Why environmental reporting means fighting racism and class discrimination

A worker sprays the pesticide paraquat onto sugar cane crops on a farm in Papua New Guinea. Photo: Greenpeace/Lafcadio Cortesi

Climate change, the collapse of nature and its impact on communities in the UK and across the world is at its heart a story about racism and class discrimination, not just whales and polar bears. 

Research shows that environmental destruction and the escalating climate crisis is significantly a historical legacy of a world industrialised at the expense of the lives, identity and wellbeing of people in the global south, people of colour and those on low incomes – whether that be through colonialism, slavery or extractive labour practices. The dynamics created by this can be seen to this day, playing out in UN climate conferences, in the locations chosen for polluting industries, in the way we offshore our waste and in the working conditions and double standards inherent in the products we use and sell. 

It is a recurrent theme in environmental reporting that those who have normally contributed least to environmental harm – from fracking to deforestation – are those who are the hardest hit by it. 

Those people are more often than not black people and people of colour, women or people from backgrounds underrepresented in positions of power – and in journalism. They are the people who are often on the frontlines of battles to protect their environment, but their voices often go unreported. Without them, the full story goes untold. 

At the same time, the wider systemic racism and class discrimination in society has squashed the voices of people of colour and those from other marginalised communities who are experts and campaigners in environmental policy, environmental science and climate change. Reporting which ignores those voices not only continues that discrimination it is also by its nature limited and one-sided, ignoring those often best placed to hold power to account.

That’s why creating a culture that fights racism and class discrimination in our newsroom is not just about our values, or good allyship, though it is about both of those things. It is simply core to our mission. 

Yet, in even the recent past, we and others have failed to fully reflect this reality. We are committed to changing that in our own newsroom and reporting. Over the past year we have started working to fundamentally rethink and expand our reporting, to go beyond the tired narratives of environmental journalism with its sometimes fair, but often myopic, focus on photogenic wildlife or consumer impact. 

Our shift in focus is reflected in the stories we’ve produced, which are increasingly global in scope. Investigations into the waste industry in the UK, plastics in Africa, farm and water pollution, flood defences, Indigenous communities, pesticide poisoning, oil extraction and –  crucially – the unequal impacts of climate change have all exposed the deep racial and social injustice at the heart of most environmental stories. 

We are working with more freelancers who are people of colour and diversifying the voices we quote. We have created an extensive plan, but we are still in the early stages of its implementation and our newsroom of eight journalists remains white and broadly middle-class. This needs to change. We recognise that our plan is an evolving process and are committed to listening to voices that have been marginalised.

Changing our recruitment

We have a long-standing commitment to recruiting interns from underrepresented groups – but we recognise that, on its own, this is not nearly enough. Newsrooms like ours need to be much more diverse and inclusive at every level. As such we are changing our approach to recruitment.

We are investing time and energy in outreach to ensure we widen the range of backgrounds represented in our team – including those not currently working in environmental journalism – and improve both how and where we advertise our positions. We welcome applicants who can show the skills we need – whether they’ve reported on this beat before or not. As part of this we will work to ensure we are selecting from a much more diverse pool of candidates than we have up until now. 

However, recruitment changes alone will not succeed unless we provide the right culture for those we bring in. Newsroom meetings can be a toxic and alienating experience for many. We have worked hard to avoid that in our own environment, but we know that that work is not complete. 

We are implementing a plan to ensure our meeting culture reflects the communication styles of all members of the team and that all voices are given a space to be heard. This includes appropriate training and mentoring for the whole team and a support structure both for interns and other recruits. This support is provided both within our newsroom but also by Greenpeace more generally which has set up  an equity and empowerment programme for people of colour which includes training opportunities for campaign specialisms, coaching and mentoring, and prioritised enrolment in a leadership programme

Funding our work  

Strong editorial takes significant investment – which, as part of its commitment to anti-racism, Greenpeace has provided for Unearthed. We will continue to develop an international network of reporters – including people of colour – to help us seed and develop stories documenting environmental harm in the global south.

That funding allows us to make sure editors and reporters have the time and the money to examine the environmental, social and racial justice angle to every story. Where we can we put the empowered voices of those who are affected front and centre in the reporting. 

Stepping back and taking time allows us to change the voices we quote to include more women and people of colour not just in our “human” stories but also amongst experts and policymakers. This can, in turn, influence our media partners to do the same, and ultimately improves the quality and accessibility of our stories. 

Our backing from Greenpeace also allows us to resource stories – such as those relating to climate refugees or taxation – where we cannot know from the start that the lead will be purely environmental but which document the inequity faced by people of colour and under-represented groups in general or the unequal impact of environmental destruction on them. 

This is not just about our own reporting but will also be key to our collaborations with other investigative organisations and media partners.

Being transparent

From now on we will provide half-yearly updates on this site on both the make-up of our editorial team and the diversity of both expert and community voices in our stories. 

As of July 2021 our team of seven journalists and one editor includes three women and four men, none are people of colour and the team is also unrepresentative in class terms – too many of us come from the same backgrounds and the same parts of the country. We will update here on how we measure and change this within six months. 

In the stories published so far this year where we have carried out an analysis, we have quoted 56 people of which 18 were women and 15 were people of colour. We will update these figures in this space at the end of the year and thereafter half-yearly.