CJR at COP26: The unequal representation of global media at COP

GLASGOW — In The Overstory, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2018 novel by Richard Powers, trees are the main characters, though it might take you some time to realize it. The book inspired Es Devlin, a British-based artist whose credits include the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and this year’s London Design Biennale, to create the “Conference of the Trees,” an indoor, woody-smelling “temporary forest” that lines the main events hall at the New York Times’s COP26 Climate Hub in Glasgow. The space includes 197 trees and plants, to be precise, one for each country that has ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; after COP concludes, they’ll be donated to a native public garden that’s been designed “to thrive in the Scottish environment.” Devlin was “interested in placing Climate Hub visitors within an environment of a parallel gathering of trees,” she said, “as if the trees are bearing witness, listening, and observing the progress that the humans may or may not make during the program of talks and COP26 negotiations.”

The Climate Hub is not actually at COP26 but located in a separate events space down the road; it would normally take ten minutes to get there from the conference center, but road closures easily doubled my walk time. To access the street the Hub is on, I had to submit to a bag search in a makeshift tent; I then walked through a second, more rigorous security and COVID check (behind a group of musicians as their instruments were examined one by one), before collecting my press lanyard from a welcome desk. After that, I was in amongst the trees, their foliage glowing softly under studio-style lamps rigged to the ceiling. The space has already hosted talks on a wide array of climate topics, from sports to meat, with its hundreds of guests including John Kerry, Al Gore, and Vanessa Nakate. I was there on Tuesday for a panel discussion titled “Local and Global Climate Journalism in Action.” Whitney Richardson, the Times’s global events manager, started by thanking the trees (“it is their conference, we are the spectators in this space”) before introducing three people on stage (two senior Times journalists and the editor of the Scottish Herald) and three people (two senior Times journalists and a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune/Advocate) who gazed down benevolently from a huge, high-quality screen; she then sparked a discussion about representation of the Global South. After that, I was shown around the Hub’s other events rooms and cafes. There was a pop-up bookstore next-door to “Assembling the Future”, an installation from IKEA, one of the Hub’s twelve sponsors. (The Times declined to say how much the Hub cost to put together.)

Previously at COP26: A fellowship centers journalists from the Global South

The Times may be the only major news organization to have built a forest in Glasgow, but other big outlets have also invested heavily in covering COP, presenting a welter of special conferences, happy hours, podcasts, TV broadcasts, live blogs, and at least one hologram. On Tuesday night, I attended a Bloomberg Green dinner that featured panel discussions with young activists and climate storytellers as well as “sponsor spotlights” with JP Morgan and General Motors; on Wednesday morning, I went back to the same brick-arched bar space for a live briefing on the day’s COP agenda with Bloomberg Green journalists. In total, Bloomberg sent twenty-five journalists to Glasgow. Reuters sent more than thirty reporters, videographers, and photographers. The Guardian has had twenty-four journalists and at least one opinion columnist on the ground; the Associated Press has had between fourteen and eighteen journalists here on a given day; the Washington Post sent thirteen journalists. The Times told me that it has had six journalists on the ground at any one time, and that’s not counting all the staff working on or at the Climate Hub, which must number into the hundreds. (For scale, the US sent 165 delegates to COP. More than five hundred fossil-fuel lobbyists are present.)

According to a list published by the UNFCCC, 3,781 people representing 2,806 organizations registered as “media” for COP26; a press officer told me on Friday that the conference handed out nearly two thousand physical media badges in the first week. I asked the press office if it could provide a list of media participants or a breakdown of the above numbers by country or region, but it said that it was “not in a position” to do so. I’ve spent the days since then trying to figure out who is represented among the media at COP, and who is not. In the absence of official data, that hasn’t been an easy task—but it’s become increasingly clear that numerous Western outlets have more journalists here than many entire countries, sometimes significantly so. Access and exclusion have been huge stories at COP26—some of the countries most immediately threatened by the climate crisis were unable to send their leaders, never mind activists and concerned citizens—for reasons ranging from cost to COVID to both. There are excellent journalists from the Global South on the ground here (indeed, I featured some of their work in my dispatch for CJR on Tuesday) and many more covering COP remotely; many Western journalists, meanwhile, have shone a spotlight on very vulnerable countries, both in their coverage and during live events such as those at the Climate Hub. Still, as far as physical representation goes, media is very clearly part of the broader, highly unequal trend.

In the absence of data, I was unable to focus on every country; for those I did look at, it’s entirely possible that I missed a journalist who is here in Glasgow, since proving a negative is tricky. (If I missed you, please reach out at [email protected]; I’d love to hear from you.) With those caveats out of the way, I started by trying to assess journalistic representation from the Pacific island states, which are imminently threatened by rising sea levels yet underrepresented politically at COP. (Tuvalu’s pavilion at COP captured Western media attention by installing models of polar bears in life jackets and a penguin hanging from a noose; last week, the country’s foreign minister captured attention by standing at a lectern in the sea.) Two news outlets in Fiji sent reporters to Glasgow, as did a news service run by the Fiji-based Pacific Islands News Association. That might be it. The Solomon Islands Star told me that that nation’s media is not represented in Glasgow; the Marshall Islands Journal isn’t here either, though it has taken part, alongside other regional outlets, in Zoom calls with officials managed by the Pacific Islands Forum. Mar-Vic Cagurangan—the editor of the Pacific Island Times, which covers Guam, Palau, and the Northern Mariana Islands—told me that newsrooms in those places are mostly small and lack the resources to send someone to COP. “Reporters have to cover every local beat on a daily basis,” Cagurangan, who would have loved to send a reporter to Glasgow, said. “There’s not much opportunity to specialize in certain fields, such as climate change.”

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On Tuesday, after attending the Climate Hub, I returned to the COP venue and stopped by the pavilion of the Alliance of Small Island States, an intergovernmental organization that represents nearly forty vulnerable countries across the Pacific region, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and off the coast of Africa. A media adviser in the pavilion told me that they’d fielded inquiries from several big Western outlets at COP26, but had only dealt with one reporter working for media in a member country: Zico Cozier, a Trinidadian journalist who is at COP as part of a fellowship program run by the organization Climate Tracker. (As best I can tell, two journalists from Haiti are in Glasgow, too; again, there may be more.) When I called Cozier, he told me that he knows of a number of journalists from small-island developing states who are in Glasgow, but that they have all been working at least some of the time on behalf of a delegation or nongovernmental organization. Cozier himself works for a nonprofit but is here solely as a journalist. “I’m overwhelmed,” he told me, “but I’m trying my best to keep track of everything.”

In the course of my reporting, I also reached out to Mohammed Shubaita, the general secretary of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate. Yemen is extremely vulnerable to climate change; it is also still in the midst of a brutal, long-running war and dire humanitarian crisis. Shubaita told me that he doesn’t think Yemeni media has any footprint whatsoever in Glasgow. “Our situation in a time of war that has been going on in our country since 2014 has made Yemeni journalists in a state of extreme misery,” Shubaita told me. “If there is an active party that can sponsor the invitation and bear the travel expenses to participate in any conference that discusses the issue of the climate crisis or any topic concerned with the issues that the third world countries suffer from, especially our country, that would be wonderful.” Attending such a meeting, he added, “is a wish and hope for any journalist, especially for us in Yemen.”


Other notable stories, by Mathew Ingram:

  • Iran has reportedly banned a newspaper for publishing a front-page graphic that appeared to show Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s hand drawing the poverty line, according to an Associated Press report. “The semiofficial Mehr news agency said Iran’s media supervisory body shut down the daily newspaper Kelid after it published a front-page article titled ‘Millions of Iranians Living under Poverty Line’ on Saturday,” the AP reported. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Iran to immediately reverse its decision banning the newspaper. “Truthful and open reporting about matters of daily life is of vital importance for the Iranian public,” said Sherif Mansour, the committee’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.
  • Erik Wemple, the Washington Post’s media critic, writes that a recently unsealed federal indictment against Igor Danchenko “doubles as a critique of several media outlets” that covered the Steele dossier and some of the allegations it made about former president Donald Trump’s ties to the Russian government. The indictment accuses Danchenko, who was the main source for the dossier, of making false statements to the FBI about his interactions with sources related to the dossier. Outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, Mother Jones, and the McClatchy newspaper chain “showered credibility upon the dossier without corroboration,” Wemple says, and should either provide proof to back up their stories or retract them.
  • Twitter announced on Tuesday that it will give users who pay for its Twitter Blue subscription service the ability to read ad-free articles from news outlets such as the Washington Post, Reuters, and BuzzFeed. The new feature is based on a service offered by Scroll, a media startup that Twitter acquired in May. Twitter Blue was announced in June, and charges users three dollars per month for access to a number of features, including the ad-free subscriptions. Users can also see the most-shared news links among people they follow on Twitter, and can un-send a tweet for a short time after hitting the “Send” button.
  • Mexican prosecutors have arrested a businessman on charges he used the Pegasus spyware to spy on a journalist, according to a report from Associated Press. The software, marketed by the Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, has been implicated in government surveillance of opponents and journalists around the world. “Mexico had the largest list—about 15,000 phone numbers—among more than 50,000 reportedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance,” the AP reported. “Federal prosecutors announced the arrest on Monday, but did not name the suspect under rules aimed at protecting presumption of innocence.”
  • Alley Group, a website-design company, said Wednesday it is spinning off Lede, the newsroom-platform technology that powers publications including Defector, the Colorado Sun, and Block Club Chicago, and has named Burt Herman as the chief executive of the new company. Herman is the former founder of Storify, a social-media service that was used by a number of journalists, and was part of the founding team at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Alley Group also announced that Capital B, a non-profit local news organization co-founded by Lauren Williams and Akoto Ofori-Atta and aimed at Black communities, will be building its new publication on Lede.
  • A coalition of Cleveland-based organizations and the American Journalism Project are partnering to launch an independent, community-led, nonprofit newsroom serving Cleveland. The group says the newsroom will be “the first in a larger network of independent, local newsrooms across Ohio, as part of a new nonprofit effort called the Ohio Local News Initiative, which will aim to launch additional newsrooms across the state.” The Cleveland newsroom is slated to launch next year, the group said, and will “produce high-quality journalism on a daily basis that centers community voices and lets residents help set the agenda for newsgathering.”
  • Axios reports that OpenWeb, which makes software that publishers use to manage reader comments and other interactions, has raised one hundred and fifty million dollars in a financing round that values the company at more than one billion dollars. Among the investors in the round is New York Times Co., the parent company of the Times. “OpenWeb’s mission of combating toxicity in online conversations and empowering publishers to develop direct relationships with their audiences deeply resonates with us,” Matthew Lloyd-Thomas, the director of corporate development at the Times, said in a statement.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: The Conference of the Trees at the New York Times Climate Hub. Photo courtesy: the New York Times.