My dive into journalism, energy, and media research in Southeast Asia

I am not a journalist. I lack the journalist lens when I first started out with this mini project. I came from a scientific background, and very privileged to learn about climate science.

At the same time, I am blessed to grow in a human rights collective, giving me an overview of the linkages between climate and human rights.

Compartmentalize one thought

The learning curve was steep for me in the duration of the project. The list is inexhaustive, but one of the essential skills in journalism requires me to check my biases in place. Coming from a technical background, I have had experienced working in a coal power plant in Germany before. Today, I work to impart how dangerous coal is to my fellow Malaysians. It takes a lot of self-training to identify my own biases and separate them before getting deep into the content, discourse and interview processes.

Energy news to the laymen

Writing in journalist convention is inherently different from scientific research. Similarly, I have learnt this during the course of my activism in communicating climate impacts or climate science to the masses, especially to vulnerable groups. This is no simple task, even in journalistic focus. In my interviews, I found journalists and editors in Malaysia still struggle to visualize climate impacts. The problems, based on the project, vary. One overarching challenge lies in the lack of understanding and interest of journalists, editors and publication themselves, in climate change. Energy issues are covered in dollars and cents, isolated from the broad problematic causes of climate change.

Jana Manjung 5 coal power plant in Perak, Malaysia powered by Ultra Super Critical (USC) technology, framed as an environmentally friendly by TNB. Photo credit: EnergyWatch

Solar energy — no silver bullet?

Solar, despite touted as the poster image of energy reform by the previous Pakatan Harapan government, does not halt the growth of coal energy demand in Malaysia. Many journalists and editors believe that they should amplify linkages between energy and climate, but the consensus has shown that they believe the outlook of the energy reporting in Malaysia will remain where they are today; uncritical and superficial.

Sabah — the challenge

Mega dams in these news publications I have analysed, in the past two years, has focused on Sabah — a Malaysian state in Borneo. The articles I analysed are very polarised on reporting the conflict between the community and the narrative from the government. However, many gaps were left unanswered on the mega-dams coverage in Sabah. This is partly due to the interview session that I was running fall during the Sabah elections, and the third covid19 wave that comes soon after. Situations were dire, that some of the journalist contacts went irresponsive. I hope to discover more when the situation looks better for Sabah.

What did I learn?

I came out from this project with renewed respect towards journalists. One of my sources told me that being a journalist is like doing an ongoing internship, that they would have to sometimes start with a clean canvas working on tight deadlines. Climate change is for most Malaysian journalists a new frontier. I believe that capacity building for journalists to overcome challenges in covering climate and energy-related stories are critical more than ever.

Nadiah Dzulfakar
Nadiah is the co-founder and coordinator of a youth-led climate justice group in Malaysia. She advocates for civil society empowerment to steer the political will towards green and just policies in nation-building.