Environmental journalists today have the formidable task of reporting on difficult topics such as climate change, an issue that is uncertainscientifically and culturally complex, and politically charged. I recently met two who were at the University of Michigan as Knight-Wallace fellowsRoger Harrabin, BBC environmental analyst, and Marcelo Leite, editor of the Opinion pages at Folha, a major Brazilian newspaper. Their extensive experience in this field (both were at the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992) offers us some lessons to us for how to cover the upcoming Rio+20 summit.

Know your audience

Harrabin has been reporting on the state of the environment since 1986 – seeing firsthand the tragic bleached coral reefs of the Maldives to the breaking icebergs of Greenland. Despite this, he is also deeply aware of the difference between his role as a BBC journalist reporting to a worldwide audience and that of an environmental activist. For our student reporter online journal, we have a slightly easier job with a more targeted global audience and subject focus in business sustainability and environmental and welfare economics. However, we also have to be aware of biases that we may be using to approach these issues.
For example, when reporting on international development issues, we should be careful to maintain journalistic objectivity.  Too often, economics coverage of environmental issues can promote just another form of what Michael Goldman, a sociologist from University of Minnesota, calls Green Neoliberalism: “a fashionable development ideology that packages poor nations’ public services, natural resources and environmental diversity as undervalued economic assets to be profitably managed and conserved through the market” (See his book, and article). In summary, we should be critically aware of the opportunities and challenges that come with our audience and tailor our posts accordingly

Find a niche of the conference based on your interest and audience

There are thousands of blogs and online journals covering the Rio summit, and at the site, there will be tens of thousands of journalists, delegates, and representatives. As Tim, our editor, said “it is our program approach that we give you the freedom to write about whatever you are most passionate about within the field of Sustainable Development, specifically in the nexus of a) economics b) business and c) the education of management and economics. The resulting challenge is the missing but necessary focus in such a setting like the UN Conference.”

Report consistently and persistently

Once our audience and conference niche are realized, we have to beconsistent and persistent in covering it. In his career, Harrabin has interviewed (and upset) many key famous figures, including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Al Gore. His persistence in providing a balanced view of the climate debate has inevitably been criticized by both climate skeptics and activists, and has even led to false allegations of internal bribery and lobbying – events that have affected him both personally and professionally. This controversiality may or may not be present at Rio+20. Large international conferences, with the number of different parties involved and the world’s eye watching, can be “an exercise in polite agreement,” as observed by one of our student reporters Michael regarding the World Water Forum 2012.  We will have to persuade our interviewees to delve deeply into the controversial debates and focus our writing to address the usually implicit, contentious and complex issues that may be glossed over by the major media.

Familiarize yourself with the terminology

With his experience in repeatedly covering large diplomatic conferences, Leite advised us to really know the key acronyms (comprehensive list here). Everyone talks in them, and even experienced reporters can get lost in them quickly. In addition, with the number of side events, both on-site and off-site all over Rio de Janeiro, it will be beneficial to learn about the organizations behind the acronyms and try to get access early, especially those related to our individual conference niche. Some side events that a couple of our reporters already have committed to covering are the Corporate Sustainability ForumSTI for Sustainable DevelopmentISEE Conferenceand the UN PRME Global Forum (See? Acronyms already…).

Familiarize yourself with expectations of the conference

Even though the Brazilian press is in generally pessimistic about the outcomes of Rio (as are sustainability experts), we should read the zero draftof the outcome document. Leite and I discussed a few other topics and questions that the press will be paying attention to regarding the conference:

  • Should there be a UN-supported environmental organization, like the UNEP but larger?
  • How do we set achievable, country-specific goals that the general public can observe and adopt? The millennium goals are a good example, much of which has been achieved already. For Rio+20, some countries have proposed Sustainable Development Goals to build on the success of the millenium goals.
  • Many reporters and the public have lost faith in multinational conversations like this, after the disappointments of Copenhagen, Durban, and etc. Corporates and the private sector have a significant presence at Rio+20 – some see this is as a new hope, some see it as a “corporate sell out”.
  • Why does Brazil not have a stronger voice, given its economic and environmental progress? They have shown that they can decouple economic development with environmental degradation.

We have much to look forward to. In spirit of reporting uncertain, complex but nonetheless crucial issues, I leave with you a quote by Margaret Thatcher from 1988: “We have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself” and with Harrabin’s recent addendum “…and with humanity, too. Maybe we’ll be ok.”