Demanding Environmental Accountability Around the Globe
WJA’s Founder and Managing Director
Fredrick Mugira, Water Journalists Africa’s Founder and Managing Director, is an award-winning water and climate change journalist, media trainer, and development communication specialist with more than ten years of wide-ranging experience. He is also an Internews Fellow. Mugira co-founded InfoNile, a geo-journalism platform that maps data on water issues on the Nile River basin, overlaying them with reporting that promotes transboundary peace.
Demanding Environmental Accountability Around the Globe
– October 20th, 2021
As science, politics and actions surrounding climate stewardship evolve, so does the role of journalists and the impact of climate media. Climate media has become a critical component to achieving environmental stability, from holding polluters accountable to aligning real-time coverage of the effects of climate change with proposed policy reforms.
In October 2021, Jodie Ginsberg, Internews CEO Europe, interviewed journalist and Internews Fellow Fredrick Mugira to explore the changing roles of climate journalists and the impact of climate media. Mr. Mugira is Water Journalists Africa’s Founder and Managing Director and is an award-winning water and climate change journalist.
Narrator: You’re listening to Turn the Mic Around with Internews.
Jodie Ginsberg: Welcome to Turn the Mic Around, Internews’ conversation series with journalists on the frontlines. Every month we’re interviewing a different journalist covering the most vexing issues in countries and communities around the world.
I’m Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Internews Europe, and my guest today is Fredrick Mugira, a multiple award winning journalist and head of Water Journalists Africa, a network of over 700 journalists in 50 African countries, and also co-founder of geojournalism mapping platform InfoNile.
As we head toward the upcoming COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow here in the UK in a few weeks, I’m really delighted to welcome Fredrick for what’s an extremely timely look at the role of the media in reporting on the issue of our time. Welcome Fredrick.
Fredrick Mugira: Thank you so much.
JG: For decades, the climate conversation has been framed as a bit of a debate with misinformation and bias science being used by powerful interests effectively to shirk environmental responsibility and deny the influence of human behavior on climate change. But with the marked increase in climate media, and funding for environmental investigative journalism, underreported climate change impacts do seem to be becoming more exposed. And, of course, the picture it paints is one of a crisis that doesn’t recognize borders and very much one that is felt close to our homes in floods, fires, and droughts.
So, Fredrick, I really wanted to start by asking you: in what ways have climate journalists evolved to combat misinformation and bias science on climate change?
FM: Thank you so much once again for having me. Yeah so I just want to get straight to the answer for the question. I surely believe that we have seen changes in sourcing of stories. We now see smart sourcing, and you find that journalists now are smart sourcing and cross check. Because they think probably one, two, or three sources are not enough. Maybe they don’t have facts that they would want to have. So, we see a lot of smart sourcing now by journalists, especially those who are focusing on climate change, science reporting. And they want to have more voices from ex-pats, scientists, to make sure that they don’t give us half baked information or information from one source but rather to cross check, make sure it is a rich story. Again, you pointed out that we are seeing more human life in these stories. Making sure they give these stories a human face. Who is affected? Who are these guys that are in this story. Not just telling us something that happened but we see now more voices from local people, those affected by disasters, climate change disasters.
So that then we hear it from the affected communities, affected individuals, not from the maybe a politician who might try to affect information…or from the communications officer from an NGO or something like that is targeting either…I like also the fact that we see more journalists using geojournalism pools, telling stories with data generated by earth scientists. We are seeing a lot data visualizations. We are seeing satellite imagery, for example, one using the file, making sure you’re using files, go ahead and use satellite images to show the impact of human activities on communities. If, for example, you’re telling a story, and want to show us, not just with text…and we see a lot of geojournalism techniques, tools, data visualizations. These are actually helping kind of to redirect the story.
JG: Absolutely. So data, sourcing, and the point that you make about humanizing, I think, is really key, right? Because for many people, climate change and its impacts have long felt like something far away. That you might think about polar bears and icecaps but increasingly we’re seeing the impacts that are happening on all of us right now. I’m really interested, given your network, what impacts you think community reporting in particular is having?
FM: Community reporting helps to bring, I would say, alternative content that you may not get…that may not be available in other media. So, then when you do community reporting then they give you the alternative content that you might not find in these other big media houses that are targeting profits.
We are seeing a lot of changes now in media houses, especially in Africa, shifting from ethics (?) profits, kind of targeting to net profits for their shareholders, not caring for the audience, the listeners, readers. But now, with community-based media, you see a lot of alternative content that you may not find in other media.
JG: Can you maybe give us an example or two of the kind of stories that have been generated from community media organizations in your field of reporting?
FM: There are stories that are down there that don’t usually appear in big media. I’ll give an example of farmers – we have seen these stories – farmers waiting to plant especially after the mid-year drought in some parts of Uganda … So, again, they have to wait for the rains. The rains usually come in August. They are now coming in October. So these are stories that you find – local stories that would not be told by big media houses, private media houses, but you are finding these ones in community media houses because most of these are farmers, rural communities.
JG: And presumably, when you start to put those together, they can add up to a full picture, right? So, one report on its own may not be alarming but when you start to add that together, you might start to see a different kind of story, right?
FM: Yeah, you’re right. So, one report about the community and how it has been affected or how…one community may not be enough. It’s very important to bring these stories together to tell a big picture on a region or country. That’s right.
JG: I want to make sure this is as interactive as possible so if you do have questions for Fredrick, please put them in the chat and we will come to you. I have a question before we go out to the chat though, Fredrick and that’s really about the fact that often we talk about what governments need to do. Certainly, in the run up to COP26, a lot of the reporting is very much focused on what governments need to do and the targets they need to meet or what we expect corporations to do. What one thing to you think climate journalists could do to improve coverage of this issue?
FM: Yes, I want to say the climate change journalists who want to go and report climate change at COP26 – it’s very important for climate change journalists to go keep in mind the significance of their stories. It’s not just important for us to write these stories for example but it’s very important for us, when we are going to write these stories or cover these functions, to know the significance of the stories we are going to write. So, in that way, we know the impact of our stories even before we write them. So, it’s very important to have that in mind.
Also, I think the other one is that we have had more than 20 years of covering the story. The climate change story seems to be kind of growing old and may not attract readers. So, we must have in mind as journalists to try to re-familiarize this story, by making familiar…making something that is familiar, unfamiliar. Yeah, so then I have in mind that this is important for us to know how we can redesign the story by, for example, using geojournalism tools in our stories, data visualizations, satellite imagery. If we have all of these, then we will attract readers. We will not only attract scientists to read our stories, we also attract the youth to read these stories, to view these stories because we are giving them videos and stuff like that. Then, we achieve the aim of why we are writing these stories.
JG: I hadn’t thought of that before and actually you’re absolutely right that kind of making it fresh again for people because it does feel like old news. It feels like, you know, climate change, we’ve been talking about it, always feels a bit further away. So, it’s not just about making it immediate, it’s about…and I hadn’t thought about it that way…it’s about describing…it’s not just about making it immediate and personal, it’s also making it unfamiliar again so it feels new. I feel that’s a great way of explaining it, absolutely. Before we go to the chat, I do want to come if we’ve got time to talk about the threats that environmental journalists face because it is one of the areas of reporting where people are under, perhaps, greatest pressure – physical threats, judicial threats, online harassment, and so on. But I feel with climate, we’re often on the negative side, so I really want to know what inspires you to do this work.
FM: You know at the beginning for example…and I started writing before, writing to get my stories on the front page of the media house…but now I feel pursuing these stories that can have impact on my communities. I’ll tell you an example – actually it’s the same example I gave you – in the past year…about ten years ago – my communities we are good at growing, in my village we are good at growing…once a year and this would come in August. But now I see my communities are suffering, the people are suffering, they are not able to grow [a particular plant]… Rains are not coming at the right time. Then you find farmers waiting forever – when it comes it uproots and destroys the garden. So then, if I pursue stories that have impact on my community, and if I, for example, give my community the right information to help them make the right decisions, I feel very good.
And I will give an example: So now, communities and also local governments for example in Africa and in Uganda would make decisions about climate change. They would have the wrong information that would lead them to make the wrong decisions. But right now when I write stories and I see ministries or local governments using my stories to inform policies, I feel good. So, then we don’t just rely on politicians and diplomats but also on stories I write, and I source news stories from scientists who have researched, who have got data.
JG: That’s such an amazing feeling. It’s such an amazing feeling as a journalist when you can see that your work has a positive impact – I totally hear you.
There’s a great question from George here – I’m going to read it to you and he says: “How much of science do you need to understand for the ordinary person to appreciate the risks and threats posed by climate change? I find the language and concepts a bit inaccessible for someone even slightly educated like myself.” And I’m totally with that, you know, I’m novice from a science background and sometimes the concepts, particularly when we start to talk about targets and some of the more technical language can be inaccessible. How much do you, as a journalist, need to understand all of that?
FM: Well, I strongly believe you don’t need a lot of science to know all this. You need to know how to write good stories. So, then I would say basic good writing skills for stories and then how to source them. It’s very important to know how to source them and then sourcing this info would be like interviewing researchers and scientists. And if you know how to interview a scientist, you are likely to get the right information from him or her, and then if you have that right information, it will be easy for you to write.
You don’t need to be a scientist or go to university to study science or climate change to be a good storyteller around climate change. But if you are a good interviewer, for example, you would be able to get a good story. And again, writing about science, climate change stories, you would need someone who doesn’t write using jargon that scientists use. If you are someone who does not know a lot of science, you are not bound to use all that jargon. You will find it and then interview or ask a scientist what it means. Then you will present it to me in a way that I can understand it, not the way that scientists understand it.
JG: And presumably, the part about asking difficult questions or things that you don’t understand, is quite often a natural thing for journalists. The thing that is perhaps difficult for many is trying to understand the data. You obviously work with the geojournalism project, working with a lot of data. Do you think that requires specialist knowledge?
FM: Not really. For example, I use all these tools and I never studied like geojournalism but I had a few trainings from different scientists who are able to give me some…one or two or three days, I’m able to use like imagery. One or two days I’m able to use juxtaposing techniques to make sure I tell stories using maps. So, you don’t need a lot of science.
JG: You don’t need three degrees. That’s reassuring I think to many people. So, I’m going to ask you another question. Sohar from Yemen. Sohar says: “They’ve been reporting on climate change in Yemen for two years but still find it difficult to drive audience attention to the issue. How can they advocate and raise awareness?” And the question is also: “What will COP26 bring for countries already in humanitarian crisis?” So how can you advocate and raise awareness when there’s this sort of difficult to get audience attention on this issue?
FM: I believed I’ve already touched on that in some of my answers, as I was answering your question. But I have two points: 1 – defamiliarization of the story. Make sure you give me the story in another form to attract me. That’s why I was telling you – you can use maps for example, you can use satellite imagery and show us above from the skies. Show us what is on the ground – that will attract me. That will attract the scientists. That will attract the youth. So they will be like, “oh, I didn’t know. Things have changed.”
I’ve seen journalists, for example, using these techniques for solution journalism stories, to show how communities are planting trees. Ten years ago, what was there? Nothing. So, you use satellite imagery of what is there right now and you see these communities are now in two forests. It’s a powerful way of telling the story. So, that attracts us.
Then, I also believe you may need to tag your stories on to disasters. Because climate change… they make news. So, if you want to tell me a climate change story, maybe you can tag it to what has happened recently – floods and things like that because this has just happened. And then, if you tag your story on to floods, you’ll be able now to attract readers because they’ll be like “ah, I didn’t know floods were related to climate change.”
JG: And solutions journalism does seem to be picking up. It’s interesting how we always used to talk about news as being really negative and bad news but it sounds to me like what you’re saying, there is a room and an appetite to tell stories about positive things that are happening. So, rather than talking about deforestation, you talk about tree planting. Are there examples from your own work where you’ve done that specifically?
FM: Yeah, I do that. Right now I’m working on this story, for example, about this city in Uganda that is using solar to light streets, and this has happened for the last four years. So then, I’m actually telling a photo story. So, I want to show exactly how the city was ten years ago and I’m using satellite imagery to show. The city is called… So, if you look at the satellite imagery from (the city) ten years ago, it’s dark. But now, the image shows lights, some kind of lights now. You are able to see lights on some streets. An indication that solar as a renewable energy the city is using. But also, because this is a photojournalism story, I’m going to the streets to take pictures of the panels, people mounting them. It kind of gives hope. Yeah, it kind of gives hope. And there are so many other stories I’ve been writing around solutions journalism.
I want also to give an example – I’ve been working on a project that focuses on how cities are getting and adapting to climate change. And then we are telling stories of what cities are doing, adapting to climate change. For example, in Uganda, you find Kampala city working on the highway – Kampala Express to decongest the city. All of this would help to reduce emissions because now cars on the street would take a few minutes, not like hours. They wouldn’t be in a traffic jam.
JG: I’ve got one more question from the audience – one thing that always struck them that when you ask relevant agencies and government about mitigation efforts and they often blame the fragile ecosystem of the country as an easy excuse for questions about mitigation. How do you counter those excuses for not taking action? How can you push back, I guess?
FM: Yes, it is our role as journalists to question those who should be taking action, those who are comfortable to ask them questions. And then, we present it to our readers that they have failed. It is very important to know how to question, how to interview these people. If they don’t give you information, if they tell you come tomorrow, come some other day, and then fail to give you information, just present it to us as readers. Because that’s what we are waiting for.
You are the journalist. You are not there to follow them, to make sure they answer in the way that you want. No, but just relate it to us. But also, I strongly believe that there is always another source. So, if I come to you for example, if you are a ministry or the minister of water or something and I ask you and you don’t answer my question, I can approach another minister who is related to the story that I am working on. Because I’ve been to the ministry several times. But sometimes I ask the Prime Minister, the head of the ministers. And then, if the Prime Minister is not able to answer, she will pick up the phone and call the minister and ask the minister the exact question I’ve asked. And then, the minister will answer through the Prime Minister. I’ll write my story.
JG: So, it’s very good, clearly, to have friends in high places Fredrick. I’d like to flip that on the head for the last question. There are very powerful vested interests at work both for good and ill. Climate journalists and environmental journalists have been some of those most severely targeted in our media community. Are there ways that you think we can push back against that?
FM: Yes, it’s a big challenge. I just want to give an example. I have had some issues as a journalist working on these things. Someone comes and asks you – do you know the use of a gun? If you kind of fear, then you back off the story. But, I think one – it is very important for us as journalists to form networks, to help each other, yeah, to help each other. I mean sometimes you are reporting to your group or network – I’m reporting on these things, I’m facing these challenges. Then you can find someone there who can tell you what to do. Or, you let someone work on this story if you think you’re not able to work on it because of threats and stuff like that. Let someone work on this story.
But also, I have seen in Uganda – these networks usually help when you get challenges, they are able to help you if someone sues you or stuff like that, then they can back you and maybe help you. These networks are really good. In Uganda, for example, we have [organization name] – it has helped so much it comes out when a journalist is in prison or pressured or stuff like that, they come out and are like, “no, we will not back off. We’ll take this case to court.”
JG: I think we have seen definitely over the past five to ten years the importance of that solidarity and people speaking out on your behalf, as well. I imagine that’s not just your own community but having that international network as well.
We’ll have to wrap it up there. I’m sorry Fredrick. I could talk to you for hours. I understand you’re coming to Glasgow so I hope to have the opportunity to see you there. We’re taking a huge team with the Earth Journalism Network to COP26 to bring you the stories from communities around the world and also from Glasgow.
Fredrick, thank you for joining us. That’s it for this edition of Turn the Mic Around. You can learn more about Internews’ work and our Earth Journalism Network’s work supporting journalists around the world at internews.org. While you’re there, you can follow us on social media or you can click the donate button. We can only do all this work with your support. Thank you Fredrick and thank you for listening.
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