Africans Protesting Against Climate Change, Does the Media Care?

25 September 2019

Last week the world once again turned its attention to climate change ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Millions peacefully protested on the streets of over 5,000 cities across the globe against environmental degradation and greenhouse emissions.

Africa was no exception. Kenya's capital Nairobi was overwhelmed by the number of protesters holding placards with writings such as "Save Our Planet", "There is no planet B" among others. South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Nigeria equally had massive turn-ups.

The message is loud and clear, that African leaders should pay attention to climate change. But so should the media in Africa. For long, climate change has been a phenomenon so far away from us often tagged as "a western problem" and yet the reality is beginning to set in.

In many newsrooms across the continent, stories of climate change are a hard sell to the editors. It is no wonder that very few have made it to the front pages as stories on conflict, violence, corruption, and politics dominate the headlines in both print and broadcast media.

In fact, the quantity and quality of climate change reportage in African media is uneven to the level of threat it poses to the continent. In its report titled 'Least responsible, most affected, least informed', the BBC World Service Trust made a scary conclusion that "African citizens are at humanity's climate change frontline, yet they are also among the least informed about human-induced global climate change, its causes and its consequences."

Perhaps the data from the Reuters Institute speaks louder with some figures. Out of the 86,760 stories covered by two of Nigeria's top newspapers, The Guardian and Vanguard, only 79 stories were about climate change in the 6 months of the study. It is the same script but different cast for the results in South Africa for the publications in The Star and M and G newspapers. Out of 28,800 stories published, only 96 were associated with climate change.

This, therefore means that the continent's response to climate change through behavioral change and adaptation will be limited since the media has failed on their key role of educating the public about this matter by not publishing enough about the stories.

Numbers aside, let us talk about the quality of reporting on climate change. Makerere University associate professor Goretti Linda Nassage who has done extensive research on the media and climate change rightly noted in one of her papers that "The media in Uganda are not putting climate change into proper context to raise public awareness and influence engagement in the climate change debate"

Reality is that very few people in the general population read scientific reports, specialist websites and blogs, or even follow the proceedings of the intergovernmental panel on climate change discussions every year. It, therefore, means that newsrooms in Africa need to set aside a team of environmental reporters who need to break down the science to everyday living scenarios to bring the message of climate change home.

If this is not done, then the editor shouldn't expect magic from a reporter on the general desk to decode the climate change messages in these conferences or reports in one day to do a great story.

Does the African media, therefore, have a role to play in the global action against climate change? Yes, it does. So instead of just doing stories like "Thousands protest on the streets against climate change" which are often event-driven, the media needs to take a deep dive into this subject by detailing how climate change is affecting us every day and what we need to do revert its effects.

If media in Africa keeps its audience in the dark, we may wake up when it is a little too late.

The author is an investigative journalist

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