The media is a powerful policy actor, functioning as the primary conduit between those who want to influence policy and the policymakers who decide the scope of political discourse, including on solutions and their adoption. Journalists and news editors play an important role in shaping policy agendas by steering the conversation on critical issues in ways which elicit attention and action from policymakers.
Given that SEI is in the business of influencing policy through scientific and evidence-based research, the media is a vital partner. It plays a crucial role by in this process by sharing scientists’ findings on critical environmental issues such as climate change, river basin management, urban pollution and inequality, with policymakers.
However, science reporting is not straightforward. Journalists do not always have environmental and scientific training necessary to unpack and report on complex environmental stories. Media outlets also have limited resources to support extensive research for producing in-depth stories.
Understanding the media landscape in Asia
Recently, SEI Asia launched its first environmental reporting grant to build the region’s media capacity on contextual science reporting, covering topics such as climate change and disaster (Philippines), air quality (Thailand), urban governance (Vietnam and India), water insecurity (Myanmar) and bioeconomy (Thailand). The initiative aimed to strengthen media partnerships by supporting knowledge and evidence–sharing on critical sustainability issues.
The grant provided six young and early-career journalists with access to resources for a two-month period to build their capacity for environmental reporting. The grantees were provided with mentoring on the scientific research behind their topics by research experts from the SEI Asia Centre and partners on the ground.
All six journalists successfully delivered on their stories. We talked to them to get their insights on how scientists and researchers can better collaborate with environmental journalists in the future.
We shouldn’t just focus on the statistics.
As researchers, we often fire up the numbers in order to prove our point that there is a critical environmental emergency happening. Genie Pakvisal, a media grantee from Thailand who wrote about the pollution impacts of sugarcane burning, says environmental reporting gives a character and movement to the statistics.
“It’s [hard to get] people to open up because the topic can be sensitive. A challenge that journalists face when reporting about the environment and sustainability can be making the information interesting and accessible – which comes from digesting the information and research out there,” she said.
Go easy on the jargon.
Researchers eat environmental jargon for breakfast and, often, we assume other people are having the same “meal.” Some journalists, however, get confused on terminologies and jargon that may seem simple to us.
“As a social science graduate, one of the main challenges that I face for environmental reporting is understanding technical and scientific terms,” Myanmar media grantee Thinn Nay Chi Sun said.
During the course of the story production, we encouraged the journalists and their researcher mentors to openly discuss and clarify terms or concepts that may be too technical for non-academic audiences.
Make information more accessible.
“In Vietnam, many important databases are not published, although under local law they must be posted on the websites of the departments.” shared Vo Kieu Bao Uyen, a media grantee from Vietnam. “I did repeatedly contact the authorities to ask for documents such as project environmental impact assessment reports andthe number of sand mines on the Vietnam Mekong river… as a result, either I was denied delivery or got no response.”
While we have no control over government databases, we do have control on how we make our own research accessible to policy actors. We should rethink how we disseminate scientific information – is it enough that it’s on our website? What other channels can we use to reach our target audiences?
In the case of the sugarcane and air pollution story, we invited Genie to see the research as it happens on the ground.
“Overall, I think the information on the website, such as published research work, is helpful because it’s accessible, and a good starting point when exploring a topic for journalists. I joined my mentors and the SEI team on a fieldwork trip to Udon Thani. On the trip, I got to find out more about different stakeholders in the sugarcane industry and discuss the topic with the mentors,” Genie said.
When it comes to reaching key policy audiences, the media is a critical partner for SEI in Asia, helping us to develop narratives and ground our research results to local and regional needs. We found that providing training and building capacity through media grants is crucial to making the transfer of knowledge more effective, and in helping SEI to continuously engage with and support media partners in their reporting of environmental issues.