Greening China’s press corps

Academics, officials, media figures and NGO representatives gathered in Beijing last week to discuss the past and future of Chinese environmental journalism. Zhang Yang listened in.

“Environmental reporters should focus on establishing value systems, so that once they have the facts they can make judgments and choices that will produce the most effective reports.”

“China’s environmental reporters must not restrict themselves to environmental reporting alone. They must see the social, economic and national impacts of environmental problems.”

These were among the nuggets of advice offered to China’s environmental reporters by Guardian journalist Jonathan Watts at a seminar in Beijing last week. The event, which took place on April 10 following the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards, brought together figures from academia, officialdom, the media and NGO worlds to share views on a decade of environmental reporting in China and to discuss their expectations for the future.

Watts has spent nine years living and working in China (most recently as The Guardian’s Asia environment correspondent) and has borne witness to the country’s breakneck economic development as well as the impacts of an ever worsening environment. He praised China’s achievements in environmental management and improved transparency, but added that the government has not yet done anywhere near enough in these areas.

Environmental journalism is closely bound up with this complex picture. The country’s earliest raft of public campaigns focused on environmental protection, and in turn gave rise to the first wave of environmental journalism 10 years ago. After the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, the field changed: climate change, energy-saving, emissions-reduction, carbon markets and carbon policy were thrown in with pre-existing areas of focus, leading to more comprehensive environmental reporting, rooted in the sustainable development agenda.

Last week’s discussion, which was chaired by chinadialogue’s Beijing editor Liu Jianqiang, brought together guests including Sun Zhen, climate researcher at China’s top economic planner the National Development and Reform Commission, Yuen Ying Chan, director of Hong Kong University’s journalism school, Lu Zhi, professor of life sciences at Peking University and Feng Yongfeng, founder of the NGO Green Beagle.

The panel members agreed that environmental reporting in China has made great leaps over the last decade. A body of talented journalists has emerged, while environment and philanthropy have started to enter the political mainstream. All of this is good news for improving China’s environment.

But the participants expressed concerns too. Sun Zhen said that environmental reporting sometimes has a strong nationalist flavour or can be overly simplistic. For Peking University professor Lu Zhi, the gravest issue is that everything "is still measured in monetary value", while the real value of nature goes unrecognised. Our value system needs to move forward too, she said.

Yuen Ying Chan, of Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, called for journalists in all fields to pay attention to the environment, and to make environmental reporting part of their everyday lives. She also advocated supporting the growth of citizen journalism.

The rise of social media means that almost anyone can now be a reporter, using microblogs to pass on information to the wider public. Last year, citizen reporting played a key role in uncovering some of China’s biggest environmental incidents, such as widespread rainforest destruction in Hainan – a story broken by Liu Futang, winner of the inaugural “citizen journalist” category at the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards.

While this field has been growing organically, some believe it requires more attention from professionals. Feng Yongfeng, journalist and founder of NGO Green Beagle, told seminar participants that China’s increasingly numerous citizen journalists need guidance and assistance – more precisely training, funding and technical support.

Environmental organisations and the media have often worked together over the last decade, in a fruitful partnership for the environment. Wang Yongchen, founder of another campaign group Green Earth Volunteers, said that green reporters and NGOs have the same basic aim – solving environmental problems – and enhancing cooperation between the two will help achieve that goal. China is becoming a world leader in media-NGO cooperation, she said.

One article to be highly commended at the China Environmental Press Awards – a report on the impact of hormones on the environment – was nominated by Greenpeace. The organisation has long encouraged reporting on a range of environmental issues in China. Speaking at the seminar, its media chief Wang Xiaojun said that the campaign group highlights environmental news stories in order to foster public discussion of the issues that lie behind them. He also pointed out that, although China’s most challenging environmental problems are found at grassroots level, local reporting on such issues remains limited.   

Some of the journalists present explained the key problems they face as they go about their jobs. Guo Min heads up local paper Yunnan Information Daily, one of whose reporters won a prize for an article exposing serious chromium pollution near Qujing city. Guo said that, when it came to reporting that story, the biggest challenge was the race against time. He also explained that, after the article was published, the local government put pressure on the paper’s reporters.

Zhu Hongjun, editor of Southern Weekend’s green pages, added that it is increasingly hard to choose the right angle for environmental reports – sometimes the story itself is not enough to get attention, and a link with current affairs is necessary to create a stir.

The seminar guests also touched on the most important stories of the last 10 years, and of today. The extinction of the baiji, opposition to urban incineration plants, water pollution, dams and the Sanjiangyuan reserve were all listed as major issues of the decade. Meanwhile, Green GDP, improving environmental reporting, coordination between the media and government, harsh sanctions for environmental violations, coal pollution and the contentious Xiaonanhai dam on the Yangtze were selected as the issues most deserving of attention today.

Finally, it was a question raised by Jonathan Watts that prompted the most passionate response: “Has China’s environmental crisis already peaked, or is that another decade down the road?"

The participants were not optimistic. “The environmental damage caused by many policies or misconceptions is not yet visible,” said Yuen Ying Chan. “I’m very worried about what will happen in a decade or more.”

Feng Yongfeng offered an even bleaker assessment: the collapse of China’s ecosystems is already upon us. “There is no ‘worst’,” he said. “Things are just going to keep on getting worse."

Zhang Yang is a Beijing-based freelance journalist.

Homepage image by Zhang Ke.