Go back

Teaching some of the wrong lessons in Bonn

Sitting in one of the workshops at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn last week, I decided that some of the panellists selected to lead the discussions on probing global issues on climate change should not have been there.

The reason is simple: they don’t advance the cause of good reporting. This, in my estimation, jeopardises the reason for the forum, which is to help journalists improve their reporting on climate change.

At one workshop entitled Too dry, too technical, not prestigious – How to inspire excellence in climate change coverage, one of the panelists, a journalist and editorial consultant from India, said journalists should always try to balance a climate story by getting views of scientists who are for and against. This, I believe, is totally wrong in science coverage. A reporter should strive to stick to the truth and in the scientific community finding the truth is easy. Balancing a climate story with the view of climate change sceptics should not be encouraged. Rather journalists should be advised to look at the margin of difference and report the more widely held views among scientists.

The advice reminds me of an incident a few years ago, when a Nigerian scientist, Jeremiah Abalaka, claimed that he had discovered a cure for AIDS. His peers refused to back his claims but the media ran with it and the result was that thousands of Nigerians suffering from AIDS rushed to Abalaka for the cure. Today he is very rich, but no one was cured.

At another session, Covering climate change in West Africa: An exchange between journalists and scientists, I was surprised when one of the scientists on the panel said it was risky to give viable information on climate change to journalists. According to the Ghanaian scientist, journalists will misuse the information to sell their papers and make more money. He pointed to a couple of instances that the media in Ghana blew out of proportion or misrepresented the views of scientists on climate change and concluded that it was better to keep the information to yourself.

My immediate reaction was that such scientists should be made to undertake a science communication programme. If a scientist is misrepresented or misquoted the likelihood is that he spoke to journalists in a language they don’t understand. He may have used the jargon and other scientific terms with which he communicates with his peers.

Despite these little flaws, it was joy for me when the invitation to participate in the 2010 edition of the annual Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum came. I was impressed by the theme chosen for this year—climate change and the media—nothing could be more apt or engaging in this era when people are seeking an explanation from the media on changes occurring around them. And recent events such as the stolen UEA e-mails and the faults found with the IPCC’s fourth assessment report requires a media that understands and follows the trends intelligently from a position of knowledge.

By bringing more than 1,500 journalists from the developed and developing world together shows how important the topic has become and also how committed Deutsche Welle is to providing a platform for the media to learn, discuss, understand, and report accurately on the topic.

The workshops and sessions for the three-day forum also attempted to cover all the issues journalists encounter daily in their efforts to report climate change. The plenary session were wonderful as panelists presented the media with diverse views, statistics and even solutions on how the world can overcome the threat of climate change and turn it into an opportunity.

I have attended many conferences on climate change and most times the emphasis is on the impact, the fear, the looming dangers, uncooperative attitudes, the money for adaptation or mitigation; but here most presentations were focused on solutions. The speech by 12-year-old Felix Finkbeliner, a student and founder of the Plant for the Planet Campaign, urging world leaders to stop talking and start planting trees had the greatest impact on me.

Hopefully, after the Bonn conference the media will start covering climate change issues with stories and articles that focus more on solutions. For future forums Deutsche Welle should ensure when selecting panelists that the best people are given the opportunity to speak on issues that are at the heart of society.