‘So why should people in this country care?’
Spreading word of EIA’s activities and investigations via broadcast, print and electronic media can present all sorts of interesting challenges in the shifting landscape of how information is delivered and consumed in the early 21st Century.
But with traditional forms such as newspapers under mounting pressure and the rise of the blogosphere and online news outlets, it’s almost reassuring that many journalists still often seize on the hoary staple concerns of their profession: ‘What’s the local angle?’
Before joining EIA, I spent the best part of 25 years in the regional UK press on a variety of daily and weekly titles, so it’s a question with which I’m probably too familiar, having doubtless irked many a press officer and organisation in my time with the same parochial demand.
It’s not necessarily a shortcoming of the news-gatherers, more a pragmatic awareness of the fact that getting their audience to stay with a story past the first two or three paragraphs can be a tricky proposition and anchoring a story in a geographical context with which they’re familiar is one way to respond to that.
My first editor was a twitchy obsessive on the point – if you couldn’t get the name of a community within your circulation patch, and therefore an intimately local angle, into the first paragraph then you’d fail to connect with the readers and it was assumed they’d glance disinterested at the opening words and swiftly move on to the WI meeting reports and photo spreads of fancy dress dog shows (a deranged-looking poodle dolled up as Queen Victoria seemed to win every time). Either you rewrote the story or it was spiked.
Most EIA investigations are conducted in far-flung countries and address issues of global significance; anchoring its findings in such a localised manner can sometimes seem a little perverse but it’s not impossible – and if it helps readers and viewers to consider their role in the issue, it’s all to the good.
And some campaigns are certainly easier to track back to a journalist’s local patch, whether it’s Little Bimblington-on-Sea or the country as a whole.
The Forestry Campaign’s work on illegal logging is a good example; if a UK reporter is at a loss to think how their audience can connect to protected trees being plundered from Indonesia’s national parks by a powerful criminal timber mafia, there’s a wealth of localised access points and issues with which to engage them, from climate change and carbon emissions to the introduction of EU legislation banning stolen timber (a prohibition which owes an enormous debt to EIA’s work).
It’s possible to get even closer in to Joe Normal’s life; in fact, to right outside his back door when you can tell him that the timber thieved from many thousands of miles away has found its way into the outdoor furniture and decking in his garden.
Similarly, the Global Environment Campaign is an easier sell because it involves issues on which our domestic taxes are being spent every day.
While recently pitching a story concerning e-waste, the journalist candidly asked me: ‘So, you’ve got a mountain of discarded technology from this country that’s supposed to properly disposed of but is instead winding up in huge piles in Africa, where children are being poisoned because they’re stripping out toxic raw materials in primitive circumstances? Why should people in this country be concerned about that?’
Because we in the developed world are morally obliged to deal with our own waste and not offload it on poor, developing countries? Because we’re paying our taxes in this country to have it properly and safely disposed of? Because the chain of personal responsibility can start with the very television set or computer monitor through which the individual is learning about the issue? It doesn’t come much closer to home than that.
Other issues and campaigns can be a harder sell, and are sometimes dependant on the personal concerns of the journalist to whom one is pitching.
Last year, one reporter succinctly summed up for me her difficulties in convincing her editors to run a story about the annual slaughter of Dall’s porpoises in Japan, which EIA was again attempting to highlight: ‘So, Japanese people are killing unprotected porpoises and then selling the toxic, mercury-polluted meat to Japanese people who might be getting sick from it? That’s not a story, that’s more like poetic justice.’
Despite raising considerations such as the unsustainability of the hunts and the fact that Japanese consumers are by and large deliberately kept ignorant of the health risks, it remained a no-sale. Fortunately, the good people at Al Jazeera felt that not all stories need to be happening on their audience’s collective doorstep to be of interest and value, and put together an excellent report.
It seems to me that the more interconnected we all become, whether it’s via the internet or international trade and political agreements, the more the world becomes one big ‘local patch’ in which everyone has a vested interest, where thinking globally and acting locally is becoming more than a cute slogan. It’s becoming a necessity.