When I was a journalist uncovering how oil and petrochemical companies were dumping mercury into the Gulf of Thailand, I could not get the Thai minister of industry to respond to my questions. I would send interview requests and call up his office, but he felt free to ignore me.
When the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists (ThaiSEJ)—made up of journalists representing most of the country’s print media, along with some radio and TV reporters—sent in a request that he come speak with us, however, the minister somehow was able to find the time. While a single journalist or news organization is often effective in carrying out investigative reports, in some cases journalists find there is strength in numbers when searching for information.
That was one of the reasons I and several other journalists helped establish ThaiSEJ back in the mid-1990s. Not only did it bring us more clout in certain situations, it enhanced peer-to-peer learning. Senior journalists helped train and advise younger ones, either formally through workshops or informally at social events. As a support organization, it has also proved to be sustainable: while many of the network’s founders have long since left, ThaiSEJ is still active today with new leaders and members, holding seminars and publishing a book every year on the top ten environmental issues in the country.
The largest such organization is the United States’s Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), which was founded in 1990 and has around 1,450 members, most from the U.S., but also a smattering from abroad, particularly from Canada and Mexico. Over the last two decades, similar associations have proliferated, bringing together journalists who cover environmental issues. An informal survey suggests there are around two dozen such organizations now active around the world, including ones in China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Costa Rica. , There is even, according to its chairperson Paul Jimbo, a correspondent for SciDev.net and a project mentor for the Media Diversity Institute, a nascent Society of Environmental Journalists in Southern Sudan — in a country still awaiting official recognition.
There are equally numerous networks of science journalists, regional and international groups in Africa (and East Africa), Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, as well as more general professional journalism associations that also support environmental reporting. (Do you know of a group that hasn’t been mentioned here? Please write in and tell us about it.)
The activities these networks carry out can have huge impacts on the subjects they cover. A training workshop by the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists (VFEJ) and the Earth Journalism Network, a non-profit project I oversee that helps local media improve their environmental coverage, led the Vietnamese government to protect Tam Dao National Park from ruinous development. Journalists supported by the two groups also uncovered wildlife smuggling ring in Indochina. Zhang Ke, a Chinese journalist, credits the training he received with helping him to uncover dozens of illegally polluting factories in the Chinese city of Liupanshui.
“VFEJ helps me to have more opportunities to work abroad, expand my network (of colleagues, scientists, experts) and update [my] knowledge of environment and climate change,” says Tran Thuy Binh, a reporter with Hanoi TV.
According to Beth Parke, SEJ’s executive director, “member benefits include discount rates for remarkable (and hugely subsidized) annual conferences, the quarterly SEJournal, discount entry fees for SEJ Awards, access to a lively, members-only [e-mail] listserv, SEJ’s mentoring program, a freedom of information project that monitors, reports and acts on behalf of environmental journalists, member directory, entrée to a freelance directory that attracts assignments from editors, news of fellowships, [and] mini-grants.”
Networks in developing countries generally have fewer activities, but those they offer may be even more crucial given that access to information is often weaker and journalistic support resources scarcer. There is virtual unanimity as to the main challenge facing these networks: a lack of funds. Benedict Tembo, who runs the Zambian chapter of the African Network of Environmental Journalists, echoes the complaints of many network leaders and members when he says, “Resources allowing, ANEJ-Zambia should be conducting more training programs and field trips because we have received overwhelming response from media personnel intending to join us.”
“[With] the historic changes we have witnessed and are still witnessing in the news industry, the needs have only grown among journalists and would-be journalists,” says Parke. “Money is always, of course, in short supply.”