Enjoying the silence

Unpacking Romanian media’s lethargy on climate change

For a journalist trying to find their way through the field of environmental reporting, a search through the Romanian press for climate change coverage can leave you rather despondent.

I strive to write something people will care about or at least make them realize they should care about. I am looking at the media landscape I am working in for a reference system that could guide me in building and improving my reporting. I am currently focusing on what’s out there with regard to climate change, what’s missing, what can be my own contribution.

To further confirm my feeling that something is missing in the press, I did a review of the top 5 most visited general news websites in the country.The immediate conclusions are simple to understand, yet hard to swallow: there is barely any coverage, both on domestic and international climate issues; articles revolving around topics like climate change are a sort of shooting stars, rare occasions of fleeting reports that seldom go in-depth, depriving the Romanian audience from information which can be essential in changing attitudes in the present and towards a more sustainable future. Basically, the press doesn’t care, so neither does the audience.

I focused on climate change coverage as a result of the most recent Eurobarometer report on EU attitudes toward climate change published last month, as it showed some worrying trends. Some of the findings show that just 38% of Romanians consider climate change among the top problems facing the world, and only 10% think they are responsible for taking mitigation actions.

I used “IPCC” (Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change) and “Warsaw” as search-keywords for any mention of the IPCC’s most recent reports and of the Warsaw climate summit from November 2013, as I wanted to find out how much of the local coverage revolves around topics important at an international level.

The researched websites were realitatea.net (the correspondent website of one of the main TV news stations in the country), stirileprotv.ro (similar), romaniatv.net (similar),gandul.info (a former print newspaper that is now only online) and adevarul.ro (the online version of the general national print newspaper).

The timeframe included articles published between the 1st of January 2013 and 15th of April 2014. In total, in the course of more than one year there were 28 articles mentioning the IPCC (20 articles) or the COP in Warsaw (8, with the two most visited websites –realitatea.net and stirileprotv.ro with no articles whatsoever).

Looking beyond absolute numbers, a brief analysis of the content shows that:

  • Only 3 articles were signed by an author
  • the other 25 were sourced from either Reuters, AFP or national news agencies (Mediafax and Agerpress) or taken from other Romanian websites who cite the same sources;
  • in the case of the IPCC recent reports there is no analysis of the findings, no relevant expert is cited and the length of the pieces does not go beyond 4 paragraphs;
  • realitatea.net covered the Warsaw climate summit in only one article which briefly mentioned the conference, and concentrated mostly on the Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines.

So, why is climate change such a marginal topic in Romania?

Governments and members of the public around the world have recognized climate change as a global and national issue, with media outlets supporting this view through constant coverage of the topic. Downfalls in the print environmental press have been compensated through more articles online and start-ups focusing on climate change. But why doesn’t Romania join the trend? Does it have to do with our national press or can we blame it more on external factors? Here are some thoughts.

First of all, the Romanian media does not suffer from an endemic syndrome of ignoring climate change. It does, however, face some of the difficulties experienced by media worldwide. After all, it is a business that needs money to survive and to get it, the media relies on those subjects most likely to grab a reader’s attention, usually the ones that attach a face to an issue, like politics or sports, and climate change looks far from being a suitable candidate.

Also, climate change can simply be too complicated to explain: it doesn’t have clear cut edges, in space or time; you can’t put your finger on it and it’s hard to treat it as news; it doesn’t trigger public empathy; it’s mostly about science and both journalists and the general public lack the scientific background needed to grasp it.

But covering climate change in Romania is not only a question of overcoming its general difficulties, but also the local media’s systemic flaws. The press cannot relinquish the context it operates in. Rather, it echoes it and this context can barely relate to what climate change entails.

To begin with, politics is still the biggest subject in the Romanian press; there is hardly any other topic that can compete with it in terms of editorial space, resources and specialized journalists.

The Romanian media is also under more financial pressure than its Western counterparts, making climate change highly unlikely to win any ground when the “eye on the money” is the credo and media outlets increasingly base their activity on their owners’ personal interests. After 2000, when media profits started to decline, neutral shareholders were supplanted by businessmen who invested heavily; paychecks got bigger, while the quality of journalism plummeted, concluded Miruna Munteanu, a Romanian journalist who studied the influence of politics on media contents at Oxford University.

To make things worse, the level of professionalism is still low compared to media outlets in Western countries. The press hasn’t developed a solid system of institutions, norms and values, it hasn’t slowly gained experience and built an identity; it is always in a transition, battling for public demand, without a sense of responsibility towards building public interest. It would take a major increase in public concern for climate change to stir the press, but as it is not the case, a vicious circle is perpetuated.

Lack of journalistic training is also an issue. Mihai Coman, who teaches journalism at the University of Bucharest and has frequently reviewed the local media landscape, talks about the many Romanian journalists who have learned the tricks of the trade informally, in the editorial office, and not in school. And while this has equipped them with essential practical skills, they still lack a depth and curiosity that could make them more inclined to take initiative and cover less explored territory, like climate change.

Their localism also makes them more resistant to inspiration from abroad and as a reult they are less likely to replicate and adopt the type of climate change coverage foreign media outlets and individuals are experimenting with.

Local scientists also have a low input in connecting with the press; given their scarce resources for research, most of the time, their opinions and research results remain invisible.

At the same time, international research doesn’t help much either. The IPCC reports do not place Romania in any extreme vulnerability in terms of climate change exposure. Possible consequences, though very serious, have more subtleties than the press has space to explain.

The country has increasingly experienced episodes of floods and droughts, and studies indicate a future surge in extreme weather events in Romania. But despite the fact that similar events in other countries trigger media debates about how they might be connected to changes in the climate, the Romanian press focuses mostly on the immediate social and economic consequences, without any in-depth analysis of scientific causes or debate about climate change mitigation at a national level.

This is certainly isn’t an exhaustive discussion of the reasons behind the media silence when it comes to climate change. Nor is it a resigned meditation on the matter. It could be interpreted as an awareness exercise for a journalist trying to figure out how to write better about climate change and the environment at large in a media landscape unlikely to shift its priorities in the near future. Or it could just be a reminder of not settling for silence.The country has increasingly experienced episodes of floods and droughts, and studies indicate a future surge in extreme weather events in Romania. But despite the fact that similar events in other countries trigger media debates about how they might be connected to changes in the climate, the Romanian press focuses mostly on the immediate social and economic consequences, without any in-depth analysis of scientific causes or debate about climate change mitigation at a national level.

This commentary was published on the Climate News Mosaic blog. See it here

(Top photo: Gaderinge)

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