For Kenyan journalist, Berkeley scholarship opens a new world

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Earth Journalism Network, Berkeley, CA

Rosalia Omungo is a television journalist and editor at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and was named as this year’s Earth Journalism Scholar, enabling her to attend the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism this past semester. Here she recaps her experience

The journey to my fellowship in environmental journalism at the University of California, Berkeley began when I responded to a call for application sent to a list of former Climate Change Media Partnership Fellows to which I belong. My application was selected from a pool of close to 70 applicants from across the globe. And so the shift from Nairobi to Berkeley began in January.

On arrival I realized the most amazing aspect of this change was the fact that I had one less headache to deal with: the weather. In other words, the perfect California sunshine was smiling at me while friends on the east coast of Kenya were soaking!

Journalists: Apply for this year’s Earth Journalism Scholarship.

For me, it was a great experience learning in a system of education that is, in my view, very practical and market-oriented. The core course I undertook was Earth Journalism, geared at exposing journalists to international environmental reporting.

I realized how susceptible we are when reporting on global environmental issues to not really knowing the fundamentals and sometimes reporting without good data. The course provided a platform for learning through a series of guest speaker sessions, that were not only meant to give a firsthand account from an experienced scientific expert, but also generated story ideas for the students. It was during one of these classes that an idea crossed my mind to explore a story on oysters, a local delicacy in parts of the United States, but less known in developing countries.

The class was an opportunity to take a critical look at the effects of human activity on the planet. The topics covered included climate change, loss of biodiversity, energy, rivers, oceans, climate governance and law. The lessons were also meant to intertwine this knowledge with science and policy. I have learned narrative and story-telling skills, and most importantly, how to apply these skills to the complex issues of science, environmental governance, ecology and policy. I also learned how to pitch stories.

The learning process involved lessons by our lecturers James Fahn and Mark Schapiro as well as critiquing stories by fellow students, to make the stories better. The contribution of ideas by the whole class allowed each student to eventually produce a rich, excellent piece. It was an opportunity to share experiences with American journalists on environmental reporting in Sub Saharan Africa and specifically Kenya, allowing me to share some of my work. I enjoyed the free and honest exchange of ideas with classmates. It is enriching to note that some of my classmates are looking to travel to Kenya to cover some of the environmental issues I shared with them.

I would say the whole experience was a thought-provoking journey of personal growth. One semester is quite short, it was not long enough to learn in-depth skills such as camera work, photography and website building. But it served as an opening into the multiplicity of avenues available for excellence in journalism in the age of digital media. This was an important opportunity for me. These are skills I hope to build on to perfection.

I also attended other classes such as TV documentary, data journalism and a course on leadership. The main thread that cuts across the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism is professionalism. When inculcated from the very beginning, it becomes part of a journalist’s mind. I admire the commitment to accuracy and excellence here.

It was a time to learn about journalism from the perspective of other international scholars and compare that with my country. It turns out that situations in a number of countries are similar, especially when it comes to freedom of the press. Muzzling of the media remains a common enemy being fought by media houses across many countries.

This is a great institution to be part of. Everyone was ready to offer a helping hand in seeing you succeed, from photography to shooting and editing. Everyone here operates as an amiable member of a very strong team.

Apart from the learning process, it was a time to learn from peers in the environmental reporting field, made possible by the global Internews Earth Journalism Network (EJN). The EJN conference held at the JSchool at the end of the course provided an opportunity to learn new concepts such as using sensors to measure air and noise pollution. It was also an opportunity for students to join the network.

Finally, it was also a time to appreciate the American culture and to develop contacts from across the world. The opportunity to live in Berkeley, and specifically at the International House, exposed me to other international students from across the globe. Thus it was an intercultural immersion and an opportunity to make friends. I feel like an intercultural leader in the making, ready to take up the global challenges we face.  

But it was not all work. I had an opportunity to visit several landmarks in the Golden State, from Silicon Valley to the magnificent coastal beaches, state parks and conservation spots.

I am definitely privileged and thankful to have been selected as the first Earth Journalism Scholar with this program. I am now back home working on strengthening the features desk at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, sharing what I have learnt with my colleagues in Kenya and looking forward to further collaboration with colleagues around the world.