Making population part of the environmental beat

November 1, 2013

In many parts of the world, rapid population growth is now combining with the devastating impacts of climate change to place major strains on resources and infrastructure. This combination is widely reported in the local media in these regions, as is one potential solution: providing universal access to family planning and reproductive health education.

But in the U.S.? Not so much. That’s why Resource Media worked with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program to bring reporters and experts from around the world to the 23rd annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. At a half-day workshop, they shared case studies of how population and environmental issues overlap, and some of the techniques reporters can use to tell these stories.

But it’s still hard – as an Inter Press Service writer reported afterwards, just as population and the environment might be seen as different issues, media editors tend to silo their coverage of these connected issues under separate beats.

To offer some more context on how these stories overlap, we also hosted a panel discussion featuring U.S. reporters including former Los Angeles Times environment writer Ken Weiss, whose landmark series, Beyond 7 Billion, offers one of the few U.S.-based examples of cross-issue reporting on these connections. The panel also included Kate Sheppard of the Huffington Post, who covers both what she called “lady issues” and the environment – but not always in the same article. These beats are often separate stories, Sheppard said, but there are ways to combine the issues and find the linkages. “Speaking as a reporter, we have to engage more women’s voices in the conversation,” she added.

One of our overseas experts shared her story of connecting population, family planning and conservation on the ground. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka founded Conservation Through Public Health outside Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, one of the last homes of the endangered mountain gorilla. Their work has reduced conflicts between gorillas and families striving to eke out a living around the edges of the reserve, improved sanitation methods that reduce disease in humans and gorillas alike, and led to a 12-fold increase in new family planning users.

The final panelist, Dingaan Mithi, reports on the intersection between climate change and population in Malawi for Malawi’s leading daily newspaper, Daily Times and for “Climate change has a feminine face,” Mithi said. “Women suffer.” It’s easier for smaller families to adapt to climate change, he notes, yet a full 36% of Malawi’s women want to plan their families but don’t have access to birth control. “When floods strike it is the women who struggle.”

We still have a ways to go to help U.S. reporters see – and report on – the connections between population and conservation issues. But for the several dozen reporters who attended this workshop and panel, we’ve made a start.

Listen to a recording of the panel discussion.

Cat Lazaroff