdogs.

"News editors are not responding to the growing public interest in the environment," says Terry Collins, president of the Paris-based International Federation of Environmental Journalists.

Collins said a recent worldwide survey of 27,000 people in 24 countries, conducted by the Toronto-based Environics International, revealed that public interest in environmental issues has increased significantly since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. But newspapers, radio and television have not responded to this rising public interest.

"Throughout the world, environmental coverage has been reduced in recent years," Collins declared.

Up to the media to put the environment back on the public agenda and build awareness and support for strong action by governments
Jane Ryan of the Australian Broadcasting Commission says that in her country "environment is a non-story." When a news story has to be cut for lack of space or a radio program eliminated for want of air time, the first casualty is the environment, she said.

Maurice Strong, former Secretary-General of the Rio summit, says that news on sustainable development issues needs a more effective dissemination system. "We can have all the ideas and the values for promoting sustainability, but unless we get these messages out into the larger world...they will have little impact," Strong said.

"I would like to challenge the media to consider developing their own version of 'Agenda 21' for journalists and broadcasters," he said, referring to the multibillion dollar global action plan adopted at the Rio summit for the protection of the environment through the next century.

"I believe that the media have an enormous responsibility in this process. Indeed, I believe that the media should take on a mission, focusing on the positive role it can play in increasing awareness about social, environmental and development issues and the practical solutions for overcoming some of the challenges," he said.

Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director of the Nairobi-based U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), said that some might suggest that it is really up to the media to put the environment back on the public agenda and build awareness and support for strong action by governments.

"But it would be hard to imagine the media being able to provide any greater effort for the environmental cause than that which was mounted at the time of Rio," she said.

"Hype will not do it. Rio quite clearly showed us that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink," Dowdeswell said.

She added that "even in this market-driven world, it is still up to governments to act. And there is still room for governments to act if they will choose to act together," she said.

Addressing a seminar on June 24, Seymor Topping, former managing editor of The New York Times, said that although there were more than 6,000 journalists at the Rio summit five years ago, global issues have once again been "relegated to the back pages."

Blaming political leaders for the declining interest in global and environmental issues, Topping said that "only if leaders take the bully pulpit will the press take heed."

Topping singled out the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on the depletion of global fish stocks. He also said that between 3,000 and 5,000 U.S. journalists write regularly on environmental issues.

Collins, of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists, believes there will be much greater coverage of environmental issues in the next few years but that it will be quite different from the tone of coverage of the late 1980s and early 1990s "because it won't be driven by environmental NGOs to the same extent."

"I think there will be a trend towards integration of environmental coverage throughout the news room, with an increasing emphasis on environmental issues by business journalists," he added.

Meanwhile, an international media conference on the environment and development held in Seoul early in June concluded that the media must significantly strengthen its commitment to environmental news coverage if the legacy of the Earth Summit is to have a lasting impact. The meeting, attended by journalists, U.N. officials and NGOs, resolved to promote greater commitment to the environment story "within our media organizations."

Participants also agreed to help fellow journalists and media professionals, especially from developing countries, improve their knowledge in and techniques for covering the global development story.

Hyon-Wook Kaing, Korea's Environment Minister, said that in a survey recently conducted in his country, 94 percent of the respondents said their major source of environmental information was the media.

"This reflects the significance of the media in the area of environmental protection," he said.

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Albion Monitor June 29, 1997 (

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