Why Indian newsrooms don’t care about climate change

We witnessed some of the worst floods this year, but journalists are woefully underprepared to connect the dots.

WrittenBy:Shreeshan V
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“Look, for countries like India, the adaptation half of the climate action is at least as important as the mitigation half. The negotiations and what comes of them have a bearing on how our government deals with the climate change question—what its responsibilities towards us citizens are. Just pay attention and it’ll give you new perspectives for your reportage. In a way, you’re the cord that connects these corridors of power with the vigorous laboratories of climate change across our country.”


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I sat expectantly across a fellow journalist several years my senior, mulling my own pearls of wisdom. For my efforts, I was awarded one of the most deadpan expressions I have ever seen. The scene was eerily reminiscent of the hours of cramming before an exam in school or college and at that moment, I empathised with my audience.

His blankness gave way to a momentary glimmer in his eyes as he spat out: “Achcha toh inn negotiations me India vs China type kuch hone ki sambhavna hai na?” He waited a few seconds before adding, “…waise bhi these technical things are left best to the experts (So there is a potential of an India vs China type situation during these negotiations, right? …anyway these technical things are best left to experts).”  

I mentally scoffed at the word “experts” as I debated the implications of the latter part of his response. It was my turn to wear the face where expressions go to die.

This is a part of a conversation that happened last year in Bonn, Germany, during the yearly climate mela that is the Conference of Parties or simply, COP. Every year, for the past 24 years, this congregation of activists, businesses, lobbyists, scientists, journalists and governments has been the centre of high-level inter-governmental negotiations on climate change. The COP is essentially supposed to facilitate humanity’s collective response to human-induced changes in earth systems.

In the 10 months since last year’s climate expo—there really is no better way of describing it—I revisited that conversation several times, especially with the news coverage of the floods in Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Nagaland, and even the monsoons in general.

Disaster coverage follows pretty much the same template in India: an obligatory genuflection towards the might of climate change before moving on to more important matters of politicking. The more I revisit that conversation and its setting, the more convinced I am of the extent to which it typifies Indian news media’s attitude towards arguably the biggest challenge faced by humanity this century.

About 10 years ago, as climate change entered casual parlance, the coverage of it also shot up across the world. According to data from the Media and Climate Change Observatory—which monitors 74 news sources across 38 countries—coverage of climate change jumped nearly three times between 2006 and 2008. The four Indian newspapers considered in the study also saw a steep increase in the space provided for climate change.

Since then, however, coverage has more or less stagnated, even dipping in the years running up to the historic Paris Agreement in 2015. Further, there is a clear correlation between the coverage and the time of the year. The biggest peaks in coverage are seen at the end of the year, ostensibly coinciding with the period of the climate change conference. Additionally, smaller peaks are packed into the monsoon months, when much of India’s annual flooding happens. Comparing this to other parts of the world, coverage in Africa, Europe, North America and Oceania regions were found to be more consistent and robust.

Unfortunately, a similar analysis for major news broadcast networks in India is not presently available, but the unfavourably skewed airtime afforded to environment and climate is clearly evident to any regular consumer of news. “Broadly, there is very little coverage, and it is very difficult to find nuance. And when there is nuance, there is little attempt made to word it in simple terms to keep the reader interested, distancing the masses from what should be a very important discussion. To be fair to reporters, there is opacity, and sometimes even discrepancy in official data and that makes it very difficult to present informative reports/analysis,” says Sudarshan Varadhan who covers environment for the Reuters news agency.

It has been over 20 years since a consensus was reached on climate change and yet, overall, its coverage or depth of engagement with the subject in mainstream news media has barely scratched the surface. The reason is said to be linked to ratings and audience sizes. Chris Hayes of America’s MSNBC news recently tweeted that climate change was a “ratings killer”, implying that there was little incentive to cover it.

There’s no need to wait for an Indian journalist to say anything so radical to know that this sentiment is shared halfway across the globe. One needs only to look at the way in which news coverage of climate is packaged. In the US, the need to sensationalise it is met with a debate between climate change believers and sceptics.

In India, the strategy is slightly different. Being a “nature-loving” country, climate sceptics are a tad harder to find than gau rakshaks. Instead, Indian news wraps up climate change in a rhetoric of destruction, violence, fear and pain. I suppose the idea is that the awesome fury of nature has at least a chance of selling as well as cacophonous hatred does.

It’s quite straightforward that sensationalism in climate change news stems from a failure to dumb down a complex biogeophysical process that affects the entire planet into a “Tweedledum versus Tweedledee” debate. However, what is difficult to comprehend is how something like climate change—that has a significant bearing on practically every single person—could struggle to find an audience. I realise that this sensationalism is actually a symptom of a far deeper problem in news media—stagnancy.

A whole generation has now been born since the scientific consensus on climate change was reached. A primarily scientific phenomenon is now deeply embedded in culture and economy. Yet, news media has failed to keep step.

In fact, environment, science and rural reporting—all of which are critical in reporting climate change—were victims of a corporate news media purge that has been on for the last 20 years or so. An increasing reliance on newswires, press releases and soundbytes from public figures to make up the talking points of the day has coincided with drastically dipping levels of scientific temper and competency in newsrooms.

It’s ironic for an industry that is supposed to shine a light on and for society. Anyone who has ever spent time in a newsroom is aware of the palpable distaste for anything “scientific” or “technical”. Science and statistics might as well be the anathema for our news-wallahs.

This is why even after successive years of erratic monsoons, mainstream media has failed to point out the obsoleteness of the India Meteorological Department’s way of presenting forecasts or distributions; or why media houses blindly publish sensational stories on research papers without critical analysis; or indeed why mainstream media has not questioned the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for the diversion of tens of thousands of crores of funds meant for climate action.

In this twin age of climate change and technology, Indian newsrooms are woefully underprepared to connect the dots. The deviousness of it is that this might be as much by circumstance as it is by design. In recent years, literature on climate change has increasingly zeroed in on the incompatibility of a capitalist system with climate action. The reasoning is pretty simple—an economy based on consumption cannot be effective in tackling a problem inextricably linked to production.

This is the problem at the heart of the news media’s inability to cover climate change. In reality, it’s not like it’s impossible to frame the climate change debate in black and white or X vs Y—except it would involve journalists implicating their own corporate overlords and sponsors, and holding them to account.

In the contemporary diversified corporate structure of ownership, media houses are commonly held by corporates that have their fingers in several other pies—including in industries directly contributing to climate change and environmental degradation.

So, the very act of reporting on climate change is, for most corporate newsrooms, a conflict of interest. To hold owners and sponsors accountable would be like burning the hand that feeds you. And so journalists, both competent and otherwise, continue to rely on the tried and tested formula of sticking to soundbytes, press releases and, of course, nature’s fury, when talking about climate change.

Going back to the COP, thousands of journalists show up to cover these events every year. A small delegation of Indian journalists, usually huddled together in the press room, is also part of this crowd. For most journalists, events like this are an opportunity to report from the forefront of immensely important political and economic negotiations.

However, many Indian journalists are satisfied burning all that jet fuel just to insipidly middle-man press releases for the government—something they could have done just as well from their homes. Many Indian journalists don’t even attend discussions on subjects extremely important from an Indian point of view, like those on agriculture, indigenous peoples, or disaster risk and reduction. Whether by coincidence or tacit agreement, official Indian presence and participation in these talks are also close to nada.

The inability to grapple with technicalities is often hidden behind the nationalistic framework within which the role of news media is defined. But a nationalistic framework is not sufficient to address climate change.

As it stands, climate change or jalvayu parivarthan elicits a reaction even from the remotest parts of the country. Still, there is no grasp of its connections with “development”, or the policy action required to address it.

In keeping power happy, journalists have failed in their first duty towards the public. Considering the yawning deficiencies in newsrooms, it is frankly no surprise that they miss the beat so horrendously when it comes to climate change.


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