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‘Simplify and interpret, bring in the human touch’

At this year’s PII-ICRC Awards programme held on 25th November in New Delhi, R. Prasannan, special guest at the event, said that climate change and its impact go beyond events. Events are only a few of the visible symptoms of the disease and beyond the symptoms, climate change is a gradual deterioration of all the organs of the body, he said. Prasannan stressed that climate journalists have a duty to inform and educate the public about the larger malaise that strikes when these things happen. He urged journalists to communicate in the language of the layman, the reader – not in the language of the expert. Here is what he said

The great European statesman Prince Metternich once said, “When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold.” That was when any incident or event in revolutionary France – even a street riot – sent shivers across the royal houses of Europe. We in Delhi had a similar saying. We used to say, when it snows in Shimla, Delhi catches a cold.

Those were the days when we Delhi people decided whether to sweat or to shiver after reading the weather column in the morning paper. Any report about snowfall in Shimla made us reach for our jackets, ties, shawls and mufflers. Talking about the weather was also a polite way of starting a conversation, and an artful way of attracting attention to one’s clothes. “Pretty cold, I say”. “Yes, but you have pretty nice muffler around your neck.” “Ah, this? well I got it from Paris…”  

These days, we are cruder. To break the social ice, we talk of the foul air. We don’t gauge the day in Farenheit or Centigrade; we do it in terms of suspended particulate matter (SPM) or air quality index.         

We are crueller too. Just like we blamed Shimla for the cold, we blame Haryana and Punjab for the stink and the smog. We say, the farmers there, who burn their autumn harvest stubble, are fouling the air. We run more cars and scooters on our grand avenues than all the cars and scooters of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata put together. We emit more SPM than at least two of those metros put together. We have India’s largest and best metro network, but more of us drive to work than do New Yorkers. Our buses run empty; but our roads get clogged with cars. And when the air gets foul, we blame the neighbours.

I will leave it that, before someone gets provoked, and throws a shoe at me. I shall remain old-fashioned, and talk about the weather.

It is early winter, and the weather is very pleasant in Delhi. This is time when we have weddings, conferences, conclaves and functions like this. But sitting here, we forget that the weather is actually getting violent these days. I read a report the other day that India witnessed extreme weather events on 241 of the 273 days between January and September this year. There have been heatwaves, coldwaves, cyclones, lightning, heavy rainfall, floods and landslides in different parts of the country throughout the year.           

Though we use the term “extreme weather events” for these phenomena, these are actually climate events. Weather is only a short-term manifestation of the change that climate makes in the atmosphere. But I shall leave terminological issues to climatologists and linguists.  

Where do we in the media come in? We report these. We highlight the plight of those who suffered. Our reports raise questions about poor urban planning. We scrutinize the response and relief from the government. We provide the information that people are seeking when these things happen.     

That is only half the job done. Climate change and its impact go beyond these events. These events are only a few of the visible symptoms of the disease. Beyond these symptoms, climate change is a gradual deterioration of all the organs of the body. The body here is Nature. Not all of it causes immediate uneasiness or discomfort in the form of heatwave, coldwave, cyclones or flash floods.          

This is where climate journalism comes in. Beyond the immediate interest of the reader, climate journalists have a duty to inform and educate the public about the larger malaise that strike when these things happen.             

Here, I want to clarify what I mean by climate journalists. There is a distinction between a climate academic, an environment policy maker and a climate or environment journalist. The academic or the scientist observes and studies the meteorological trends and their impact, and produces papers about his studies. The policy-maker uses those studies to chalk out plans to tackle the problem, and produce actionable programmes. 

What do we journalists – particularly climate journalists – do? We communicate all these to our readers and viewers. Delhi has been witnessing morning smog for several years now. But it wasn’t until the charts and graphs in red, orange and yellow shades indicating the air quality, began to be published in newspapers and flashed on TV screens that it became the most common topic of discussion among Delhiites.       

Newer generations are often credited with being more environment conscious than the previous. Why are they so? Not because they are reading studies made by climate scientists or reports prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is because we journalists write about those studies and findings.         

Here I want to come in on a different point. I am not going to tell you what to report and where to source information. You all know it better than I do. But there is one area where we have to be careful – that is about the manner in which we communicate. Our core competency is an ability to present facts, opinions and arguments in simple, easy-to-understand, and reader-friendly formats.

We are generalists, not experts. We have to communicate in the language of the layman, the reader – not in the language of the expert. Our job is to engage the readers, or viewers, and cultivate an interest in the subject.            

That is one flaw I often find in our reporting especially in the recent years. We too have started talking the language of the expert; many of us use the terminology of the expert. The moment we do that, our purpose is defeated. If we talk the language of the expert, why should the reader or viewer read us or listen to us? He can straightaway download the expert report and read it.

Our job is not only to simplify and interpret, but also bring in the human touch to reporting. And that is something the expert does not do. The impact that a flood or a cloudburst or a landslide or a rise in sea level would have on humans is not uniform even within an affected region. It impacts differently on different classes, castes and even genders. In their exposure to the adverse effects of climate change, in their susceptibility to the damage caused by it, and in their ability to cope with it and recover from it, the disadvantaged groups are more disadvantaged.        

In simpler journalistic language, the poor suffer more when climate disasters strike. Girl children suffer more from malnutrition than do their brothers. Poor countries suffer more than rich countries. Within communities, the poor and shelterless are at greater risks. We saw that during the pandemic. When you and I worked from home, or many of us drove back to our village homes, our maids, our drivers, cooks, guards all had to walk hundreds of miles to migrate back to their villages.  

Covering this humanitarian crisis and the inequalities rising from it, is the most significant role of the journalist. And here I would even dare to give you, especially the young reporters, some tips about the style and manner in which you report.       

For God’s sake, don’t write about people below the poverty line; write about the poor.

Don’t write about the unemployed people; write about jobless people.

Don’t write about the shelterless; write about the homeless.

Don’t write about infant mortality; write about baby deaths.

Don’t report from rural areas; report from the villages.

Remember what the greatest communicator that this nation had ever seen said: “India lives in its villages”. He didn’t say, “India lives in its rural areas.” Yes, Gandhi realised the power that simple words carry. Let’s also evoke passion, emotion, and feeling through our words.      

Scientists and policy makers would give you the number of the displaced, the dead, the injured, the malnourished etc. But it is the human stories of the homeless, the poor, the starving that induce emotion among the readers, viewers and the masses. It is these human stories which tell the reader or the viewer, that this is not a problem only for the future generations, as it is often considered to be, but an existing threat to them.  

That is the power that we wield in our pens or keyboards. Use that power for making people aware; talk in their language, write in their language. Make more people aware.

Thank you, and wish you all a happy new year in advance. And my hearty congratulations to today’s prize winners.

Note: We have reproduced the speech here in toto as it contains not only pertinent points relating to climate change but also important advice for journalists. Laced with witty asides, this is an example of how speeches or articles should be made or written and how they can be made interesting.

(R. Prasannan is resident editor, The Week and Malayala Manorama, New Delhi. He has spent more than four decades as a journalist and is an expert in defence and foreign affairs. He takes a keen interest in history.)

October – December 2022