Earth Journalism, The Observatory — June 7, 2011
Environmental Journalism Associations Proliferating Worldwide
Members find strength—and challenges—in numbers
By James Fahn
When I was a journalist uncovering how oil and petrochemical companies were dumping mercury into the Gulf of Thailand, I could not get the Thai minister of industry to respond to my questions. I would send interview requests and call up his office, but he felt free to ignore me.
When the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists (ThaiSEJ)—made up of journalists representing most of the country’s print media, along with some radio and TV reporters—sent in a request that he come speak with us, however, the minister somehow was able to find the time. While a single journalist or news organization is often effective in carrying out investigative reports, in some cases journalists find there is strength in numbers when searching for information.
That was one of the reasons I and several other journalists helped establish ThaiSEJ back in the mid-1990s. Not only did it bring us more clout in certain situations, it enhanced peer-to-peer learning. Senior journalists helped train and advise younger ones, either formally through workshops or informally at social events. As a support organization, it has also proved to be sustainable: while many of the network’s founders have long since left, ThaiSEJ is still active today with new leaders and members, holding seminars and publishing a book every year on the top ten environmental issues in the country.
The largest such organization is the United States’s Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), which was founded in 1990 and has around 1,450 members, most from the U.S., but also a smattering from abroad, particularly from Canada and Mexico. Over the last two decades, similar associations have proliferated, bringing together journalists who cover environmental issues. An informal survey suggests there are around two dozen such organizations now active around the world, including ones in China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica. , There is even, according to its chairperson Paul Jimbo, a correspondent for SciDev.net and a project mentor for the Media Diversity Institute, a nascent Society of Environmental Journalists in Southern Sudan — in a country still awaiting official recognition.
There are equally numerous networks of science journalists, regional and international groups in Africa (and East Africa), Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, as well as more general professional journalism associations that also support environmental reporting. (Do you know of a group that hasn’t been mentioned here? Please write in and tell us about it.)
The activities these networks carry out can have huge impacts on the subjects they cover. A training workshop by the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists (VFEJ) and the Earth Journalism Network, a non-profit project I oversee that helps local media improve their environmental coverage, led the Vietnamese government to protect Tam Dao National Park from ruinous development. Journalists supported by the two groups also uncovered wildlife smuggling ring in Indochina. Zhang Ke, a Chinese journalist, credits the training he received with helping him to uncover dozens of illegally polluting factories in the Chinese city of Liupanshui.
“VFEJ helps me to have more opportunities to work abroad, expand my network (of colleagues, scientists, experts) and update [my] knowledge of environment and climate change,” says Tran Thuy Binh, a reporter with Hanoi TV.
According to Beth Parke, SEJ’s executive director, “member benefits include discount rates for remarkable (and hugely subsidized) annual conferences, the quarterly SEJournal, discount entry fees for SEJ Awards, access to a lively, members-only [e-mail] listserv, SEJ’s mentoring program, a freedom of information project that monitors, reports and acts on behalf of environmental journalists, member directory, entrée to a freelance directory that attracts assignments from editors, news of fellowships, [and] mini-grants.”
Networks in developing countries generally have fewer activities, but those they offer may be even more crucial given that access to information is often weaker and journalistic support resources scarcer. There is virtual unanimity as to the main challenge facing these networks: a lack of funds. Benedict Tembo, who runs the Zambian chapter of the African Network of Environmental Journalists, echoes the complaints of many network leaders and members when he says, “Resources allowing, ANEJ-Zambia should be conducting more training programs and field trips because we have received overwhelming response from media personnel intending to join us.”
“[With] the historic changes we have witnessed and are still witnessing in the news industry, the needs have only grown among journalists and would-be journalists,” says Parke. “Money is always, of course, in short supply.”
For some reason, donors generally seem less willing to support these journalism associations than they do environmental advocacy groups. Perhaps potential funders just don’t know about them. Or perhaps they don’t feel they would be able to exercise enough influence over the associations, which tend to protect their members’ freedom to report objectively regardless of a funder’s mission or priorities. Most journalism associations prefer funding from non-profit foundations or bilateral aid donors, and some such as SEJ have strict rules about or against accepting money from government, businesses or environmental advocacy groups. Others do end up taking funds from these sources, even while trying to keep an editorial firewall that allows their members to report as they see fit. It’s a tricky balancing act that leads to fierce internal debates.
Another unfortunate consequence of spotty funding is ineffective management, which plagues many of environmental journalism networks. “We have never been able to secure money for the most basic thing that an organization needs, which is administration. So we have never had a paid director or fundraiser,” says Talli Naumann, a founding member of the Mexican Network of Environmental Journalists (Rempa, to use its Spanish acronym).
Many journalists are just that—journalists—who have no management experience and lack the time needed to run complex association. “The will to develop organizational strategy and the availability to carry it through are not the priorities for many,” Naumann says. “Environmental journalists are usually over committed to begin with, because the demands of the industry require they perform other duties to earn a living… No [leadership] campaigns have been conducted [at Rempa], and no slates of candidates have ever formed, for that matter. The elections have been last-minute nominations with secret balloting at the same moment candidates are proposed.”
As with any organization, overzealous managers sometimes hoard control of “their turf” and are reluctant to relinquish authority, or simply lack the necessary leadership skills. In Burma, a network of environmental journalists fell apart largely due to a failure of communication among its leadership. A portion of the membership felt the manager did not provide enough information or about planned activities. In fairness, this lack of consultation may have partly due to the harsh political environment in the country, which fosters secrecy and mistrust, leading people to fear being about their activities even if they are doing nothing wrong.
That said, there are more success stories than failures, concerning individual leaders and organizations alike. Naumann points out that Rempa has overcome its managerial deficiencies to achieve many successful activities and functions by “building a sense of camaraderie and solidarity. This has been particularly important as a base of support for those of us, like myself, who are among the many having lost jobs in the mainstream media due to cutbacks and having ventured forth with independent projects.”
In Indonesia prior to 2006, there had only been an informal e-mail list maintained by Harry Surjadi, a former journalist for the Kompasnewspaper. That year, forty-five Indonesian journalists gathered at a national conference in Sumatra and created the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ), modeling it directly after SEJ in the U.S. by making it a dues-paying membership organization, with a governing board and by-laws. Given their low wages, it’s not easy asking Indonesian journalists to pay dues—nominal as they may be—and volunteer their time. But it seems to have worked. The organization is thriving, has a full slate of activities, and about 180 members. That it has received steady funding from the Packard Foundation in recent years has certainly helped. But to its credit, SIEJ also pulled off a seamless and seemingly peaceable change in leadership, something of a rarity among such organizations.
In the interests of full disclosure, the Earth Journalism Network (EJN) helped launch SIEJ as a formal organization (along with Rempa in Mexico and the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists) by providing modest funds and technical support. Indeed, one of EJN’s objectives is to work with and nurture such networks, largely because of the benefits described above.
But, as Parke notes about SEJ (and as I feel about EJN), “there’s something else, on a different level entirely, that I think of as the biggest benefit of being a member of this organization. SEJ has become a network of networks — many groups of people that together define the field of environmental journalism. Membership connects you to the whole field in a very special way.”
By the nature of their profession, environmental journalists often feel isolated. Many work freelance, and even those who are full-time staff for media organizations work solo on their beat. Intangible as it may seem, one of the biggest benefits of these associations is simply becoming part of a group, of realizing you’re not alone in your chosen career.