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Communicating Climate Change: The Environment in the Portuguese Media

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Scientists are clear about the emergency we face—The UN’s IPCC report told us we have 11 years left to stop an environmental catastrophe. As an immediate source of information in society, what is the role of journalism in communicating science, shaping public debate and influencing policies?

Portugal and Climate Change

The European Social Survey concluded that in Europe, even though the Portuguese are the most concerned about climate change and energy transition, they are not the most informed. Scientists are trying to make use of the media to inform citizens about the real consequences of climate change through concise, tangible messages on how environmental degradation, mismanagement and ignorance can be combated both at local and global levels.

According to Physicist Filipe Duarte Santos, President of The National Council of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CNADS), the geographic location of Portugal, makes it particularly vulnerable to global warming. He explains that the dry and warm climate of southern Europe means that extreme heat waves are more likely to strike the country, increasing the occurrence of droughts and wildfires. Meanwhile on account of being partially bordered by the ocean, Portugal is also exposed to the consequences generated by the rise in sea level.

While communicating climate change, Professor Santos recognises that using phrases like ‘the temperature has risen by 1ºC,’ is a very abstract concept for people to grasp, especially since the statistic refers to the surface of the earth as a whole.

Professor Francisco Ferreira, President of environmental NGO 'Zero' explains how the consequences of climate change can be communicated efficiently.“I find that my students are a lot more impressed when I tell them that because of traffic pollution, life expectancy in Avenida da Liberdade has reduced by six months. Or that 3,200 children die from asthma caused by air pollution,” he says.

Journalists are the bridge between science and the public

Sociologist and journalist Luísa Schmidt considers the role of journalists is to deliver science to wider audiences. “It is extremely important for this connection to be facilitated by journalists, since citizens will then put pressure on the government to address these issues, once they understand what is at stake.

"River pollution and water quality is one example,"adds Professor Schmidt. “With newspaper Expresso, we analysed water quality throughout the country for a journalistic story. It was chaotic. The story caught the Government’s attention and they started making the correct water analysis. In 2005 everyone had quality tap water."

Journalists are not activists

Carla Castelo, journalist from SIC broadcast media, believes journalists should not be activists and don’t have to sensitise or educate people on the environment. “Their role is rather to address the subject in a rigorous way that conveys its due importance.” Ultimately, “if people are well informed on what is at stake, they can make better decisions,” she says.

Luís Ribeiro from magazine Visão, understands the role of an environmental journalist as the same as any other journalist—to report the truth through facts. However, he notes, journalists have to be cautious in not blindly following what environmentalists try to pass on, since they also have an agenda. “Activists don’t always explain the entire truth, but rather the truth that fits their agenda. Usually, that version is in the interest of humanity in general, but not always. Our role as journalists is different. We don’t decide what should and should not be said. All we can do is present the facts.”

The environment is a cross-cutting issue

After the economic crisis in 2010, social and economic issues assumed priority over the environment, explains Professor Schmidt. The idea that environmental sustainability is against economic growth and employment still speaks louder. “There is still this rather backward idea that, on one hand it’s something against employment and companies, and on the other, something that only activists care about as if it did not concern all of us directly,” says Ms Castelo. “But the environment and the use of resources is directly connected to the economy, politics, everything!

Ms. Castelo explains how it was difficult to sell the importance of a news story on the dam construction in the last wild river in Europe. It took more than one year to convince her editors. “It is clear today that those decisions had private interests in mind. But back then it seemed like the government’s decisions were the best decisions. And so the editors in the newsroom thought, ‘this is good for developing the country and creating jobs, why should we listen to a few environmentalists?’”

Strikes on the news

Seventeen year old activist Beatriz Barroso, who took part in bringing Greta Thunberg’s movement to Portugal, is happy with the news coverage the first school strike got on the 15th of March, especially in the newspaper Público and broadcast channel TVI. However, Ms. Barroso still feels like it is not enough,and people would rather talk about football on the news.

But coverage of the climate strikes is not science based journalism on climate change. Sofia Oliveira, a 20 year old activist with the student strike and Extinction Rebellion says, “The media coverage we get is journalistic pieces of about one and a half to two minutes, where they always ask us why we’re here and what kind of measures we want the government to take. But there is no follow up with factual and scientific information that can actually prove what we are saying.

We are very displeased with the media coverage the climate emergency gets in Portugal. We broke into a TV channel during a live programme with Extinction Rebellion to show this,” says Ms. Oliveira.

Coverage of Environmental issues in Portugal today

Today, there are no environmental journalists in Portugal exclusively dedicated to the topic. Carla Castelo is the only journalist in SIC Broadcast Media who covers the environment on a regular basis. “In terms of journalists who cover the area, there are very few,” says Ms. Castelo. Public channel RTP, does not have any journalists particularly responsible for the environment. And neither does the remaining main private channel, TVI.

When it comes to investigating environmental impact, treatment of residual waters, the loss of biodiversity or climate change, it requires some studying to understand what you’re talking about. The lack of specialised journalists reflects what is shown in the media,Ms. Castelo says.

Luís Ribeiro further notes that less specialised journalists decrease pressure in the newsroom and editorial office to advance certain issues. He says,“_Since the media networks have less financial means, other topics are prioritised. The environment is not a popular topic, like crime. It takes persuasion to sell.”

Picture credits: Matilde Coelho de Silva