Witnessing the Human Cost of Climate Change
A Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum brought experts together in Bonn, Germany in June, 2010 to talk about how best to tell the global story of climate change – and the local one.
Listen to full audio of the panel and Q&A session here.
Read a transcript of the discussions from this panel here.
Read a transcript of New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter John Pope's presentation here.
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BONN, Germany — The water temperatures this year in the Atlantic basin, where hurricanes have their genesis, have reached the highest levels on record. Whether that is the result of an uncommonly hot year or more proof of a rising trend in global temperatures is something we’ll only know for certain years from now. By then, the human cost of climate change, be it measured in the numbers of people washed out of their homes in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico or by widespread famines in Africa, will also be more readily quantifiable.
Speaking at a recent Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum panel entitled "Witnessing the Human Cost of Climate Change" moderated by Dart Centre Europe, three seasoned environmental and health reporters from Ethiopia, Haiti and the United States put statistical tables and policy reports aside to focus on the challenge of witnessing the human cost of climate change.
How can journalists continue to report effectively and with insight when they and their own families and communities are battered by an environmental catastrophe
'Covering Katrina felt like covering a war'
“We publish — come hell and high water” was the logo on the t-shirts worn by The New Orleans Times-Picayune staff, when Hurricane Katrina swept through the city in 2005 and forced the newspaper to relocate to nearby Baton Rouge after the flood waters surrounded their offices.
The Times-Picayune reporter John Pope told the forum that covering events in the storm-swept city was like being in a war zone.
Major media in the U.S. and beyond covered the unfolding catastrophe as if it were a foreign-reporting assignment. But the problem for Pope and his colleagues was that unlike journalists who had come there on assignment, they couldn’t rotate back to base for rest and recovery. It was their homes and their lives that were under water.
Their determination to pull together and carry on reporting, regardless of their own personal losses, was what kept them together as individuals: “We were there for each other and that is the main thing,” he said. "Getting into a routine was a psychological good thing and kept us focused on our job rather than on the chaos around us.”
Roosevelt Jean Francois, the director of CECOSIDA, a grass-roots community organisation for journalists in Haiti, a country prone to catastrophic mudslides and flooding, described how after the January 2010 earthquake, he and his colleagues went into auto-pilot and kept on reporting. Only later did they have time to process what had happened to them personally.
After the immediate worst had stabilised, both Pope and Jean Francois were involved with Dart Centre workshops that were held in New Orleans and Port-au-Prince, respectively, with the intention of fostering local peer support.
"You cannot cope with [such] a terrible situation yourself,” Jean Francois told the audience at the Deutsche Welle forum. Weeks after the earthquake, he described watching colleagues running outside after sensing phantom aftershocks.
The experience of just sitting together and listening to other journalists' personal accounts of what they had gone through helped tremendously.
"Some of them said that [talking to other journalists] was the first time they felt normal after four weeks. That means you know that what happened to me, what I feel, is the same feeling that you have.”
Seeing Others Clearly
And yet Jean Francois cautioned against journalists projecting their own experiences on to the survivors they are interviewing.
“Our job as a reporter is to focus on that human being and put oneself into their position,” he said. “If someone is in a difficult situation, get the context first and see where that person stands.”
All three panelists emphasized that the ability to stand at the centre of a mass-casualty crisis and report in a clear-sighted way, when one may oneself be experiencing loss, fear, or grief, is far from straightforward.
He told the audience in Bonn that the sadness one feels when covering these stories does not diminish with experience and time. When arriving in a house where a mother is tending a dying child, one’s first thought should not be to ready the microphone.
“It is the first thing for me as an Ethiopian to bring food and some water to my people — to help and not to report first,” Ashine explained.
But helping effectively is often beyond an individual journalist’s capacity, and the best one can do is to expose the underlying reasons for why a particular drought has killed.
Those with regular access to food tend to think of hunger as a temporary condition, but in the semi-arid desertification-prone areas, absolute hunger, barely without cessation, is a daily reality for many.
Ashine, who has worked across East Africa, likened interviewing in those conditions to speaking to somebody “with a bullet in the brain.”
All three speakers suggested that understanding the personal toll this work could take was an important component in developing the stamina and insight necessary to persevere in the long run, especially for anyone hoping to effectively critique the political and economic response to environmental degradation.
Familiarity and Distance
When journalists experience a disaster at home, might they sometimes be too close to traumatic events to see them clearly? Are journalists who come in from outside more detached and thus more able to accurately report events?
Despite the personal toll of Katrina, Pope was sure that the participation of journalists bearing witness to the tragedy who were also part of the community affected by the hurricane strengthened The Times-Picayune's reporting: “Because we were covering a catastrophe that had devastated our community, we asked tougher questions, and we were more persistent because these were answers that we needed, too."
The other panelists also agreed that being local can be more of an advantage than a hindrance, especially in identifying significant story angles.
Pope described the personal assault of seeing New Orleans, his home city, disappear under water after Hurricane Katrina struck. Nevertheless, he felt that involvement improved his work: “I think it made us better reporters. " he said. "This was our home, and we wanted to make sure that we were doing what we could to make things right.”
Pope eschewed the word “objectivity,” preferring to say instead: “In what my colleagues and I did, I think we were, unfailingly, fair.”
Indeed, the difficulties these reporters experienced locating their own medical records and processing insurance claims for their damaged homes, for example, led them straight to vital stories, the kinds of stories that are usually only picked up much later.
Gavin Rees, director of Dart Centre Europe and the panel’s moderator, noted that even journalists working in comfortable studios far away from an event can respond to trauma in ways that might blunt their judgment.
During the crises in Haiti and New Orleans, the world’s news networks were circulating often unverified rumours that “people had descended into some feral state of madness,” he said. Babies, it was alleged, were being raped in New Orleans, and Haiti, in the days following the quake, was said to be overrun with mobs of looters.
For Pope, one of the great achievements of New Orleans journalists was their determination to set out and see if they could substantiate any of these rumours. Their reporting, which showed many claims to be grossly inflated, brought down city and state officials and won The Times-Picayune publication numerous journalism prizes.
“We reporters had an obligation to pull ourselves together and go out and try to explain what we see,” he said. “This is, after all, what we do.”