Green Echoes #9

In this special edition, we look at the state of environmental journalism in South Korea

Dear friends and supporters,

Welcome to Green Echoes, a newsletter from the Environmental Reporting Collective that highlights key investigative stories, data sources, funding, reporting and training opportunities and our projects from across Asia.

In this week’s issue, we’re giving subscribers a first look at an original piece we’re publishing by Seulki Lee on how environmental reporting is going mainstream in South Korea.

Before we get to Seulki’s report: Our Wildlife Study Group’s first session – a live stream with Corona, Malaysia’s first pangolin born in captivity – was a great success! Rewatch the session here and see for yourself. Here’s a short report on how it went.

Our next session is on Thursday. There are a lot of webinars out there right now. We wanted to host conversations on our reporting, not more lectures. Imagine it as part dinner party, part study group to discuss the findings of our and others’ reporting.

You will get to meet and exchange opinions with fellow enthusiasts and a curated group of experts including journalists and activists. They each bring their own unique experience and perspectives to the conversation. But we’d also like to hear from you, esp. if you have your own insights or experiences to share.

Join the next session Can farming pangolins curb its illegal trade? on June 18, 8-9 pm Malaysia time (GMT+8) with colleagues and friends from Vietnam and Malaysia.

RSVP

The following week, we’re hosting a conversation around the topic: Should indigenous peoples be allowed to hunt wildlife? You can already RSVP here.

Now off to Seoul, where new teams of reporters are tackling the hard stories related to the environment. Please share it, and respond to me if you have feedback.

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South Korean media are honing in on environmental reporting

SEOUL – South Korea's journalists have had to fight fiercely for their independence. These struggles shaped newsroom culture, putting politics first in most investigative reporting. Environmental reporters who try to report beyond the protests and campaigns in the established media organizations thus have an additional task: to persuade editors that their beat matters as much as any other.

Gradually, this is beginning to change. Since the early 2010s, some publications have formed designated teams for issue-based environmental reporting. 

We met three teams that are driving this change.

The animal beat at Hankyoreh

The newsroom's yearlong coverage of the fate of a dolphin named Je-Dol-Yi at a local aquarium in 2013 proved to be a formative experience. For the first time, an in-depth story on an individual animal featured as the lead story on Hankyoreh’s frontpage. The story was so sensational that it was followed up by other media and turned into a documentary film. The editors learned that there’s value in pursuing stories that related to the environment.  

"Younger readers' attention to animal news was rapidly growing," said Park Hyun-chul, the publication’s leading environmental reporter. This correlated with a social trend of more people keeping pets. (The dolphin was later released back into the wild by the aquarium.)   

Editors at Hankyoreh noticed at the time readers focussed on the animals’ appearance, less on their wellbeing, Park said. They worried that such reporting, although it resonated with readers, exacerbated the country’s pet-keeping craze. Editors commissioned more stories on the wellbeing of animals in the following years. 

In mid-2017, the daily started a dedicated animal welfare and protection beat. Currently headed by Park, the team of four journalists calls itself the paper’s "Animal People". "We wanted to go beyond cute animal stories and go deeper," he said. The team's mandate covers the use and abuse of companion animals, farm animals and wildlife. Unlike in the past, when they did the occasional story on animal welfare, they decided to look at the issue consistently over time, and dig deeper.

Park's favourite story was a 2019 investigation into the pet breeding industry. Two reporters spent three months undercover retracing the route dogs take from breeders to traders to auction houses and pet shops. They then spent two months on follow-up reporting and publishing their findings. The team crowdfunded some of their reporting expenses. Some 520 readers supported the project with 1,300 U.S. dollars.

"I believe the essence of journalism remains the same for environmental reporting: cover the story and uncover the truth," he said. "The readers consume news contents based on this journalistic quality, not because of the topic's virality." 

“It was hard to overcome human-centric perspective in my stories,” said Shin So-yun, a former team member who has been rotated out of the beat. “I felt sometimes helpless because the social reaction to our stories was slower than we had hoped.”

The team is planning to cover more stories on farm animals, pet cafés, and animal abuse at zoos. They are also exploring ways to look into the global supply chain of the pet trade, including more overseas collaborations.

Here is a selection of the team's reporting:

The climate change beat at Hankyoreh

About two months ago, amid the pandemic lockdown, the editors at Hankyoreh delegated four journalists to set up another environmental beat team: climate change.

"My life has completely changed on April 1," said Park Ki-yong, who leads the team. "I had been covering environmental news on my own for a year. Now, I have colleagues to look at this one single issue with me."

They have recently looked at the links between climate change and infectious diseases. This month, they are looking at changes in ecological diversity across the Korean peninsula, including in the demilitarized zone that divides the North and the South.

In the future, they want to look at changes in the use of energy. "We will be focusing on how fair and just the energy transition and climate change mitigation policies are for communities and how they adapt," said Park.

"We plan to publish investigative reports several times per year," said Park. The team can't yet entirely focus on investigations. They are expected to file short news reports, including on policy updates from the ministry of environment.

The complexity of climate change science is another hurdle to Park's ambitions. "Not only the readers but we journalists too find the climate crisis issue opaque," he said. "My colleagues and I are struggling to convince the wider public that we need to pay more for electricity," he said.

Here is a selection of the team's reporting:

Newstapa's Cho Won-il

Until recently, Cho Won-il spent long hours reporting on environmental stories for a daily paper. The work earned him awards and accolades. In 2019, he was reporting on casualties of a heatwave when the daily pressure to produce stories became too much. He quit and joined the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism, better known as "Newstapa."

He wanted to dig deeper than he could at a daily, and lists a series of sobering statistics: Between 100 and 200 people die every year because of exposure to asbestos in their homes, classrooms, and workplaces. More than 40 people died in the unexpected heatwave of 2018.

According to Cho, four of Newstapa’s about 40 reporters look into environmental issues, but no one focuses on it exclusively. He also looks into stories of judicial abuse. 

He believes that environmental reporting shouldn't be about identifying and shaming but looking at systemic issues. An example is his reporting on the environment ministry's lackluster enforcement of asbestos regulations. He reported on the absence of a coordinated data monitoring effort to better prepare for climate disasters. 

"I think the important factor of journalism in South Korea is to expose systemic failure," he said. "We need to make people feel that others' experiences relate to them, especially for environmental reporting, which doesn't get as much attention as political news." 

Cho and three environmental reporters in Newstapa are planning to follow up on the damage caused by heat waves, and look into coal power plants.

"Being freed from daily news pressure is a major benefit of doing issue-based environmental reporting," he said. "I can wait for my sources to be psychologically ready to share their stories instead of pushing them so that I meet my deadlines," said Cho.

Here is a selection of the Newstapa's environmental reporting:

  • An investigation into environmental degradation and community strife caused by the multi-billion dollar “Four River Refurbishment” construction project, Sept. 2017. 

  • A series of reports on the impact of South Korea’s nuclear power plants on nearby residents, March 2020. They also looked at the radioactive waste management and safety supervision problems.

  • A collaborative investigation by Newstapa, Waseda Chronicle in Japan and Tempo Magazine in Indonesia on the environmental fallout of a South Korean-built coal power plant in Cirebon, Indonesia, May 2018. 

Seulki Lee (skidolma@protonmail.com) is a freelance journalist based in South Korea. Her stories have been published in Tempo, Nepali Times, Hankyoreh21, The Nation among others.


That's all for this week. For those of you who can read Chinese, the third edition of 绿色回声 (our Chinese-language newsletter) is out. Take a look, and do share with your colleagues.

Starting next week, we want to change our format a little bit to make sure we showcase more excellent reporting from China here, and more international reporting with Chinese-language subscribers. As always, let us know what you think.

Stay safe and healthy,

Nithin Coca

The Environmental Reporting Collective is a group of reporters and editors across Asia and elsewhere, working together to rethink how environmental journalism is done. We support collaborative journalism projects that start new conversations on how our societies impact our planet. Such stories are complex and expensive. That’s why they require new approaches to research, reporting, editing and distribution.

To learn more about our work, check out our website, Investigative.Earth, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. You can also let us know what you would like to see in this newsletter by responding to this email.