/ 7 October 2016

Enviro reporters are a dying species, and lobbyists take over the news

Buying bias: When activism crosses the floor into journalism
Buying bias: When activism crosses the floor into journalism


There’s a morbid fascination to being an environment journalist, watching your industry die faster than your doomsday climate predictions can come true. That death deprives the reader of the truth. And as we walk away, the door is opened for people who claim the same legitimacy, to deceive the reader.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than during the 17th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Sandton. Here, traditional journalists sat at the back of the cavernous main meeting room on uncomfortable chairs, trying to balance their laptops on tired knees. Ahead of them, a new breed of journalist easily mingled with the tables of lobbyists and activists, distancing themselves from the designated media area.

I watched all of this from a slightly raised platform at the back of the room – converted from an exhibition hall by black curtains hanging from the ceiling. These absorbed the light at the back but allowed the action to play out in the centre under bright light.

That there are ideological divisions between reporters is not new. On the environment beat, there has always been a schism between people who see journalism as an extension of their environmentalism and journalists who report on the environment. The former excuses many sins.

In that huge room, the new breed walked about with the polished confidence of a celebrity. This is because they are needed – and used – by environmentalists. They get to pose for selfies and warmly embrace the new arrivals. These are reporters who rely on the new way in which journalism is being funded: by donors. Instead of you paying for news, groups with agendas pay news organisations to report on specific things. The news organisations slant their reporting because that generates more funding.

At one point, I watched as one of these activist reporters went at it with a minister, because the minister didn’t agree with their anti-hunting worldview. This wasn’t the action of a balanced professional. The same reporter could later be seen introducing animal welfare people to each other. Their work on Cites has made its way into all sorts of publications, along with work from their peers.

That’s because the funders want the journalism to be freely available. Free anything is mighty appetising in a world of shrinking newsrooms. News editors take the copy and stick it into their publications, or get a junior reporter to plagiarise it and put it under their byline. Either way, that worldview has now gained the legitimacy it seeks. Every publication in this country has made the mistake.

The pitfalls remain, even if you manage to avoid content produced by activist reporters. Environmental journalism has long given up on the idea of balanced reporting on most issues. At Cites, this was best illustrated in a WhatsApp group created for reporters to help each other out. But it quickly evolved into a platform filled with activists. They then started conversations with each other, and with mainstream journalists, on how to exert the most pressure on governments to vote a certain way on the fate of animals. The implicit understanding here was that the journalists in the group were on the same page as the activists.

At one point, a discussion about lobbying resulted in a journalist asking when the activist would be launching their campaign on Twitter, so that they could retweet the activist, to amplify the cause.

In return, the journalists are fed stories that the groups want exposed. These come through as exclusive stories. They are important stories, but you will never see investigations into the benefactors. That cements the reporter’s career and ensures the activists maintain access to news platforms. You, the reader, get all of this as news and end up thinking that the world out there is very different from the way it actually is.

Dissenting voices are not welcomed. Cites passed, with people who used to cosy up to the Mail & Guardian asking how I could possibly have bought the sales pitch of pro-hunting organisations, and all sorts of accusations about bias. In this world there cannot be any grey areas, or two sides to a story. Dissent gets you frozen out. That’s why some of my very good – and balanced – peers are unable to speak about this.

But this agenda-driven work is destroying environmental journalism.

You can stop it: if you pay for journalism, news won’t be the product of someone else’s agenda.