Environmental journalism in Asia

PHUKET: May 24, 2006 was the day Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth was first aired, awakening millions of hitherto blissfully unaware people to the stark reality of the impact of global warming.

Monday 17 September 2012, 11:33AM

It was also a cathartic experience for the world’s environmental media. At last the message had cut through all the other news ‘noise’ to become mainstream.

While An Inconvenient Truth is one milestone for the environmental media, it was narrowly focused on global warming. In fact, the 1992 Earth Summit on the environment in Rio de Janeiro (Rio20+ has just been held 20 years on) also sparked heightened interest in reporting the wider subject of sustainable development and its triple bottom line agenda of economic, social and environmental values.

Despite such huge game changers, however, here in the Asia-Pacific environmental issues and the media remain, as they have for decades, uneasy bedfellows. There are some valid reasons for this relating to economics, culture, geography and politics.

In the Asia-Pacific region it usually takes catastrophic events – last year’s Thailand floods, violent clashes over deforestation in the Philippines, the economic and personal toll from the ravages of drought on agriculture in Australia – for the environment to become front-page news, to lead the television and radio bulletins or to go viral across the internet.

Yet the statistics suggest that the environment should frequently, if not always, feature more prominently in the region’s mainstream and internet media. Asia-Pacific’s greenhouse emissions are increasing twice as fast as the global average (5.4 per cent change per annum: 2.8 per cent global average), with China the biggest single emitter; its agriculture-based economies produce 43 per cent of global N20 (nitrous oxide) emissions; it has the highest annual water withdrawal of all the world’s regions; in the last 20 years Southeast Asia has lost 13 per cent of its forests; and it is the region most affected by natural disasters such as floods, cyclones, earthquakes, drought, storm surges and tsunamis.

Of these Phuket, itself, has been directly impacted by tsunami, flooding, forest encroachment and even earthquakes.

All of these events were more than adequately covered by The Phuket News. Phuket also has its own weekly environmental radio programme, hosted by prominent local environmentalist Nick Anthony on Live 89.5. Unfortunately, this amount of coverage tends to be the exception to the rule, and in the wider Asia-Pacific environmental media scene, it needs self examination and much improvement.

Why does the environment more often than not get relegated to the inside pages or down the bulletin? In general it is not considered news-worthy to editors unless it has huge immediate impact on the population.

Environmental reporting requires a knowledge of journalism, science, the environment and even sociology. It is slow moving compared to crime, entertainment, sport and so on.

Environmental issues such as sustainable development are not necessarily something journalistic decision-makers readily relate to, thus leading to a vicious cycle of negative reinforcement – if it is not newsworthy then it does not get wider coverage, and, if it is not reported, then it is not newsworthy.

Another issue is that much environmental reporting is locally based. Therefore journalists covering an environmental story must deal with often overcautious, protective, and, in some cases, incompetent local authorities who make access to information difficult.

The relationship between environmental journalism and authorities is therefore often fraught. Indeed, in places like the Philippines where illegal logging is rife, reporters have paid with their lives for exposing corruption.

Within the region there are myriad environmental journalism organisations. But many of them are voluntary, often disjointed, can require fees that poorly paid journalists in many Asian countries cannot afford, and are seldom trans-boundary. No overarching organisation that pulls all of the relevant and credible organisations under one cross border umbrella exists.

To hope for one may be a bit ‘pie in the sky,’ but up until Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth aired many people thought the same of global warming. In fact some do.

Alastair Carthew is the co-editor of the book Environmental Journalism in Asia Pacific produced by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a book on political polling in Asia/Pacific and researcher and writer of the twice yearly online publication The Asia Media Directory, an examination of the state of the media in 28 Asia/Pacific countries. Environmental Journalism in Asia Pacific is available online at and will be available in hard copy from mid-September. For more information, email





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