Climate change communication: 'A' is for audience

Suriya Begum is a poor young mother from Bangladesh. When her photograph appeared in a media story about climate change earlier this year, it was only so the article could show a victim — not so it could share her views.

Men from Blitar, a city in East Java, Indonesia, sit in a circle on mats.

The article presents plenty of facts but doesn't refer to Suriya's life or anyone else's. Tan Copsey of BBC Media Action says this example highlights the potential – wasted in this case – for media outlets to explain what people know, think and feel about climate change.

Speaking at the Climate Communications Day during the COP18 conference in Doha he said: "Don’t you want to know, as a room full of communicators, how she is affected and how she gets her information?"

To answer questions like these on a grand scale, BBC Media Action's Climate Asia project has interviewed 33,000 people in seven Asian nations. It has asked people about their values, priorities and perceptions, about where they get information, what they experience of climate change and how they react.

The full results aren't out yet but some things are already clear, said Tan and his co-presenter Lottie Oram.

  • People across Asia are noticing climatic changes and what they see worries them.
  • Some people are adapting to new conditions. Others resist any change to their lifestyles.
  • And so far, people don’t get much information about climate change from the media, though they think it has a role to play in reaching them.

Internews' Earth Journalism Network and IIED organised the day to explore ways communicators can use new approaches to reach new audiences with information about climate chanage. In the discussion that followed Tan and Lottie’s presentation, it was clear that the gathered experts felt the mainstream media was failing to fulfil its potential.

First -- whether in Asia or America or anywhere in between -- editors still have some kind of blind-spot when it comes to climate change. There is a climate-change angle to most of what appears in a newspaper but the subject still rarely gets a mention, not even in the final paragraphs.

Even with supportive editors, journalists face some big challenges in reporting on climate change. Imelda Abaño, president of the Philippines Network of Environment Journalists mentioned the risk of danger. Indeed, across the world reporters are threatened, hurt or even killed for reporting on environmental themes.

Compared to the size of the story, media coverage of climate change remains disproportionately small. But the Climate Asia research hints that, for people like Suriya, journalism may be less effective than entertainment. It identified newer approaches to climate communication that appear to be gaining ground.  

One idea from Indonesia is a 'lifestyle-swap' reality TV show about climate-related migration. In Vietnam, a TV game show pits farmer against farmer to show off and share knowledge of how to adapt agriculture to the changing climate.

These are the kinds of shows that appeal highly to specific audiences. And this is where Climate Asia is set to be a gold mine of information that should help people to better communicate about climate change, thanks to its detailed interviews with over 30,000 people.

At Climate Communications Day in Doha, Tan explained how the interviews in Bangladesh gave deep insights into what climate change means to women like Suriya who live in the slums of Dhaka.

Her priorities: "Her most important priorities are her child and family, shelter, electricity, food, having clean water to drink and staying healthy. She is particularly concerned about the health of her child."

Her perceptions: "She perceives changes in climate around her. Where previously there were six seasons now she only experiences two – summer and winter. She is very worried about this and changes to her environment."

Her actions: "She has raised her bed above the ground in case of heavy rains or floods."

Her needs: "She’d like to do more to respond to the impacts she’s feeling but she doesn’t feel she has enough resources or information about what to do. Other people around her aren’t doing more - which is also important as she values being respected and fitting in people around her. She wants more information on how to conserve and use the resources she has."

Her trusted sources: "She trusts the information she receives from family, friends and people from her neighbourhood. But she also trusts academics, teachers and religious leaders."

Her use of media: "She prefers TV to other media – she trusts it because she can see it – she watches TV in a communal area, especially in the early afternoon when she’s finished with her household tasks and men from the slum are at work. She likes Bengali movies and TV drama serials. She talks about what she watches with other women in the slum. She once saw something about climate change on TV but didn’t understand it."

Journalists and other communicators take note -- especially to that final point. It is depressingly familiar. How often do climate-change communicators take the time to understand what audiences know, think and feel about climate change? Not often enough I fear.

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