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James presenting on EJN

Seeding a Shifting Landscape of Environmental Media

I first interviewed John Kerry at the Kyoto Climate Summit in 1997, when I was covering the third conference of parties (COP3) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was a landmark negotiation that resulted in what came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol, requiring developed countries to reduce their emissions. But Kerry, until recently the US Climate Envoy and a US senator at the time, was clear about its prospects in the US: it would never be ratified, he predicted, and he was right. (The US Senate rejected ratification in a vote, 95-0, as US leaders complained it would put constraints on domestic development while allowing burgeoning economic competitors — most notably, China — freedom to do as they wished.)

Say what you will about these COPs. They tend to be large and expensive — part trade show, part talking shop — and progress can seem achingly slow. Still, as a journalist working for the Nation Multimedia Group, a Thai media outlet, I quickly realized that they are important destinations for the media. Those fortunate enough to attend essentially undergo a two-week immersion course in multilateral climate processes at the global scale. They gain incomparable access to political leaders who are difficult to approach back home.

But they are not easy to get to. In 1997, for instance, I had to pay my own way to travel to Kyoto. The vast majority of journalists find it difficult to get funding to travel within their countries to do stories, much less abroad. 

So, 10 years later, in 2007, after having joined Internews in 2004 and establishing the Earth Journalism Network (EJN) as an international community of journalists dedicated to covering climate change and the environment, we started to provide support for journalists from low- and middle-income countries to cover the COPs.

a group of journalists at a climate summit
Some of the EJN trainers and staff at COP21 in Paris in 2015. From left, Willie Shubert, David Akana, Mona Samari, Ramesh Bhushal, Carolyn Yi, James Fahn, Ken Weiss, Fermin Koop, Paritta Wangkiat, Gustavo Faleiros / Credit: EJN. 
a group seated at a table
EJN media trainers with a CCMP Fellow at COP25 in Madrid. Clockwise from left, Imelda Abano, Maria Clara Valencia, Joydeep Gupta, James Fahn, Fermin Koop, 2019 / Credit: EJN. 

In the beginning, especially, we had to scrimp and save to carry out these programs. To house those first Climate Change Media Partnership (CCMP) fellows in 2007 at the COP in Indonesia, for instance, we could only afford to book rooms at a remote hotel that hadn’t even opened yet, in rooms that were barely furnished. In some later years, lodging was so scarce or funding came so late that we had to improvise: at COP14 in Poland, for instance, we had to put journalists up at a hunting lodge that lacked hot water. In many years, we could only afford to send a few journalist fellows for part of the summit. We’ve had to contend with airport sit-ins and transit strikes, organized field trips that seemed to flirt with frostbite, and dealt with all kinds of logistical challenges.

But the fellowships have been a huge success. One way or another, usually in collaboration with key partners, the CCMP has been able to hold them virtually every year since 2007. At COP21 in 2015, our fellows had the opportunity to report on the historic Paris Agreement. This was not only an epic event for the climate movement, but also for EJN, as we were able to bring 50 journalists and trainers to cover it from all over the world. Last year, our most recent cohort covered COP28 in Dubai, where the need to transition away from fossil fuels was finally acknowledged. 

We not only provide vital logistical and travel support to cover the summits, but also daily training and mentoring to journalists who would otherwise have to figure out how to cover these vast and complicated gatherings on their own. EJN has now supported well over 500 journalists — out of the 16,000+ we’ve trained overall — to cover climate conferences and summits related to biodiversity, the ocean and other environmental topics. They are arguably EJN’s most popular activity. (Last year, we received over 600+ applications for 20 fellowships to cover COP28 in Dubai. And we’ve received more than 10,000 applications for our varied grant and training opportunities since 2020 alone.) 

a journalist stands with a mic in a room
CCMP Fellow Dan Kaburu from Kenya recording his piece to camera in the media center in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt at COP27 / Credit: EJN.
two people shake hands
Iraqi fellow Ahang Habib Hawrami meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at COP28 in 2023 / Credit: Ahang Habib Hawrami.

We’ve heard from our fellows how our support enabled them to provide home audiences — in most cases, the communities that are most vulnerable to the climate crisis — with vital information about the decisions that will most impact them, and the future of our planet. A single cohort can produce hundreds of stories in multiple languages for dozens of outlets, and they tend to be more prominently aired or published than those produced domestically. 

Over and over again, we’ve learned how these fellowships not only change journalists’ careers, but their lives. Many become leaders in their field, providing training and mentoring back home, sometimes organizing their own programs to support their local journalism networks. In recent years, other international organizations have been providing similar support programs, which is gratifying to see, given the immense interest from journalists around the world. 

EJN was not the first organization to provide such fellowships, but we can take some credit for scaling them up and adapting them to ever-changing needs. The same goes for the thousands of story grants, the network building activities, the local training workshops, the solutions-oriented field trips and other innovative support we’ve been able to deploy over the years, leading to the direct production of over 15,000 stories (and counting).  Most of all, we were early to recognize the most urgent issue of our time, and to adopt a game-changing approach to tackle it. We saw that in the 21st century, even as ecosystems were collapsing, so too were newsrooms, press freedoms and quality information. We could no longer rely on the market to provide the environmental and climate coverage our civilization needs.

James with a komodo dragon
James Fahn on a field trip in the Philippines, 2019 / Credit: Joydeep Gupta.
people on a boat in the mangroves
Workshop participants with Sara Schonhardt on a field trip to a partly submerged mangrove forest in Tamil Nadu, India, 2019 / Credit: Joydeep Gupta.

Working at an Asian media outlet in the 1990s, I was able to experience just how vital are the stories and information that local journalists provide, how they can help raise awareness, change mindsets and behaviors, inform policies, uncover the rampant corruption and abuse surrounding natural resource management, and amplify support for solutions to the climate and environmental crises we’re facing. I learned that environmental issues were not just about protecting endangered species, but protecting human health and livelihoods, sustaining ecosystem services (breathable air, drinkable water, a stable climate) and our overall quality of life. As I emphasized in the book I wrote about my adventures, although the environment is often represented as a concern of the elite, mis-managing it harms the poor and marginalized most of all. 

But I also saw firsthand all the challenges journalists and media outlets face when trying to cover environmental and climate topics: how stories on problems generated sensational headlines, while stories on solutions were sometimes considered too “boring”; how difficult it was to understand and explain the evolving science due to a lack of access to necessary training; and how the traditional business model for news was collapsing with the rise of the Internet and the decline of ad revenues for legacy media. Reporters working for cash-strapped news agencies often simply can’t afford the money or time it would take to research a story properly; freelancers, even less so.

It was after returning to the US and working at the Ford Foundation from 2002-4 that I came to realize that if we want to hold policymakers accountable and provide the public with the stories and information they need to demand action, philanthropy and development aid would have to invest in climate and environmental media, and that we’d have to apply that funding strategically. 

Admittedly, supporting journalists and media outlets may not have seemed like the most direct way to address the intersecting and accelerating climate, environmental and health crises confronting us. But the misinformation crisis that has also arisen — about climate change, and health and many other science-related topics — in the years since have only heightened the need to support healthy information ecosystems. 

I helped arrange an early grant to the US Society of Environmental Journalists, but realized there was almost no such support for journalists in the majority world, where the future of our global environment will be determined.

In 2004, Internews’ founder David Hoffman hired me, and EJN was born to improve the quantity and quality of climate and environmental media. We started up EJN in Southeast Asia, where I’d previously helped found the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists, and were able to slowly build up funding to support training and content production in the Global South.

One of our first projects supported journalism networks to improve biodiversity reporting in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, including a landmark investigative report that uncovered how wild macaques were being illegally captured in Cambodia using false CITES papers from Laos, then smuggled into Vietnam before being sold for medical experimentation in the US. The Vietnamese editor who spearheaded the investigation was subsequently threatened by the authorities, so we helped him travel on a fellowship to the 2008 IUCN World Conservation Congress where he was able to receive an award in public, thus helping him to get a little international protection.

There were other notable impacts during those early years. We were able to work in China, even training CCTV journalists on air pollution issues ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. One of our trainees ended up uncovering dozens of illegally established coal and chemical factories that were subsequently shut down. A workshop we held for Vietnamese journalists at Tam Dao National Park discovered that this rare natural forest in northern Vietnam was being threatened by the development of a golf course and a casino, projects that were halted following the trainees’ reporting

Perhaps most dramatically, construction of the enormous and controversial Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar was shut down following a series of field trips, photo exhibits and publication of a book by EJN-supported local journalists, one of whom went on to win the Goldman Environmental Prize. It was also during this period that EJN led our first major project to improve climate coverage: contributing to dramatic increases in Vietnamese coverage: between 2006 and 2009, a local research institute’s sampling found that climate stories increased more than 10-fold, from roughly 2-3 per month to more than one a day.

EJN went truly global in 2007, and developed our website in 2009, ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit. This allowed us to formally register members, put out grant calls for activities all over the world, receive online applications and provide virtual support. We were then able to rapidly expand our work. We now have over 25,000 members from almost every country in the world, with more than 20 active programs in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East and growing activities in Europe and North America, as well. 

In order to bolster regional coverage of climate change and environment, we joined with partners to set up regional news sites — some with innovative GeoJournalism features such as interactive maps and data visualizations — beginning with the Third Pole in 2009 and InfoAmazonia in 2012, followed by Ekuatorial in Indonesia, InfoCongo, the Mekong Eye, #WildEye and Pasifika. Most of these were either started by local partners with our support, or have been spun off to be run by them. Although we republish and distribute stories we support widely, EJN is not a news outlet. We decided early on to focus on training and building capacity among environmental journalists, and on seeding quality reporting in the local, national and international media. This ensures that media outlets view us as a partner and supporter, rather than a competitor.

a group of people filming a speaker
Joydeep Gupta at a workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal, around the time EJN teamed up with China Dialogue to create The Third Pole / Credit: EJN.
people standing near a tree
A workshop in the Ecuadorian Amazonian, where the group brainstormed about data visualization and geojournalism, and came up with the name InfoAmazonia, 2012. Gustavo Faleiros is on the far left; James Fahn is second from the right / Credit: EJN.
two people in front of a banner
Launch of the Bhutan Forum for Environmental Journalists, 2013 / Credit: EJN.
James Fahn presenting on Ekuatorial
James Fahn presenting on Ekuatorial, an EJN-supported geojournalism platform in Indonesia, launched in 2014 / Credit: EJN.

In our second decade of operations, we also started to coalesce our work into several thematic programs, including our Biodiversity Media Initiative and Ocean Media Initiative. Although many of our projects on these topics focus on specific places or themes, by combining them with global programs of capacity-building and content production, we are able to find synergies in this work, share resources in many cases, and often direct funds where they are most needed. No matter the subject, EJN encourages journalists in our network to draw attention to environmental injustice, highlight the challenges faced by the most vulnerable communities, and amplify their agency. We also emphasize the need to fund reporting by and about women, youth and Indigenous groups, helping to make the media landscape more inclusive — and representative.

2017 turned out to be an important year for EJN. We were awarded our largest ever grant — to set up EJN Asia-Pacific, a locally rooted project which, thanks to its phenomenal leadership, has steadily grown over the years to become EJN’s largest project. We are now also supporting regional projects in the Amazon, East Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and activities in key countries like India, Vietnam, Nepal, South Africa, Argentina and Belize. Several of these projects seek to build reporting on renewable energy, clean mobility and the shift to low-carbon development. Given the tens of billions of dollars being invested to help countries adopt and enact Net Zero policies, surprisingly little has gone into supporting the information ecosystems needed to support this transition.

We also launched our first large project focused on climate resilience in India and Bangladesh which quickly uncovered numerous impacts and community- and nature-based solutions that hadn’t been reported previously. Most ominously, the journalists we worked with reported that pregnant women were suffering serious illnesses (pre-eclampsia and hypertension) due to slightly elevated salinity levels in their drinking water as a result of sea level rise. 

This pushed EJN even more firmly to emphasize a set of topics that we long felt was being under-reported: One Health — the crucial relationships between human, animal and ecosystem health — a subject that of course garnered far more attention with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. But in addition to more reporting on zoonotic diseases, EJN has also sought to boost coverage of the causes and to those resulting from the impact of industrial meat production on the environment, and the gravity of plastic pollution on water, land, and in our bodies.

It was also around 2017 that EJN embarked on more systematic efforts to support investigative, data-based and collaborative reporting projects, and to collect, research and document the impacts that our work — and climate and environmental reporting more generally — was having on public policies, regulations and debate. In addition to supporting in-depth research projects examining our effect on policies and on the careers and coverage of our journalists, we developed an outcome harvesting approach to survey, research and document the wide range of impacts we’re having: from halting a road through the Colombian Amazon, exposing illegal loggers in the Solomon Islands, identifying wildlife smugglers in Italy, restricting sand mining in Uganda and the Mekong delta, to mobilizing the relocation of communities threatened by sea level rise in Fiji and India.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, we — like the rest of the world — had to adapt. We pivoted to training journalists online, ensuring that they had access to the resources and tools they needed to do their jobs in an unprecedented time. We’ve since hosted close to 100 webinars, bringing expert researchers and policymakers on topics ranging from bushmeat consumption to the green recovery within reach. Our virtual media training workshops and virtual fellowships have also received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and continue to supplement our in-person activities by benefiting more journalists than we could otherwise support in person. 

Our ability — and agility — to adjust our approach in light of emerging threats and needs has served our network well. In an era of declining press and democratic freedom, when environmental reporting has become increasingly unsafe, we incorporate physical and digital safety protocols into our training and mentoring, and sometimes have to work behind the scenes to help our colleagues who have faced threats.

In this next stage of evolution, we’ll be focusing on several new areas in addition to our stable of programming: engaging with content creators and creating platforms to combat the rise of mis- and disinformation, supporting partners to build viable business models to sustain environmental and climate news coverage; employing new AI tools to help journalists and editors with fact-checking climate and environmental stories; producing guidelines for journalists to use generative AI responsibly; developing immersive longer-term fellowships for journalists to build expertise in reporting on climate change, biodiversity, the ocean and One Health over a full year. If you have thoughts on other impactful pilot projects we could embark on, please get in touch. We look forward to discussing them with you. 

Of course, so many moving parts requires a staff that must work smoothly and incessantly behind the scenes to have gotten us this far — and to get us where we need to be in the years ahead. 

Often overlooked are the endless difficulties with helping journalists get visas, accreditation and access to produce the kind of stories that can collectively shape our common future. Unseen is all the back office work we undertake at Internews — the book-keeping, accounting, fundraising, grant-making, form-filling, contracting, procurement, monitoring, evaluation, report-writing — that is required to finance and operate a non-profit organization responsibly. Building the IT and CMS infrastructure needed to keep such a wide-ranging network going has been particularly challenging, since we’ve usually had to do it on the cheap, without dedicated funding. It is not glamorous, and it is not the type of work that journalists, or those interested in sustainable development, dream of doing. But it is absolutely vital to keep media support viable.

What motivates us?  

Our reward is not just to see the results our work is having on local media, public policies, or on the well-being of vulnerable communities, not just the pride we share with our grantees when they win awards. At the most personal level, it’s hearing from the journalists we work with that we made a difference in their careers and in their lives. We’ve all received help at one time or another; being able to provide such assistance to so many worthy people is the driving force behind what we do.

a woman smiles with an award
EJN STOP Spillover grantee Mabinty Magdalene Kamara won a journalism award for her reporting on One Health in Sierra Leone / Credit: Mabinty Magdalene Kamara. 
a person with a boom mic on a boat in a river
EJN data journalism fellow Le Dinh Tuyen's report leads to tighter oversight over illegal sand mining in Vietnam / Credit: Le Dinh Tuyen.

This is why we have hope. Those working in the news business know better than anyone there is a lot of gloom and doom around, but we’ve also seen tremendous and positive changes. When we started, climate issues were often relegated to the back pages or specialty news segments of the media. But following Paris and the many subsequent fights and debates over climate action, it has become very much a front-page story, with the leading news agencies — at least those who were able to afford it — creating and hiring whole teams of dedicated climate reporters. Over the past 20 years, we’ve been pleased to see a growing recognition of the important role the media plays in providing environmental news and information, and coverage evolving  to include an increasing focus on solutions. News outlets that declined to work with us in the past are now quite open to collaboration with all kinds of partners.

What drives us forward? We understand there is a long way go, and the window of opportunity to enact change is rapidly closing. It was actually John Kerry who recently emphasized that the climate community “needs to do a hell of a lot better job communicating to people that on the other side of this transition is a better world — cleaner, safer, healthier, more secure.” It’s still not clear that those financing this transition have recognized the urgent need to invest more in this mammoth communication effort, even as the systemic challenges and new opportunities to providing better climate information grow. 

But we at EJN will persist in trying to mobilize funding to scale this support. We continue our important work, made possible only through the tireless efforts, generous support and relentless goodwill of our many EJN members, staff and donors over the years. You’ll notice I haven’t named them, because if I started doing so, this essay would go on for much longer than it already is. But you know who you are; we heartily thank each and every one of you. 

Reflecting on these past two decades reminds us how far we’ve come, and just how vital the next 20 years will be. We are at a time when environmental reporting is needed more than ever, and EJN is always open to working with new partners. So if our mission and vision for the years ahead resonates with you, please join us — either as a member or a supporter — as we move forward. Long may this journey continue. 

a selfie at COP27
EJN staff at COP27, 2022. Clockwise from left, Florence Armein, Charlie Debenham, Hannah Bernstein, Kiundu Waweru, James Fahn, Joydeep Gupta, Imelda Abano, Amrita Gupta, Amy Sim / Credit: EJN.

Banner image: Improving the quality and quantity of environmental reporting worldwide since 2004 / Credit: EJN.