NEW ORLEANS — In this urban symbol of disaster unpreparedness, journalists who cover climate change and the environment gathered this month, almost exactly nine years after Hurricane Katrina tore this city apart, to swap stories and advice while brainstorming communally on their beat.
In a world that is ever more intertwined, it was clear to the journalists who converged in this riverside city that covering climate shifts and news about the environment — domestically or internationally — can require diverging into such not-so-obvious routes as population, migration, abortion, justice, agriculture, conflict and human rights. It can also entail writing articles long after a natural disaster has occurred.
The conference in New Orleans was held Sept. 3-7 by the Society of Environmental Journalists on risk and resilience. It featured, among other topics, a workshop on international reporting with professionals from Africa, Asia and the United States, speaking about population links to global environment issues. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, based in Washington, D.C., sponsored this all-day workshop. A related one concentrated on reporting about disasters and extreme weather worldwide.
Sometimes, journalists can work magic — when it comes to highly visible catastrophes, at least. Imelda Albano, the president of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists, a panelist at the disasters and extreme weather workshop, said that foreign coverage of Hurricane Haiyan in her country in 2013 led to more comprehensive coverage than local journalists could manage.
“Journalists coming in to the Philippines,” she said, “helped tell the story around the world.” She said that the Philippines is now a “natural laboratory for disasters” and that it was not in “adaptation mode yet” – that is, not ready for another blast of extreme weather.
The topics discussed at the conference were relevant to the United Nations, as government officials and international journalists are about to descend on New York to attend the UN climate change summit on Sept. 23 and a population conference the day before. The goal of the climate meeting is to increase awareness of how new weather patterns — long-term droughts, rainfall deluges, ultraviolent storms, scorching temperatures — are altering the economic spheres of every country.
The meeting is also supposed to solidify commitment to next year’s climate conference, taking place in Paris in late November, to try to pass an internationally binding treaty on climate change to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
In addition, the UN has a disaster risk reduction office, in Geneva, which primarily plays a coordinating role among countries to manage damage from disasters. But like many lesser-known offices in the UN, it operates without much self-promotion, making it hard for journalists to know about it. The office is run by Margareta Wahlstrom of Sweden.
Winifred Bird, who was speaking on the New Orleans conference panel with Albano from the Philippines, covered the 2011 tsunami and nuclear catastrophe in Japan. As an American freelancer living overseas, she had to be enterprising in her coverage, finding stories that large, well-financed media bypassed.
“I didn’t have practical resources or even a driver’s license,” she said. “This was a scary time with aftershocks and threats related to that — public health risk and the nuclear disaster.” As a freelancer, she said she felt vulnerable, and her family wanted her to return home. But she did some spot news for The Christian Science Monitor and got her journalistic juices going. Given the scale of the twin disasters, Bird discovered huge stories with long, deep roots that breaking-news reports had little patience or time for, like how the reconstruction efforts were affecting people’s lives.
As an independent journalist working in a foreign land, she had to ask herself as she dug at her research, Why would an international audience care about the Japanese disasters? One answer was that the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown was an “unusual, scary” event that “could happen in America.” So there were many lessons to be learned from it and compelling human stories. Radiation leaks drifting across the Pacific Ocean to the US were one example that Bird gave to show how to internationalize one aspect of the Japanese disasters.
Mike Casey, who writes for Fortune, was in Indonesia, reporting for The Associated Press, for the 10th anniversary of the 2004 tsunami. He covered women and disasters. “Depending on demographics,” he said, “everyone is affected differently. Vulnerable groups get lost often — women, disabled, children.” He found that widowed women from the tsunami carried a bigger burden than men.
One positive change from the tsunami, he noted, was the introduction of an early-warning system that is in place now in the Indian Ocean, which he described as a “high-tech control room in Indonesia for all of Asia.”
At the Wilson Center’s workshop on population and environment, journalists and other professionals ranged over a wide territory of experiences and places, touching on such matters as data collection and fishery threats in Cambodia.
Gladys Kalibbala, a reporter and photographer for the New Vision newspaper in Uganda, advocates for abandoned children in her country. She doesn’t hesitate to speak her views in her articles, leaving aside an objective hat that Western reporters try to keep strapped to their heads. She said, for starters, that population growth not only needed to be reduced to stem the tide of “orphaned” children but also that “leaders need to get down to the communities, reaching the rural communities” to carry out basic family planning and related services.
“Lots of misperceptions on family planning,” she said. “Men tend to know little and women a bit more.”
One Westerner who travels globally to produce off-the-beaten-track stories is Steve Sapienza, who works for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C. The center offers short-term grants to writers and others to report on specific news nuggets. The grants encourage recipients to incorporate visuals in their work to help “move” readers, Sapienza said, adding that he has begun to use Instagram to promote his reporting as it unfolds. He acknowledged to the audience, made up of mostly freelancers, that they must juggle more technological tasks — the brutal economics of investigative journalism nowadays.
For freelancers this can mean doing more with their laptops and cellphones, one audience member suggested, but not earning higher fees for their triple work, reflecting preferences by many media companies to chase geopolitical news and leave more serious, long-term coverage, sometimes, to stringers.
“Journalists have to do a lot of media, and sometimes it’s just too much to expect from them,” said Sean Peoples, a panelist who has reported on Nepali subsistence farmers and is a multimedia editor and program associate in the Wilson Center’s environmental change and security program.
Panelists also pointed out that journalists could often locate important unreported news and information on population topics through related nonprofit groups and academia — and the UN.
In Bangladesh, which is often hailed as a somewhat-success story in achieving a number of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, like reducing maternal deaths, Ken Weiss, a grantee of the Pulitzer Center, described how the Population Council, a nonprofit group in New York, surveyed women in an industrial sector in Bangladesh, focusing on those that came from rural regions to work in urban centers, mainly factories.
The women often returned to their villages about five years later and married — through arranged unions — but because they had postponed childbirth to a more mature age, they had fewer children and more say in the household. Some went on to start their own business in the village and as a result carried more clout.
“If you give women the ways and means to access contraception, they take it every time,” Weiss said. “This is a bottom-up thing, a way for women to empower themselves. It’s about giving women the ability to choose.”
The UN’s data collection on population was recommended as the best source for information on projections, providing an “amazing wealth of information with variables,” Kathleen Mogelgaard, the principal of KAM Consulting, said.
Data experts in the UN Population Division consistently revise their population projections, incorporating new information to make the numbers more reliable and accurate, said Joyce Coffee, the managing director of the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, which she said used UN data.
Population data, Mogelgaard noted, can help put women’s rights at the forefront and link them to climate change and economic growth. “We’re trying to understand and articulate what climate change means for society,” she said.