Study finds gaps in Latin American media reporting on energy transition

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Recent years have seen the issues of global warming, climate change and energy rise on the agenda, with an increasingly prominent presence in public discourse and the media. But in this global shift, the term and process of “energy transition” – the broader shift from an energy mix based on fossil fuels to one of renewable sources – has not attracted the same media attention.

The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the catastrophic effects that climate change is likely to have on the world. In Latin America, these will be particularly severe, with projections of longer and more intense droughts, increased melting of glaciers and sea levels, forest fires, more frequent hurricanes, loss of biodiversity and a higher mortality due to heat waves.

Read more: Mapping non-hydro renewables in Latin America

The energy transition is the most direct way to slow down these negative impacts, quickly and drastically reducing the carbon emissions that drive climate change. But despite the evidence of the potential of renewable energies such as solar and wind, the energy mixes of most countries are still highly polluting. In Mexico, for example, more than 80% of energy comes from fossil fuels such as oil (56%), natural gas (26%) and coal (3%). Barely 11% comes from renewable sources, and of this percentage, geothermal, solar and wind together represent just over 3%.

Alarmed by this situation, at Climate Tracker, an international NGO that supports climate journalism, we carried out a quick exercise to measure public awareness of the energy transition. We asked 12 people on the street, four in Mexico, Colombia and Chile, if they knew the concept; on average, three out of four said they did not.

Of course, this is by no means a representative sample. But it gave us a good starting point to ask ourselves: how does the media approach the energy transition? We journalists do not always look within to analyze the work we do. I had the privilege of taking a critical look at the media, and with a group of 12 journalists and researchers from six Latin American countries, we questioned how 36 media communicated to us on the energy transition.

Lack of definition, economic orientation

In our study, we looked at the cases of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Mexico to better understand the phenomenon. We also conducted a series of qualitative interviews on the experiences of journalists reporting on climate and energy in the region.

In Mexico, we analyzed articles on the energy transition published between August 2020 and November 2021 in six media: a high-reach, El Financiero; a public service media, Once Noticias Digital; a native digital outlet, Animal Político; two regional publications, El Norte and Por Esto; and a specialized magazine, Energía a Debate.

One of the first things that struck us was that 98% of the 452 articles did not define the concept of energy transition. Some of the journalists interviewed attribute this to the immediacy of the edition and others to the fact that they consider this concept to be understood by anyone. Moreover, only 4% of the pieces included scientific explanations, essential to understand the phenomena.

Goals and timelines should be considered essential information in energy transition discussions

Another important observation is the inclination towards an economic angle in the coverage of the energy transition. For example, articles tend to describe companies, financial benefits or economic losses associated, for the most part, with energy companies or industries. This was visible in the six media analyzed. Unsurprisingly, El Financiero is the one that has published the most articles focusing on the economy, while Animal Político is the one that has published the fewest of such articles.

Unsurprisingly, the energy sector turned out to be the most discussed, with other crucial areas for the energy transition, such as transport and industry, being less covered.

Protesters in front of a coal-fired power station
Read more: Will Chile reach its energy transition target by 2030?

In nearly 90% of the coins analyzed, no mention was made of the timelines for achieving an energy transition, such as those required to meet a country’s energy strategies, their net zero goals, or the temperature goals of the country. Paris Agreement, for example. If timelines or goals for achieving an energy transition are not mentioned, then only part of the process is told, but these articles may not provide clarity on how it will be done, the scale of the task to be completed or within what time frame. . These objectives and deadlines are concrete and informative elements.

For example, Mexico City has committed to reducing current greenhouse gas emissions by 10% by 2024 from 2016 levels, which means no more than 24 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. CO2 by 2024. These targets and timelines are established in the Environmental and Climate Change Program for Mexico City 2019-2024.

In addition to this, we can talk about objectives and timelines to reduce CO2 emissions at the national level, or methane emissions or to increase the capacity of a renewable energy source. Of course, their inclusion in a journalistic story will always depend somewhat on what is covered. But targets and timelines should be seen as essential information in energy transition discussions, to raise awareness of progress on specific energy sources and in specific regions.

Male bias and reporting difficulties

Our research also revealed that government officials and men are the most consulted sources in articles, accounting for 80% of contributions.

80%

In Climate Tracker’s analysis of 452 articles on energy transition in Latin American media, 80% of sources consulted were men

At the editorial level, we noted that the most common format was short pieces of less than 800 words, predominant in five of the media analyzed; in the case of Animal Político, the long form predominated, in opinion pieces.

We consider that the lack of longer and more in-depth publications means that there is little opportunity in the coverage of the energy transition to include answers to two of journalism’s fundamental questions: How? ‘Or’ What and the Why, both of which require space to respond. Also, if there is so little space, it is very likely that only the base What, whoWhere when of the phenomenon will be covered – and perhaps more to report directly, rather than to enhance understanding, as would be the case if more scientific explanations were produced. This is why we see the importance of diversifying coverage and giving priority to useful information for citizens.

power lines coming out of the Itaipu hydroelectric dam
Read more: The climate crisis and Latin American hydroelectricity

Likewise, the diversity of journalistic formats will promote a better understanding of citizens, in particular the energy transition, which is a complex issue and involves other concepts and pieces of information to understand.

In the interviews, the authors also agree that their working conditions are not optimal: they have to respect quotas to produce a certain number of articles; many work for more than one medium; and they recognize that they lack specialization and training on energy issues. Having the evidence we have gathered now allows us to identify those gaps, where they become areas of opportunity.

It won’t be easy or quick, but it’s also a call to editors and media authorities to take seriously the topics that, whether they like it or not, will be on the agenda of journalists in the years to come. We believe that it is possible to prepare both the spaces – the working conditions – and the reporters to better understand and communicate complicated phenomena.

In the midst of the climate crisis, journalism also has a certain urgency to transform. Climate Tracker offers opportunities for journalists who want to achieve this transformation. Media analysis is a way to strengthen journalism. Such interactions between research and journalism can help democratize media and put people first.

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