Ways to Increase Environmental Concern in Environmental Journalism

When it comes to the environment, we are living in a very delicate era. On May of 2013, was announced that The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOOA), as well as Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, confirmed that we reached for the first time during history of humanity 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide concentrated in atmosphere. It was the limit established by scientists and environmentalists to avoid extreme climate changes. And, in the middle of this and other disastrous environmental happenings, media plays an important role, transmitting information from scientific and academic centers to its audience, offering new possibilities to fight climate change, working in a preventive way and sensitizing people to search for sustainable ways of life. Or, at least, media should be doing that, this is why the title of this text can sound a bit confusing at first.

Is society informed enough to change its behavior and construct a sustainable world? Has media, and specifically environmental journalism, been able to reach and inform the public in a successful way about environmental issues? Taking the example of Brazil, the probable answer is “no”. What is environmental journalism? How does environmental journalism work today, why it does not reach its public successfully and what are some of its difficulties? From the perspective of the environmental journalism practiced in some of the press media vehicles in Brazil, the idea is to make a reflection about how media, scientists and society in general can put together their strength to potentiate the power of environmental journalism to construct healthy environmental habits in the world.

But what is environmental journalism? According to Wilson da Costa Bueno, it is fundamental to understand the difference between environmental communication and environmental journalism. Environmental communication can be defined as “the set of actions, strategies, plans and efforts destined to promote the divulgation/promotion of the environmental cause” (Bueno 34).  On the other hand, environmental journalism is more specific, and “is related exclusively to journalistic manifestations” (Bueno 34). Yet according to Bueno, the environmental communication do not need to compromise with the factual and can be exercised by any professional, while environmental journalism is related to current happenings and is about the way journalists and media have been exposing environmental issues to its audience.

1.    Environmental Journalism in Brazil:

Environmental journalism gave its first signs of life in 1968, propelled by The Biosphere Conference, which took place in Paris and was organized by The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), originating the first environmental journalism organization. After that, other events, groups and reports strengthened the necessity of debating environmental issues. Some examples were the reports released by the Club of Rome, which opened discussions about the industry’s economic growth based on the use of natural resources; the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which took place in Stockholm in 1972 and The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, hosted in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992.

In Brazil, the first journalist to specialize in environmental issues was Randau Marques, who began his work in the same year when Paris was holding The Biosphere Conference. Randau, who worked for the dictatorship government in Brazil, fighting against leftist movements, “was arrested for writing a new in a newspaper in Sao Paulo – Franca[1] about pesticides from shoes’ industries, responsible for fishes’ mortalities and farmers’ poisoning” (Colombo 5).

But according to Colombo, environmental journalism as it was practiced in foreign countries, only developed in Brazil in the 80’s, when the first discussions about the hole in the ozone layer began. In 1989, a seminar called “The Press and the Planet” took place in Sao Paulo, promoted by Brazilian Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters and the Newspapers National Association and, in the same year, the “Seminar for Journalists on Population and Environment” was held in Brasilia, capital city of Brazil (Colombo 6).

Media professionals hold with them moral and ethics responsibilities of informing society about what happens around the world in the most credible way, even if we know that impartial journalism is a myth and that communication vehicles are affected by innumerous factors, such as the political views of its owners and their economic interests. But we cannot forget about media and the social responsibility of its professionals, and it is no different in environmental journalism. According to Lima (par. 2), media is responsible for sensitizing population in order to prevent more damages to the environment, a role that is divided with the efforts of non-governmental organizations, environmentalists and governmental institutions.

Bueno (35) points that the environmental journalism has three main basic functions to accomplish, which are: the informative function, fulfilling the objective of informing citizens about environmental issues; the pedagogic function, responsible for explaining causes and solutions to environmental problems and the political function, related to aggregate citizens to fight against interests that can aggravate damages in the environment. But, according to Costa (qtd. in Costa, Cunha & Silva 2), media in Brazil “has not been characterized by news that explain causes and consequences of environmental phenomena, being insufficient to inform and contribute to form concerned citizens about environmental issues or for the conception of public policies related to the theme”.

There are lots of challenges that prevent the successful practice of the environmental journalism, globally. Diana Zazueta, in an article written for World Wide Fund for Nature, mentions some of them. For example, there is a lack of environmental and scientific training for media professionals, the limited access to environmental data, the threats offered by forest mafias and the filter through which the citizens have their contact with environmental issue, usually mediated by the interests of big corporations. In Brazil, all these factors reflect on the lack of environmental news in media, and when published, they are usually very superficial.

In her studies, Colombo writes that, according to a research made by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Brazilian media is worried in publishing news about environmental issues in three main occasions: “1) natural disasters and/or serious accidents that damage the nature, 2) reports published by foreign magazines with scientific data about global warming and 3) on June 3, when World Environment Day is celebrated” (Colombo 8). As we can see, all three situations are related to factual happenings, there is little space to deeply explore these themes and offer solutions and explanations about them.

According to Costa, Cunha & Silva, “recent scientific studies on the interface ‘communication and environment’ point to the necessity of deepening the theme, once the importance that communication vehicles have to publication of information in contemporary world, as well as the scientific and social debate on environmental management, are indisputable facts” (Costa, Cunha & Silva 2). As some examples of the way that Brazilian media has been addressing environmental issues, we can pick the 2009 year. In 2009, the world was more aware of environmental themes not only because there was a sensible increasing on numbers of natural disasters, but because “media created big expectations around the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference” (Costa, Cunha & Silva 2).

In 2009, at least 10.000 people were victims of natural disasters such as the seism that occurred in Sumatra Island or the successive hurricanes that devastated the Atlantic coast, and Brazil was the sixth most affected country by natural disasters. From the United Nations Climate Change Conference, people were waiting for an agreement between the participant countries on limiting the amount of carbon dioxide in atmosphere. In comparison to previous years, 2009 was the year when Brazilian media published the biggest number of news about environmental issues.

By analyzing the speech about climate changes in news and opinion pieces published in 2009 by two of the biggest newspapers of Brazil, O Estado de S. Paulo and Folha de S. Paulo; Costa, Cunha & Silva (5) found that both prioritized the reproduction of information from foreign sources, such as Greenpeace, World Wide Fund for Nature and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and even the texts were mostly reproduced from international news agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press. The newspaper mostly focused on consequences caused by climate changes, especially by global warming, warning of the rise of sea level and the melting of polar icecaps.

In most part of the analyzed texts, an alarmist tone to talk about consequences of global warming and climate changes was identified by the use of words such as “destroy”, “threat”, “catastrophe” and “devastating” in headlines (Costa, Cunha & Silva 6) and by excerpts such as “In the past few years, Bolivians’ lives have been fustigated by an almost biblical sequence of extreme climate changes, most part of them, believe scientists, probably related to climate changes. In this year, there were fiery temperatures and intense sun. A drought killed 7.000 animals and left almost 100 thousand sick people” (Rosenthal, Folha de S.Paulo, 12/21/2009 qtd. in Costa, Cunha & Silva 9).

Another strategy used by newspapers to sensitize readers about the consequences of climate changes and global warming was mentioning the extinction risk of animals such as polar bears and penguins “Global warming is threatening polar bears due to ice caps melting in Arctic, said Norway’s Environmental Minister, Erik Solheim, on Monday 16th” (Acher, Reuters – reproduced by O Estado de S. Paulo in 3/16/2009 qtd. in Costa, Cunha & Silva 7).

But newspapers focused on climate changes’ consequences without fully accomplishing the pedagogic function of environmental journalism, identified by Wilson Bueno. The analyzed Brazilian news presented some causes for climate changes and other environmental problems but did not present solutions, or relegated them mostly to the ambit of agreements made between governments and nations, forgetting about local spheres and smaller solutions that could be sought by readers. Also, beyond the usual lack of environmental news on newspapers, the research conducted in 2009 by Costa, Cunha & Silva found that news were more concerned about environmental issues near to specific dates and events, such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Another conclusion that was reached by this research was that as a result of the excessive reproduction of foreign news by analyzed Brazilian newspapers, the texts did not focus on environmental issues in Brazil, and especially in the Amazon region, one of the most affected in the country by climate changes and which demands public policies. When they did it, the region was seen as an exotic place and a sanctuary that should be preserved, which can be seen as a result of a region that, historically, has been guided by environmental issues.

According to Strainbrenner (1-2), the Amazon region is “repeatedly understood as indispensable source of natural riches for external problems’ solutions, from developmental policies of the70’s or on current planetary biodiversity and sustainability notions. This environmental centrality, somehow, tends to promote the invisibility of urban groups, especially of urban populations of the Amazon region”, what means that urban problems are not considered as part of environmental problems suffered by the Amazon, and its population, especially its traditional population, such as Indians and “caboclos”[2] that live on banks of Amazon Rivers, are not heard by environmental news published in Brazil. The exclusion of popular voice from environmental news is defined by Wilson Bueno (5) as “high wall syndrome”, which considers just the technical approach of environmental issues, strengthening elite’s discourses and marginalizing the discourse of normal citizens and certain groups of civil society.

2.             Conclusions:

What can be done for a better practice of environmental journalism, in Brazil and in the whole world? First, the environment concept used by media has to be changed. Environment, as defined by Wilson Bueno (35), is a “complex of relations, conditions and influences that permits the creation and sustention of live in all its forms. It is not limited to physical and biological surroundings (soil, water, hydric resources, energy, nutrients, etc.), but includes the social interactions, culture and expressions/manifestations that guarantee human nature’s survival”. If media adopts this concept of environment, it will be easier to propose local solutions for environmental problems.

In this way, environmental journalism can be a key tool to construct healthy environmental behavior in a collective way, beginning in lowest levels of society, as residences, schools, communities and universities. Universities have to incorporate environmental journalism classes in their journalism curricula, enabling future professionals to properly explore the theme. Sometimes, environmental journalism is not easily understandable to society because journalists are not prepared to “translate” scientific language or are too shy to ask for the real significance of scientific terms. In Brazil, the number of universities that offer programs related to environmental journalist is still insufficient.

Also, there has been a decreasing tendency on environmental coverage around the world, not only observed through numbers of environmental news published in communication vehicles: The New York Times recently announced the closing of its environmental desk. In the United States, for example, according to Josh Galparin (par. 3), from The Yale Center of Environmental Law and Police, “a study from 2008 found that about 555 daily newspapers had a dedicated environmental reporter in 2000. By 2008 that number fell below 300”. Yet according to Galparin, the decline of environmental coverage in the U.S made Columbia University suspends, in 2009, its graduate program in environmental journalism.

It is necessary to media become aware of the environmental journalism importance, and this shift can begin with its professionals’ better preparation.  According to Bueno (36), environmental journalism has to incorporate a multidisciplinary vision, beyond the limits imposed by desks and sections of communication vehicles. On the other hand, as media owners have specific interests, it has been difficult to separate environmental journalism from them, and news come impregnated with the political and economic views of the big media owners. Also, the sustainability concept, for example, has been conventionally used to attend the communication vehicles’ supporters’ views.

Lastly, environmental journalism cannot be seen and practiced as an isolated area of knowledge, because “the environmental knowledge cannot be confused with or is privilege of specialized instances and, actually, is a result of multiple knowledge’s articulation, with strong and benefic influence of traditional experiences and acquirements” (Bueno 36). There are lots of difficulties that environmental journalism has to overcome, but connecting all the solutions can be the best way to strenghen one of its main purpose, which is sensitize people to act against damages caused in environment by them.


[1] Franca is a city in Sao Paulo, state located on southeast Brazil.

[2] Caboclos are the mix between white and indians, forming the biggest population group of stated from north Brazil.

Works Cited:

BUENO, W.C. “Environmental Journalism: Beyond the Concept”. Development and Environment15 (2007): 33-44. Internet. 6 May 2013. < http://ojs.c3sl.ufpr.br/ojs2/index.php/made/article/viewFile/11897/8391&gt; .

COLOMBO, M.E. (2010). “Environmental Journalism: Its Story and Concept in the Social Context”. Brazilian Congress of Communication Sciences, Caxias do Sul- Brazil, 2-6 September 2010. Internet. 6 May 2013. < http://www.intercom.org.br/papers/nacionais/2010/resumos/R5-2674-1.pdf>.

COSTA, L.M; Karina Menezes Cunha & Keila Andreane Corrêa da Silva. “The Use of Sources in News Construction: An Analysis of ‘Folha de S.Paulo’ and ‘O Estado de S.Paulo’ Newspapers’ Discourses about Climate Change”. II South American Conference of Citizen Media and VII Brazilian Conference of Citizen Media, Belem-  Brazil, 20-22 Oct. 2011.

GALPERIN, J. “The Continued Decline of Environmental Journalism”. Yale Center for Environmental Law and Police. 14 Jan. 2013. Internet. 5 May 2013. < http://environment.yale.edu/envirocenter/post/the-continued-decline-of-environmental-journalism/>.

LIMA, E.S. “The Importance of Media in Environmental Awareness”. Online Business Communication. Internet. 6 May 2013. < http://www.comunicacaoempresarial.com.br/comunicacaoempresarial/artigos/jornalismo_ambiental/artigo2.php>.

STEINBRENNER, R.A.  “Discursive Dimension of the Socio-Environmental Changes in the Amazon: Environmental Centrality x Urban Invisibility”. VI Congress of Communication Sciences of Brazil’s North Region, Belem-Brazil, 20-22 Jun. 2007. Internet. 6 May 2013. < http://www.intercom.org.br/papers/regionais/norte2007/resumos/R0323-1.pdf>.

ZAZUETA, D. “Environmental Journalism and Its Challenges”.  WWF Global Website. 11 Mar. 2009. Internet. 6 May 2013. <http://wwf.panda.org/?158642%2FEnvironmental-journalism-and-its-challenges> .




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