Journalism can – and does – have profound impacts on public policy and understanding. It helps hold governments to their commitments and spurs accountability from people supporting damaging environmental practices. For many years, EJN has sought to understand the nature of these impacts, developing a methodology to track and evaluate the positive changes that emerge from the work we support.
In late 2020, EJN commissioned a team of external researchers to explore EJN’s impact more robustly and assess in a more focused way several outcomes of support we gave to environmental journalists and media outlets. Specifically, we wanted to know:
- Why do certain stories lead to impacts or outcomes, while others don’t? What are the features or characteristics of these stories that may influence how they are received?
- What can media outlets, journalists and organizations like EJN do to increase the potential impact of the stories they produce?
- How can we expand our methodology to continue tracking impacts from our work?
The resulting report, formally released just last month, answers these questions and many more, detailing how EJN’s support makes a significant difference in building the capacity of journalists to report on the environment and climate change. It also revealed where and how we could improve.
To explore a wide range of stories and impacts, seven independent researchers were hired to evaluate 12 case studies across six countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Honduras and Uganda. The EJN-supported stories at the heart of each case study covered topics ranging from wildlife conservation and illegal trade to water pollution and sea level rise.
Several of these case studies already had documented impacts, and we wanted to know how those impacts came to be. For example, reporters Mariejo Ramos and Krixia Subingsubing received a grant from EJN’s Asia-Pacific project to investigate how the construction of an ‘eco-city’ in the Philippines was encroaching on the land of the Aeta, an Indigenous group. Their article led to a significant outpouring of support for the Aeta, increasing the group’s confidence and determination to advocate for their land rights.
Elsewhere, in Uganda, a solutions-focused story about the Ajai Game Reserve’s recovery from poaching and its economic potential caught the attention of local radio journalists, who hosted an on-air debate on the topic, furthering public awareness and drawing attention to an issue that had not been addressed in local media.
And in Indonesia, funding and mentorship provided by EJN allowed an early-career journalist to cover the near-extinction of the anoa, a dwarf water buffalo. The species is particularly important as it’s the provincial symbol and a native species. The stories, in Bahasa Indonesia, subsequently led local government officials to begin collaborating on initiatives to protect the animal, and a local civil society organization turned the article into a series of comics in the local language, furthering its reach.
Through evaluating these case studies and more, the report found several key characteristics that determine a story’s likelihood of contributing to increased public awareness or driving policy change. Here are just a few of them:
- Local language media: Supporting media in local languages is crucial – especially when stories focus on local communities. For example, despite the demonstrated impact of the Ugandan radio program, it would likely have reached a wider audience still had it been hosted in a local language rather than English – ensuring it would be accessible to the communities who lived near the reserve and might benefit from increased economic opportunities there.
- Digital accessibility: In many regions of the world, people still receive most of their news from print newspapers or television. (For example, the Reuters Institute’s 2021 Digital News Report found internet penetration hovered between 58-71% in some South American, Asian and African countries.) When stories are only published online, they're inaccessible to people who live in areas without internet access or who don’t have a cell phone or computer. For example, the stories about the anoa in Indonesia were only published online, but a local activist chose to disseminate the message locally in areas with limited access to digital news sources.
- A single story: One story on its own may have limited impact, but if it sparks further journalism or initiatives from civil society, it can have a cascading, cumulative effect – leading to significant change. Sustained reporting is crucial to raise awareness of slow-burn disasters and to monitor government commitments in the long-term.
Overall, the report found that EJN could improve its mentorship and training with journalists by including them in discussions about journalism’s impact and encouraging them to ensure their stories were distributed widely, where possible.
“As concern mounts about our collective ability to address the climate crisis, it's reassuring to see evidence of the central, positive role the media can play in highlighting solutions, supporting adaptation and driving accountability. It adds weight to our call to protect and support independent media globally,” said Rosie Parkyn, Global Director of Impact, Internews Europe.
“It is intriguing to confirm that journalism does have real impact on environmental policy and practice,” added EJN Executive Director James Fahn, “and illuminating to learn about what leads to such impacts, at least in some cases.”
Banner image: Imelda Abano, a Filipina journalist and EJN’s Content Coordinator for the Philippines and the Pacific, interviews a community member.