EDITORIAL: Journalism and the climate crisis



How do you report on the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth — when it is our species that is the guilty party? And how do you perform journalism about the carbon emissions that are driving a climate crisis and potential catastrophe — when the world that we have built is responsible for those emissions?

This is something that our sector has spent much time grappling with. It is what we are still trying to work out, as protesters in more than 120 countries go out and demand proper action on the climate crisis. Marches in all our major metros are targeting a mix of big polluters — such as petrochemical giant Sasol — and government institutions.

Those demanding action point to an unsustainable world. A world where the majority of the pollution occurs so that the wealthy can travel, eat fine food from Tuscany, or oranges out of season. A world where a billion people go to bed hungry each night.

Journalism, as one of the institutions crucial to a healthy democracy, is part of this conversation. Our reporters and editors, joined by ethical bodies and professors, have agonised about how to report on the phenomenon.

Some people argue that it has to be treated as apartheid was treated: with journalism as outright activism. This involves specific campaigns, where articles and programmes aim to force a change in the world. It means journalists joining protests and writing or broadcasting to achieve a specific outcome.

Others argue that the role of journalism is to be detached. It has to be impartial. Ours is a job of questioning the status quo and holding those in power to account. Activism waters down our objectivity. And, if we don’t do this job, then who will? In an age where truth is under attack, being able to claim objectivity is very important.

But objectivity is impossible — all journalism is activism. So what we strive for is impartiality. Our starting point is that the world is unjust; that our governance and corporate structures benefit a few at the cost of the many.

The climate crisis is embedded in extreme injustice. Its main perpetrators are the people who have pushed for, and benefited from, a neoliberal form of capitalism that does not factor in the cost of pollution. It is the poor who already pay the price, and who will pay an even steeper price as our ecosystems keep unravelling.

While we continue to grapple with reporting in a time of climate crisis, our first step has always been to question how our world works and to hold those in power to account, through investigation.

We will continue to do this.

To broaden our reach — and bring more and better journalism to you — we have also joined Covering Climate Now, a collaboration among 250 newsrooms around the globe, in order to better report on the crisis affecting us all.

READ MORE: M&G joins global climate reporting network

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


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