Risky, yet full of potential: What Latin American journalists think of the region's climate and energy coverage
When the topic is climate and energy in Latin America, there is no shortage of important and intriguing stories. More than a quarter of the region's primary energy generation comes from renewables (mainly hydropower and biomass), which is two times the global average. The region's geographic location and natural resources make it a great place for further expansion of clean energy. Still, Latin America faces many challenges on its path of ensuring that decarbonisation is done in an environmentally and socially just way. The region accounts for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions, with the bulk of it coming from land use change, energy and agriculture. Though its CO2 emissions per capita are smaller than in the developed world, some countries still rely heavily on fossil fuels. Others see alterations in rainfall patterns as a real threat to the capacity of their hydropower plants, making this type of renewable energy generation less reliable.
The media landscape for covering these stories is worrisome. A recent publication by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) points out that five out of five monitored countries have high levels of media audience concentration. In Brazil and Colombia, for example, four TV networks concentrate, respectively, 70 and 80 percent of the national audience. This high concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations or elite families can lead to a "homogeneity of discourse and deepen the power of certain social groups over the rest," writes the IFJ. The latest RSF Index shows that in the past year, Latin America was the region with the biggest deterioration in their overall press freedom violation score. The COVID pandemic played an important role in this, fuelling censorship and leading to an exacerbation of "an already complex and hostile environment for journalists," RSF reports.
News reports on climate change are few and far between. A study conducted by Radar Climático shows that in 2020, less than 2 percent of news reports from the region were related to climate change. Despite this low percentage, Judit Alonso, a Spanish journalist working for the Latin American branch of Deutsche Welle, describes the quality of this type of journalism in the region as good. She highlights that many of the award-winning stories from the Fundación Gabo (the foundation created by writer, journalist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez) investigate environmental topics. And yet, she doesn't see large numbers of journalists specialised on the beat. "If you don't have any support from your news company, you have to look for opportunities yourself," she argues. In her view, this is why in-depth coverage is normally done by freelancers. One such reporter is Maria Gabriela Ensinck from Argentina. She points out that this lack of investment in in-depth stories leads to a reactive coverage of climate and energy topics: "Journalism is in a big [financial] crisis. So, the news outlets don't have the time to investigate properly. Newsrooms are interested in more in-depth stories, but they want them especially if they are free, paid for by grants, for example."
Across the region, journalists told me of one specific situation when energy comes to the agenda: when governments launch big auctions for the generation, transmission or distribution of electricity. For Marcel Gomes, who works for Repórter Brasil, this is so because energy reporting in the Portuguese-speaking country is often a subsection of the infrastructure beat of large newsrooms. "On the big newspapers you normally have someone who writes about the prices of auctions," he says. Also reporting on Brazil, Lívia Neves adds that oil is always on the news due to the number of jobs generated by Petrobrás, the country's state-owned oil giant. Oil “is a sector that can really affect our economy, and because of that it's always on the news." Lately, however, she has seen a shift in this trend: "Emissions reduction is coming more to the spotlight because big investment funds are looking to invest in companies that cut carbon emissions," she says. "But still, journalism that covers energy is economic journalism. The reporting doesn't have this link to the environment."
Having written for years exclusively about energy with a focus on renewables, Neves believes that the complexity of the topic and the lack of specialisation make journalists vulnerable to PR discourse from both the fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors: "Journalists who are not following the energy story can end up listening to the version of the associations and buying into this idea that green is always good."
Political polarisation and personal safety fears jeopardise coverage of energy and just transition
"In Latin America, you cannot talk about energy transition without talking about social justice," says Juan Mayorga, a freelancer from Mexico. The region's deep social and economic inequalities make achieving a just transition especially challenging. Reporting on it can also come at a high cost. In Mexico, ranked second on the International Federation of Journalists' (IFJ) list of most dangerous countries to report from, this influence cannot be downplayed. "There are people who report on conflicts in communities where local governments and companies have installed energy facilities by force, with the use of paramilitary groups," says Mayorga. "This is a very hidden facet. Mexican people don't understand that this can be connected to the energy transition. But journalists don't want to die, so there is a lot of self-censorship."
Political polarisation can also hamper good and nuanced coverage. In Mexico, where the government is moving away from renewables and betting on coal, this divergence of ideologies towards the extremes can be seen when the topic is energy. "The big news media outlets tend to be businesses owned by the elites," says Mayorga. In that way, the coverage of an energy story depends on whether the media outlet owners are pro or anti-government.
Journalists from Brazil also talk about political influences that can affect the quality of reporting. Neves considers that the influence of the Brazilian bancada ruralista (ruralist wing of congress) should not be underestimated. For her, the bancada, the group of representatives who are aligned with the interests of agribusiness, has a lot of political power, "enough to influence what will or won't be covered by big newspapers. So, we have an alternative media that works on filling this gap." Gomes' Repórter Brasil is one of these media outlets. The website specialises in investigating the supply chains of different sectors. "When we cover energy, we take the approach of investigating the social impacts of power plants, which can be wind or hydropower," he says. "But because of the pandemic we cannot travel right now and thus we end up relying on our contacts with local communities and NGOs working on the ground."
In my conversations with journalists, they identified many topics they wished had more coverage. Gonzalo Sobral, from Uruguay, believes that his country’s media should publish more analyses of the geopolitical impacts of the policies of other countries on the region. "What are the implications of a Chinese decision for us? Or when the European Union decides to shift to clean energy?," he ponders. Intra-regional reporting is something that Mayorga would also like to see more: "I want to know more about how the transition happened in Uruguay, for example, but there is a cultural barrier," he argues. "In Mexico, we are also bad at seeing the good things coming from Central America. We only look at the United States or Europe." According to Ensinck, the innovations coming from Argentina are also not covered sufficiently by the country's media. "In Argentina, we have our own technology for energy generation, not only the ones of companies coming from abroad," she emphasises.
Though all journalists I interviewed called for more specialisation of professionals, that doesn't mean that they believe that the climate and energy stories should be confined to a specific section of websites and newspapers. Different topics should rather be connected to the environment and climate on a daily basis. "We need to be more prepared to ask about sustainability topics in every article. Business, technology and scientific journalists should cover this topic as well," says Ensinck. In journalism, “we are worried about the economy, the pandemic and can't see the climate crisis as a crisis."
Making sure the media relays the severity and dimension of the climate crisis to Latin American audiences will require building a stronger, more independent and plural media landscape for the coverage of climate and energy topics. It will require large-scale measures, such as limiting media ownership, securing reporters' safety and opening up the democratic space, just to name a few. But alongside that, bottom-up approaches are, in my view, also necessary. Independent media will need to be strengthened and reliably funded. Training opportunities will have to be created so that journalists and editors can look at the climate and all its environmental, social and economic complexities as a story for every beat. Networks that go beyond national borders will have to be created. These could facilitate the exchange of ideas, and increase the potential for cross-border collaboration on stories and the emergence of a regional view of shared climate and energy challenges and opportunities.