2020 Was a Year Like No Other

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives – and many of our work plans. That is certainly the case both for our efforts at Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and for journalism coverage overall. In assessing the past year, we see a few noteworthy trends in our program: Fewer environmental stories produced with EJN support, but a greater number of journalists trained as capacity-building efforts have gone virtual, and more stories connecting environment and health issues.

The latter trend we consider something of a silver lining.

“At Internews, both EJN and our partners in the Health program have been trying for years to gain support for improved coverage of the connections between environment and health,” said James Fahn, EJN’s Executive Director. “Although there has been some good reporting on this by journalists in higher-end media, it has been lacking in most news outlets around the world, and for whatever reason, little support for non-profit media coverage of these links.”

Of course, this year those links have been made clearer than ever, as the advent of Covid-19 led to increased reporting about how the wildlife and bushmeat trade, unhygienic wet markets, deforestation, poaching and climate change are all causing the spillover of pathogens from animals to humans (and vice versa) and the spread of zoonotic diseases.

At the onset of the pandemic, EJN responded quickly by setting up webinars with health experts who expounded on these links. These proved to be some of our most popular virtual trainings to date. Our rapid expansion of virtual capacity-building this year actually meant we were able to reach more journalists but for a shorter period of time than is typical in our workshops and trainings. In effect, our engagement with the media in 2020 was wider but shallower than in the past.

EJN made further strides in linking environment and health by becoming part of a consortium led by the World Resources Institute to implement the USAID-funded Clean Air Catalyst project, which will work to build up media coverage and better understanding of how to implement solutions to the terrible air pollution crises facing many of our world’s cities.

EJN was also pleased to re-launch our landmark Biodiversity Media Initiative, as well as to carry on work with some of our larger initiatives, including the Asia-Pacific Project, the East Africa Wildlife Journalism project and the Bay of Bengal project to boost resilience reporting in India and Bangladesh.
We worked closely with our partners in various regions to modify their activities to fit the COVID-19 context, supporting them to shift activities online and adjust themes to stay relevant at a time when the world’s attention is on the pandemic.

Despite the disruptions caused by COVID-19, we made significant progress in the Pacific Islands, where we expanded our partnership with the University of South Pacific and the Fijian Media Association to deliver two training workshops on oceans reporting for journalists in Fiji. We also partnered with the Pacific Islands News Association to launch the new Pasifika Environews website (formerly InfoPacific) and provide story grants to Pacific journalists to investigate climate change adaptation and the impacts of extractive industries.

South Asia was where we saw some of the greatest disruptions to our work, as the hard-hitting pandemic forced many journalists — along with EJN and our grantees — to halt travel and reporting plans, cancel workshops and basically try and wait until the spread of COVID-19 had largely subsided.

Activities there have started to pick up again as we near the end of 2020, but the same considerations also led us to delay the start of our exciting new project aimed at boosting coverage of renewable energy in key Indian states. We’ve gone virtual with these activities for now and carried out two online workshops in just the last month.

Also disrupted were all of EJN’s Fellowship plans, as three major summits – the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the COP15 biodiversity summit in Kunming and the UN Ocean Summit in Lisbon – were all postponed. We do expect to be able to send journalist Fellows to these conferences when they are re-scheduled, presumably in late 2021, as well as to carry out other in-person training activities that were not able to go virtual.

“Our impression is that overall coverage of climate change and many other environmental issues suffered because so much news coverage was directed, understandably, towards reporting on COVID-19,” Fahn said. “Perhaps more concerning is that misinformation and ignorance have been so harmful to containing the spread of the virus. If that is the case with something so obviously harmful as a pandemic, how much more challenging will it be to convince the public and policy-makers to take action to address climate change?”

Among other strategies, EJN has long argued for improved coverage of the impact of climate change on health and jobs, but again has found it challenging to raise funding for this work, although we have tried to implement some activities on our own.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to do a lot more in 2021, as we join the rest of the world in hoping that mass vaccination will help bring the pandemic to an end, and we can move on to covering potential efforts at a “green recovery.”