By Tess Bacalla
There’s no gainsaying the visceral importance of the role of the mass media in raising public awareness of specific issues.
That much has been said in more public fora, symposia, and conferences than one cares to count.
Imagine a community being inundated by floods on a scale never before seen until the advent of climate change, yet are clueless about what has hit them, let alone how to deal, or cope, with this modern-day environmental scourge. Clearly, this is where the media’s role is extremely vital, as though this needs saying.
But thanks in part to the media, climate change has largely exited the realm of public ignorance. Still, many environmental issues remain under the radar, or figure quite insignificantly, if at all, in the media discourse.
Biodiversity. Ecosystem. Land use. Food security. These are just some of the other environmental issues that have yet to generate widespread public interest that can easily be translated into local, not just international, regional and national, actions.
Rolando Inciong, Head of Communication and Public Affairs at the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity
There is a “silent crisis that is not getting sufficient media and public attention” – it’s biodiversity loss, said Rolando Inciong, head of communication and public affairs at the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity.
Walter Salzer, director and principal advisor for the environment and rural development program of the German Development Cooperation, or GIZ, in the Philippines, echoed a similar concern. Some environmental issues in the Philippine are not being reported adequately by the media, he said.
Inciong and Salzer were among the speakers in the recently concluded 16th National Press Forum of the Philippine Press Institute (PPI), held April 23 and 24 in Manila. Both spoke on media reporting about the environment, in keeping with the annual event’s theme: “Media Accountability and Public Engagement.” The annual forum witnessed the gathering of representatives from the PPI’s member newspapers published and circulated in different regions and provinces across the country.
The apparent dearth of reporting on these issues is not helped by the media’s proclivity for sound bites and sensational stories, media analysts note.
As World Disasters Report 2005, published by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, observed:
“News judgment reflects established criteria. News must be new. Editors sort stories by death tolls. Disasters that are unusual yet explicable, and that cause considerable death or destruction in accessible places which the audience is believed to care about, get covered. Baffling stories get less attention.”
Slowing-moving and more complex environmental issues seldom get a good press compared to large-scale ones whose impacts are immediately felt.
Take biodiversity loss, for example.
Inciong said biodiversity, as a “forgotten crisis,” has not quite attracted the same level of attention as “hot issues” like climate change.
Why should newspapers talk about biodiversity? Inciong asked. Because biodiversity affects “all of us,” he said. Consider the insect-eating bats. If they are wiped out, he said, insect population could explode, including disease-spreading ones and pests that decimate agricultural produce.
“Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth,” comprising “the smallest microorganisms to the biggest whale,” he said. The alarming fact is, while the Philippines, alongside the rest of the Southeast Asian region, “is home to 18 percent of all known plant, animal and marine species, biodiversity loss is taking place at “unprecedented rates.”
The GIZ’s Salzer also rang the alarm bell for equally pressing environmental problems afflicting the Philippines and to which the rural poor are particularly vulnerable. One of the federally owned German institution’s priority areas for development cooperation with the Philippine government is the environment. A specific areas of primary focus is the issue of land use in the country.
Land use is inextricably linked to disaster risk management and climate change adaptation.
Potential land uses in the Philippines are competing with one another, said Salzer. Large amounts of land are either over- or underutilized due to poor land use and management, he said. He bemoaned the lack of well-defined state policies that lead to “unregulated land uses.” Compounding the absence of legislation on land use are, in the words of Salzer, “conflicting mandates among government agencies.”
Good land use and management helps preserve ecological balance and ensure food security. The GIZ hopes that a proposed Land Use Act still pending in Congress will be enacted soon.
In a previous media forum, Salzer described land use planning as a key component of disaster risk reduction and management. Yet few local government units seem to view it as a crosscutting issue in disaster risk management, as many still do not have climate-proof land use plans.
The experience of Peru has shown how an efficient land use plan can forestall the impacts of climate change. One district in Northern Peru, smarting from the 2005 drought that affected its water-intensive rice cultivation, shifted to the “less water-consuming and thus more adequate product” – Caupi (cowpeas) bean, recounts a report published by the GIZ in February 2011. This was land use planning in action, which aimed “to reduce vulnerability to drought, improve food security and reach economic development.”
On the home front, here’s an example of a situation where the absence of a land use plan and management has resulted in community disputes, not to mention exacerbated poverty conditions, as recounted by GIZ on its website:
Caraga, located in the northeast part of Mindanao, is rich in natural resources, including mineral deposits, and has extensive water resources. Yet this administrative region “remains the second poorest region in the country, with 53 % of the population living below the poverty line in 2006,” said the GIZ.
Political and social disputes are prevalent in Caraga. One cause of conflict is the inequitable access to resources and land,” it added.
During the PPI forum, Salzer called for a “more profound, more adequate and more frequent reporting on these and other environmental and development issues, believing in the role of the press to inform public discourse and policymaking.
Inciong urged the media to go beyond simply publishing reports from “government, or from conservation organizations” like the ACB. “We want you to have a greater role in promoting biodiversity conservation through civic journalism,” he said. Demystify the concept of biodiversity for the public, he said.
“Make your readers aware of the richness of your communities’ biodiversity. Educate the public on the values and impact of biodiversity in their daily lives.… Mobilize your entire communities to care for the environment.”
Beyond the “crude use of scare tactics,” said Ong Keng Yong, former secretary general of the Association of Southeast Nations, the media can educate the public on environmental issues. “Coverage should not be limited to highlighting environmental problems. There is a need to promote the public’s appreciation of the inherent values and benefits that the natural environment provides,” said Ong in his keynote speech at the International Media and Environment Summit in 2005.
“Good environmental reporting stimulates public interest and gives citizens the basis to make informed decisions, whether it be to insist on better management of natural resources by their governments or to call for businesses to adopt more sustainable practices.
“Why are media stories on the environment so insufficient?” he asked. Admittedly, such stories “do not grab the public’s attention” the way other stories do, such as political issues. Then, too, they are often complex in nature. Yet, such complexities provide an opportunity to engage the public, he said. “The challenge for the media is to present the different angles and make environmental issues relate to the daily lives of the general public.”