|A Presentation at the 4th Asia-Europe Editors¡¯ Roundtable on October 23, 2008, Beijing
The Role and Ability of the Media to Promote Environmental Awareness¡ªPerspectives from China
----by Mr. Yanglei, Director of the English Service, CRI
Thank you, Mr. Latif. Good afternoon to everyone. It¡¯s an honor for me to share some of my thoughts and observations about China¡¯s environmental journalism here with you and the other panelists: how it got started, developed and evolved into its current state. I¡¯d also like to talk about the role of the media in helping promote environmental awareness in the country known as the ¡°workshop of the world¡±.
Environmental reporting in China has come a long way. It has been part of a massive ongoing transformation process in almost every single aspect of our lives since the late 1970s, when the country opened its door to the outside world. It develops along with the media itself, whose rapid expansion in a fiercely competitive market over the years has offered more time slots and space for a greater variety of programs and insights that cater to the needs of the general public.
Within this context, it¡¯s natural to classify China¡¯s environmental reporting into three phases.
1) Phase One started in 1978, when China¡¯s first legislation on the environment was put in place, and lasted through the1980s.
This period of time was a defining period for the country. After a decade of the chaotic ¡°Cultural Revolution¡±, which resulted in the destruction of the national economy, then leader Deng Xiaoping decided to lead the country out of its ideological struggles and take on a more pragmatic development approach in the drive to reform and open up. Motivated by the ¡°to get rich is glorious¡± campaign, the Chinese people became so obsessed with their aspirations for better lives that they took advantage of any resource available to them, no matter what the potential cost.
At this time, for most people, the concept of environmental protection, was more of a foreign luxury than a reality pertaining to their own livelihoods. Although a few print and broadcast media had offered columns and feature programs on the environment, the overall coverage during this phase was quite primitive and limited. Environmental reporting, if there was any, mostly focused on disseminating general knowledge about waste disposal or anniversary activities concerning the environment. The once-booming rural enterprises, for example, often made headlines and were hailed for their innovation, flexibility and contributions to the local economy. But little media overage was dedicated to the massive pollution and destruction they posed to the environment, a fatal flaw that eventually led to their demise.
However, this was also a period in which professional environmental media took shape. ¡°China Environment News¡±, China¡¯s first newspaper on the environment, was published in 1983, and the first publishing house on environmental science was set up in 1980. CCTV, China¡¯s largest TV network, launched its first environmental feature, The Animal World, in 1981. CRI, the organization which I serve, didn¡¯t have a regular nature program until the late 1980s.
2) Phase Two includes the whole of the 1990s. This was a time when many of China¡¯s most important environmental laws went into effect and an all-out, top-down environmental awareness campaign began to take substantial root. While the government had learned to use the news media to further its policy directives, the media had gained ground as an indispensable environmental watchdog with its ability to supervise the wrong-doers and communicate with the public.
One example of this is the Action Zero Hour from 1997 to 1998, a quasi-ultimatum the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) handed down to thousands of enterprises along the Huaihe River and Taihu Lake in southeast China, that required them to either meet strict environmental standards before midnight January 1, 1999, or to face closure. The Chinese print and broadcast media, covered the whole campaign with unprecedented zeal. The business channel of CCTV followed the campaign closely in a series of live reports and even contributed a special live show before the deadline hit on the last night of 1998. Many enterprises actually were shut down for failing to meet the environmental requirements before the deadline. Another example is the Trans-Century Green Project Plan, launched in 1993 and still continuing today, during which the media¡¯s role in addressing public¡¯s concerns about the environment has been tremendous.
As the public woke up to environmental issues, the market-conscious media had to respond quickly. Instead of disseminating environmental knowledge and focusing simply on the government initiatives, environmental journalists had to start looking deep into what made the story in the first place. The demand for consistent, authoritative and accurate environmental information was so profound that it, to a large extent, prompted the government to release an annual report on the environment, a monthly report on the water quality of major rivers, and a daily report on the air quality of major Chinese cities starting in 1996.
3) Phase Three is the pre-Olympic period that began in July, 2001, when Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. The growing influence of online media, NGOs, and increasing pressure from the international community during this period changed the landscape of environmental communication in China, helping transform it from a top-down structure to something of a bottom-up model.
After over two decades of an economic boom, China entered the new century with a relatively affluent population, but also with environmental challenges too substantial for the government, the media and the public to ignore. Here are some of the startling statistics:
--Over 300 million rural residents have no access to clean drinking water.
--One third of China's land mass is affected by acid rain. One-third of urban residents breathe heavily polluted air.
--China has become the world's largest emitter of waste water and one of the three areas in the world most affected by acid rain.
--Air pollution over China has increased by 50 percent in the last 10 years alone.
It was against this backdrop that the government, the media, the NGOs and the public, represented by environmentally-conscious netizens, boarded the same boat and developed a coordinated effort to promote environmental protection in China. Stimulated by the profound public interest in awareness and international environmental commitments, environmental reporting flourished nationwide with an even broader variety of issues covered. This resulted in a growing green awareness that went far beyond the city of Beijing and the educated urban population.
So here comes the next question. How have our efforts changed people¡¯s values toward environmental protection and sustainable development? What are the challenges facing China¡¯s environmental reporters?
Despite the significant role of the media in promoting environmental awareness, much of their efforts have been offset by a market-driven modernization process that has been going on for the last 30 years. The media itself, facing increasing market pressure, has often been caught in the dilemma of whether or not to send a mixed message to the public. It¡¯s not strange to read an article that promotes a green lifestyle on the front page of a paper and then find advertisements on the next that equate excess consumption with higher living standards.
However, public awareness acted as a catalyst for change in China. A recent survey conducted by the State Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Education found that environmental awareness among Chinese youth is much more pronounced than that among adults.
Growing consciousness has also changed the way environmental problems are addressed in China. In spring 2007, thousands of people took to the streets in Xiamen, in eastern China, protesting against plans to build a private petrochemical plant near the city center. When netizens put pictures of the protest on the internet, mainstream media and some NGOs started to follow the developments, turning the case into a national sensation. The plan was eventually dropped. Meanwhile, the State Environmental Protection Agency, in its new regulations, has encouraged greater public participation in the environmental impact assessment process, which is required before beginning construction and expansion projects in China. The event topped a netizen list of the ten most influential environment incidents in China in 2007.
The media has grown bolder about taking on big business and celebrities and criticizing them for irresponsible actions that harm the environment. Oscar-nominated director Chen Kaige, for example, was castigated by the China Daily, Xinhua News Agency, CCTV and other mainstream media outlets for damaging the natural beauty around Bigu Lake in Yunnan, southwestern China while filming the big-budget movie, ¡°The Promise¡±. In an editorial, China Daily argued, ¡°The big names of film stars or directors should never be an excuse to disregard rules that protect the environment, or for shirking responsibility for what they do.¡±
However, China¡¯s environmental journalism still has a long way to go toward shaping a ¡°green¡± public opinion that might lead to tougher green policies. To make our efforts more effective and accountable, China¡¯s TV producers and news directors need to address environmental issues in a way that will raise public understanding to the point where people will support these changes.
First, we must admit that environmental reporting in China has been inconsistent and unsystematic. As the media becomes more market-driven, many news editors and producers consider coverage of environmental issues an option instead of an obligation. Environmental issues don¡¯t make headlines unless they turn into disasters. It¡¯s necessary to guard against the trend of succumbing entirely to market forces.
The media has also often failed to convey the big picture. While most key stories are global in scope, the current media structure is not well prepared to deal with them systematically. There is a dearth of quality programs on TV, and there are very few incisive articles on environmental issues in print media. CCTV¡¯s nature program, ¡°The Animal World¡±, for example, barely touches upon issues concerning China¡¯s biodiversity conditions and endangered species, let alone puts those issues in a global context.
The media should also avoid doing too much anniversary or campaign journalism, which often results in redundant reporting on a specific issue or event. Environmental reporters need to be better trained. Environmental reporting should be more incisive and more appealing to the younger audiences, a target group that is essential for the media to sustain itself and exert influence in the future.
Lastly, reporters need to work closely with such major environmental stakeholders as the NGOs, to expand their sources of reliable information. Additionally, the flourishment of internet forums and blogs has created another important information source for Chinese news directors and producers looking for story ideas. This new network has made it possible for a tiny local story to become a nationwide sensation overnight.
Greater media attention, effective government initiatives and increased affluence have contributed immensely to environmental awareness in China. Sustainable growth is no longer everyone¡¯s responsibility but our own. As the economy continues to grow, China will face an increasing range of environmental challenges. The government, media, NGOs, schools, businesses and the people themselves have always been, and will continue to be, the driving forces of this momentum. The media, despite its significant role in this process, cannot claim the credit alone.