Mentoring Environmental Journalists on the Caribbean's Front Lines

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Earth Journalism Network, Cartagena, Colombia

I have worked as an environmental journalist for several years but it was only when I started a research group at the Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar (UTB) on environmental communication in 2015 that I really started to explore different ways of communicating this subject. Being able to effectively tell the story of something like climate change is critical to informing global debate and essential to journalists trying to convey these complex topics to a varied audience.

Through my work with the Earth Journalism Network’s Climate Change Mentoring Program, I finally got the chance to put this research into practice. At its core, the program aims to help journalism students reach wider audiences with their work and successfully tie local issues to a wider global conversation about the changing climate. The mentorship program was a “source of inspiration” that sparked “a passion to tell stories about the environment,” said student participant Jessica González, a student of Social Communication who likes nature, landscapes and wants to learn about the best way to create awareness about the environment.

Not only did students learn how to write better environmental stories, they also assessed how to best convey information for readers at home and abroad. Many had the opportunity to publish stories in outlets outside of Colombia. “[This was] the most fulfilling part of the mentorship program,” said student Samuel López, who has already travelled to some of the most forgotten towns in the Caribbean looking for stories. As part of this initiative, he has been able to write high-quality stories that have been published in national and international media.

Students on assignment in Colombia

During their first field assignment, the students learned how to find new angles for familiar stories. The sea level is rising, temperatures are getting hotter, but what is a new way to report on these issues? How can journalists in Colombia connect these changes to others taking place around the globe? Prior to this trip, I assigned readings in order to familiarize them with the basics of climate science. Keep in mind that these are not professional journalists, but students who are also in the early stages of learning how to write news articles. Maintaining a balance between both these early and advanced stage topics as a teacher was a difficult, but interesting challenge. Inevitably, each story the students wrote required a lengthy editing process.

As the mentorship program went on, we named the group “Yuca Pelá,” or “yucca without leaves,” as a tribute to one of the Caribbean’s most popular plants that is known for its resistance to droughts. When rainfall becomes scarce, the yucca drops its leaves and survives with only its roots. When the rains come back, the leaves also return. Many believe that this plant may one day save millions of people from starvation. It seemed well suited for our group.

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Climate change has already dealt the Caribbean a hefty blow. The region suffers from a host of environmental issues, including sea level rise, coral bleaching, water pollution, mangrove reduction and an extensive dry season. There are plenty of stories here to tell, but the key is reaching people who have little to no interest or stake in these topics. How do you find new ways to engage people who simply don’t care or don’t believe in climate change?

We started by linking these ideas to more popular topics and using multimedia elements such as photographs, videos and comics to create more visually attractive stories. In today’s world, few people have the time or attention span to sit through and read a long article. Photos are a key part of the language in which younger generations in particular are communicating.

As younger journalists, my students expressed insecurities about their writing throughout the process, but I treated them as though they were members of a working newsroom so they could get an idea of the hustle needed to survive in this field in the real world. “I started at Yuca Pelá thinking only about joining a research group,” said student Ruth Zabaleta, “but it has become the perfect excuse to stop being a student and start thinking as a professional. In some cases, other university assignments took precedence over our sessions, but navigating this new type of mentorship program was a learning process for all,” she added.

The famed primatologist and United Nations messenger Jane Goodall has said that we need to connect hearts and minds if we are to overcome the environmental challenges that we face. Through these mentorships, I’ve tried communicate this important message to my students in order to connect them to the mission of writing about this issue.  

A recent trip to Bogotá, for example, brought many students to the capital city for the first time. There we visited a paramo—the high mountain area responsible for providing water for 80% of Colombia’s population. This critical ecosystem is now at risk and many students were visibly moved by the experience and the impact that this damaged landscape could eventually have on the country. A number of them have since been reporting on it.

“That is what Yuca Pelá means to me,” said student Lina Maria Cano. “It is a way to talk about ‘the health of the planet’ using the tools of journalism. It allows me to tell stories about my planet, my country, my city and my neighborhood.”

 

Stories published so far:

Samuel López: El ejército detrás de las murallas verdes

Lina Maria Cano: De Alaska al caribe, el viaje de las aves migratorias

Ruth Nohemí Zabaleta Prens y María Clara Valencia: Más allá de la grama y sus 90 minutos

Samuel López: La yuca tiene sed

Viviana Cueto Ortega: Los pecados de la virgen en Cartagena

 

The stories have been reproduced in different media outlets. More stories are slated to be published before the end of the year.

For more information about Yuca Pelá, please visit our blog: http://yuca-pela.webnode.com.co/