How did Vietnamese Media cover the biggest Climate Story of the Year

After I read about Climate Central and the New York Times released sea level research that puts 31 million Vietnamese at risk, I wanted to dive into Vietnam’s biggest publications to see if and how they covered the story.  

Nine of 11 major publications covered the Climate Central report predicting a doubling of the number of people affected by rising sea levels, but the way they covered the story varied from outright plagiarism, censorship and even some solid, investigative pieces. 

Using artificial intelligence to create more accurate coastline maps, scientists associated with Climate Central released a new report that argued that Vietnam was considered the 4th most vulnerable country to sea-level rise in the world.  Rising sea levels would inundate more than 31 million people’s homes in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi by 2050. That’s without population increase. The flooding will be worst felt in the nation’s economic hub,  Ho Chi Minh city, which is predicted to be practically under water by mid-century.

Within twenty-four hours of the New York Times’s publication of Climate Central’s findings, four of the eleven sources —Zing News, VnExpress, Dân Trí, Kênh14 —translated the NYT article, almost word for word. 

This led me to believe that rather than reading the original research, they, like many journalists worldwide, viewed other journalists’ words as their first go-to when it comes to breaking news. The story that was largely plagiarised from the New York Times in Kenh14 has already garnered 1,400 shares on Facebook.

The research was released in partnership with US-based NGO Climate Central, and saw stories published around the Western media world, including an incredibly vivid piece the New York Times. 

Four other publications —Tuoi Tre Online, The Laborer, VnEconomy, Tia Sángcurated and translated their articles from a variety of news outlets, and included additional information from Climate Central’s report not mentioned in the NYT article. 

Tia Sáng (Ray of Light) deserves a particularly honorable mention, as the only Vietnamese publication that immediately highlighted the link between carbon emissions, global heating and sea level rise in their reporting. Though this may be largely due to its extremely limited and selective audience. 

Administered by the Ministry of Science and Technology, Tia Sáng  mainly attracts traffic from scientists and professionals. With approximately 400,000 readers per month, it does have a genuine audience. However,  compared to the millions who go to Zing or VnExpress, it remains relatively middle-range. 

Two of the country’s largest publications; Nhân Dân and, ironically,  Sài Gòn Giải Phóng, Ho Chi Minh city’s premiere publication, did not cover the report.

Sài Gòn Giải Phóng did run an article the next day about how Vietnam’s agricultural industry will be affected by climate change, citing data from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MONRE) and the Asian Development Bank. It’s not that the publications are against running climate stories, but for some reason—they just didn’t want to run what should have been one of the biggest climate stories of the decade for Saigoneers.  

The second wave of publications occurred following an official rebuke by the Deputy Director of Vietnam Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Climate Change, Huỳnh Thị Lan Hương.

Deputy Director Huynh argued that the data was  based on multiple extremist scenarios at the same time … [and] could not be better than data provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE).”

Zing News ran a follow-up article titled “3 fallicies in the South Vietnam disappearing by 2050 Scenario” based on Huỳnh’s comments. The three fallicies she highlighted were: 

  1. The researchers used the U.S.’s data to forecast sea level rise in other regions worldwide 
  2. the model’s reliance on a 2m water level rise scenario and 
  3. a high tidal range observed only once per century. 

The article then proceeded to highlight MONRE’s much less dire prediction — that 39 percent of the Mekong Delta will be submerged by 2100. 

No other perspective, local or international, is quoted. 

VnExpress and Tuoi Tre similarly ran articles titled “Information about Mekong Delta disappearing by 2050 does not have satisfactory scientific basis.” 

It is true that the scientists associated with Climate Central used a digital elevation model that was trained “using lidar-derived elevation data in the US as ground truth,” according to the original research paper published in Nature Communications. 

This is because national lidar datasets—the most high-resolution datasets of a nation’s terrain that meet specified standards—are only available for the U.S. and other developed countries. 

None of these articles mentioned the fact that MONRE’s predictions, while using data specific to Vietnam, employs a less advanced satellite-based elevation model (SRTM) that struggles to distinguish the true ground level from the top of trees or buildings

To add to the mix, Voice of America Vietnamese, a preferred news source for some locals with access to VPN, ran an article countering state media’s coverage of Huynh’s statements. 

“Vietnamese Bureaucrat Doubts Research About Mekong Delta’s 2050 Submersion,” the headline reads. VoA’s article sums up state media’s reporting, before alluding to its propaganda nature. 

Tuoi Tre’s article about Climate Central’s report has since been removed,” VoA also alleged. Last time we checked after reading this, the original article is fortunately still there, though an incorrect link is provided on Tuoi Tre’s Science page.

It wasn’t until two days after the second wave of coverage, or a week after the NYT article, that local reporters finally managed to get direct, original quotes from Climate Central and launched a third wave of more comprehensive and fair articles.

Zing first broke the news with the headline: “Climate Central Debates MONRE’s Critique” 

Climate Central CEO Benjamin Strauss refuted MONRE’s second and third claims, saying his team’s report used a 1m sea level rise by 2100 scenario, not a 2m one. They also examined multiple tidal ranges and flooding scenarios, not just an extreme one that would occur once every century. 

Strauss did acknowledge his team’s reliance on less accurate data for the Mekong Delta, and ended by urging Vietnam’s government to collect more accurate airborne lidar data, or, if they had done so, to share such data with the international scientific community for the building of more accurate models. 

However, Zing’s own reporters followed this up with another article critiquing NYT’s reporting as  sensationalist. Previously, its own reporters had largely translated the piece. 

The headline reads: “Climate Central: ‘We didn’t say anyone would disappear,”. The article leads with a call for “wariness” as the reporting has “not accurately reflect the research’s conclusions” 

The article quoted Strauss, his colleague T.S. Kulp and local scientist Nguyễn Chí Thiện, who all emphasized the difference between land lying “below average flood level” and land “disappearing” or being “erased.” While defending the research’s validity, they also criticized the NYT for its use of terms not included in the original research article, and global media for uncritically translating NYT in an echochamber.  

The same day, VnExpress also ran a similarly-framed article with their original quotes from Strauss.

Zing is run by the private VNG corporation, though it is also a member of the Vietnam Publisher Associations. It published a total of 6 pieces covering the research and its portrayal. The digital news site is unquestioningly Vietnam’s most popular, boasts of two Fulbright Scholars in its executive leadership and an editorial board of foreign-educated journalists with many years working in Vietnam’s state media. 

Thanh Niên, the Ho Chi Minh-based Vietnam United Youth League‘s newspaper, also followed up on the story by quoting three local scientists from Ho Chi Minh and neighboring city Can Tho. These were some of the only local scientists referenced throughout this coverage, and both recommended urban planning policy reform across the Mekong Delta. 

In order to get a balanced viewpoint about their future, Vietnamese readers would have to be patient and observant; to not jump to conclusions, but wait a week for the full story to unfold on different news sites

In contrast, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, argued in the National Assembly that “Predictions about the Mekong Delta sinking by 2050 are not based on sufficient evidence,” . It was covered in VnExpress as the Prime Minister doubted the possibility of the region ever falling below a rising ocean.

“This information belongs to a report that has yet to be validated; no governmental agency has come to the same conclusion,” he emphasized. The Prime Minister then referenced Israel’s robust agricultural sector despite the country’s aridity, alluding to climate change as an opportunity, not a threat. 

While much of the coverage has failed to explore the implications of the report on a national level, it is telling that local media coverage had inspired a discussion in the National Assembly and prompted a statement, albeit not based on science, from the Prime Minister himself.