In July 2021, South Africa was rocked by widespread looting and violence following the incarceration of the country’s former president Jacob Zuma.
With the media engrossed in analyzing the political chaos, environmental reporting fell off the national news agenda. Except for one story: A disastrous chemical spill at an agrochemical plant in Durban, one of South Africa’s worst ever industrial disasters.
In addition to the country’s most seasoned environmental reporters, two cub reporters, Rio Button and Natalie dos Santos, jumped at the opportunity to tackle the story.
They were part of Roving Reporters, a South African journalism training agency focused on environmental, social and justice issues.
With the support of EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative (BMI), Roving Reporters guided 16 conservation-focused reporters under the age of 30 to produce stories on biodiversity — on land and in the oceans — and the need to balance human needs with environmental integrity in South Africa.
Both Button and dos Santos embraced the steep learning curve, recalled Fred Kockott, Roving Reporters’ director.
“Although I didn’t end up publishing anything based on the chemical spill, I learned from the process of investigating a breaking news story,” says Button, a 27-year-old conservation biologist who enrolled for training with Roving Reporters in September 2020. “I not only drew on my network of contacts, but also had the confidence to approach spokespersons and experts who I had never engaged with before."
Button went on to produce six biodiversity-related stories, including this in-depth feature on threats to humpback whales as they migrate from the Cape through to Mozambique and beyond, and this story on the endeavors of a team of citizen scientists to save endangered estuary seahorses.
“Our goal is to ultimately create a powerhouse of independent and critical-minded environmental journalists who can work as regular correspondents for Roving Reporters and other media titles in southern Africa,” said Kockott.
Since 2011, the agency has mentored more than 35 journalists and aspiring environmental writers, mostly from rural or township communities in Africa. Nearly all of their trainees have since found employment in the media industry — two have gone on to become award-winning journalists.
By the end of 2021, the 22 published stories produced as part of their EJN-supported project had reached 3 million readers in the region. The Daily Maverick, one of South Africa’s most influential online platforms with the third highest readership in the country, published 16 of Roving Reporters’ 22 stories. Other media outlets including New Frame, Sunday Tribune, the Sunday Independent, Newscombo, and others featured Roving Reporter stories.
Showing rookies the ropes
"There is no lack of institutions providing formal training for would-be journalists. Some do good work, but really the academic environment is a poor substitute for on the job training," says Matthew Hattingh, Roving Reporters' online editor and lead writing mentor. "Traditionally, young journalists learned their craft by shadowing more experienced hands. This remains the best way to learn how stories are put together and how to deal with all the practical, technical and ethical issues that can arise."
“Unfortunately, traditional media is on the decline, dramatically so in South Africa,” adds Roving Reporters director, Fred Kockott. “It has less resources and fewer staff than in the past. Budgets for training have been slashed or scrapped entirely. Few companies hire interns, and those few that do lack the means to train or mentor them properly. For prospective journalists, it’s sink or swim.”
Hattingh agrees: “This is where Roving Reporters steps in. We provide real-world training, steering writers through the whole story process, from generating good story ideas, supervising fieldwork and research, and ultimately guiding stories through to publication in reputable media outlets.”
Through consistent, one-on-one engagement, Roving Reporters provides encouragement, constructive feedback and advice to budding reporters, which helps build their confidence, and ultimately their skills in tackling more complex stories.
For instance, journalist Steve Mokaya’s story went through a total of 24 revisions – extending from early April through to October – before it was even pitched for publication to New Frame as a two-part series on a withering Kenyan wetland.
“It was a great learning experience for me,” Mokaya admits. “I have learned a lot about truly balanced reporting. It also taught me not to quit, to be patient with myself and with sources not willing to cooperate. I am now a better journalist with international reporting experience. What a great feeling!” For his efforts, Mokaya was nominated for the inaugural Roving Reporters Young Environmental Journalist of the Year Award.
Taking environmental reporting to a new level
“There are only a handful of full-time reporters covering the environmental beat in South Africa, and it is safe to say that most biodiversity subjects are poorly understood and get very little media attention,” says Kockott. “So, the field of environmental journalism in general is wide open to rookie reporters and young environmental scientists keen to write for the media.”
Button, who won the Roving Reporters Young Environmental Journalist of the Year Award, went on to represent Roving Reporters on national television and radio and appeared as a guest speaker on the Biodiversity & Development Institute’s Citizen hour.
Even as journalists strengthened their skills, the agency too gleaned valuable insights from the project. “Approaching journalism students, as we have done since the inception of Roving Reporters in 2011, has merit, but in developing a cohort of skilled environmental writers we need to focus more on recruiting students, especially graduates, from the life sciences who want to write about environmental matters,” adds Kockott. “They tend to have a deeper understanding of biodiversity issues.”
What's next for Roving Reporters?
Roving Reporters plans to continue collaborating with the young writers who produced the top stories in EJN’s 2021 biodiversity report project.
“Some have shown real flair and commitment, and willingness to learn. We now have a relationship with them so future stories should be easier to produce,” says Hattingh.
Banner image: The Khetha Journalism Team at a workshop in the Kruger National Park late last year, some of whom have been working under Roving Reporters’ guidance in producing stories on wildlife trafficking and its broader context. The Khetha Journalism Project is a USAID-supported initiative established by WWF-SA and the Wildlife Life and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA). It explores the broader context of wildlife trafficking in and around the Great Limpompo Transfrontier Park / Credit: Roving Reporters.