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“Too far-fetched and Does Not Boost Ratings”: Thai TV Editors on Climate Change

What are the unique challenges that journalists face in developing countries where environmental issues are real, but climate change is considered a far-fetched topic that doesn’t boost ratings? And how do we overcome them?
What are the unique challenges that journalists face in developing countries where environmental issues are real, but climate change is considered a far-fetched topic that doesn’t boost ratings? And how do we overcome them?

This question popped up in my head after I found that only 2 out of 100 scoops from five Thai mainstream TV channels in my study touched upon climate change when reporting on coal-fired power plant projects. The two samples quoted the anti-coal protesters who mentioned the Paris agreement and UN sustainability policies to pressure the Thai government.

That was it.

Journalists did not investigate or elaborate on it any further. During my interviews, I asked journalists and editors why reports on coal were conflict-oriented and barely linked with climate change. They all said climate change is not a priority in the newsrooms, considering the nature of coal issues in Thailand’s context, what audiences are interested in, airtime limit, and ratings.

In a country where there is little trust in the government, coal-fired power plants are framed just like other government projects — suspected for their lack of transparency and inclusive public participation resulting in dissents of local people concerned of the negative impacts. Therefore, the main focus of the story is mostly about conflicts between the government and citizens. One journalist told me he felt that people’s concerns and struggles should be prioritized. When you only have five minutes maximum to report, he rationalized, should it not be used to make sure that people’s voices are heard?

I thus found that many Thai journalists interpreted their “watchdog” job solely in terms of reporting conflict-oriented narratives between citizens and the government. “Nobody talks about coal energy when drinking coffee with friends,” one journalist told me, viewers like conflict; for Thai journalists, anti-coal protesters confronting the police officers is a dramatic story that can boost more ratings than how Thailand and the world are environmentally affected by coal-fired power plants.

I can relate to the many conditions and concerns raised by my fellow journalists about why climate change can barely make a successful pitch in reports on coal energy of mainstream TV channels in Thailand. It is challenging to defy your channels’ expectations of viewer numbers and ratings.

However, in my work as a journalist, I have decided that traditionally popular frames are not the only ones viewers need to hear — despite what their initial interest may be, viewers deserve to learn about important environmental news that will profoundly affect their life in the future.

The interviews with journalists and editors in this research brought me back to my monthly meeting in a glassy room of the Thai PBS building. Years ago, I was working there and producing scoops for the news program consultant to review. One by one, we took turns receiving feedback on our ideas. When my turn came, the consultant looked at me and said:

“Nice try. But your topic is too far-fetched.”

My coverage was about how the situation of Bryde’s whales living in the Gulf of Thailand is correlated with the quality of the Chao Phraya River that many Thais use and drink every single day. There were no dramatic details included, no conflicts between new sources (since I did not directly quote any whales). Just an issue with human impacts raised through an environmental lens.

I remember smiling at the comment from the news consultant and having the same thought then as I am having now, upon finishing my research for Climate Tracker. In the face of such opposition, I asked myself, what can we journalists do to communicate with the audience about energy issues through an environmental, rather than conflict-oriented lens? The answer — we just have to “keep trying.”

Maybe first and foremost — start by trying (and fighting) with our news editorial teams.

Wirada Saelim
Freelance multimedia journalist, Mundus Journalism 2018-2020 Media & Politics. Bangkok, Thailand.