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Changing climates

The role of social media in environmental reporting – comparing Australia and China


In a recent piece for The Guardian, environmental journalist and activist George Monbiot lamented the poor state of environmental journalism globally. He points to the massive conflagration now occurring across Indonesia, from Sumatra to Irian Jaya. These fires have emitted so much CO₂ in three months so as to rival Brazil’s total annual emissions.

With barely three weeks to go before the Paris climate conference, no-one in the mainstream media seems to be covering the significance of these fires. There are plenty of open web news and analysis sites that are giving it attention with the help of social media sharing. But apparently it is not news for the legacy outlets.

Are we witnessing a shift in the way audiences get their environmental news? Today we live in an “attention economy”, where reality itself is scarce. Different kinds of news outlets – mainstream, blogs, open-web, microblogs, social networking and now news notification apps on smartphones – all compete for audience attention. They compete for both the volume of attention and the quality of that attention – that is, how long people spend reading, listening to or viewing a story.

During the last six months I organised two symposia in Australia and China looking at the changing relationship of news and audiences with a particular focus on exchanging knowledge of how journalists use Twitter in Australia and Weibo in China.

Speakers and participants in Australia included working journalists from the ABC, Fairfax, SBS, News Corp and The Conversation. From mainlaind China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, journalists and editors from Fujian radio and TV, Phoenix New Media, Apple Daily, CityZine, Initium Media,, Yahoo!, Al Jazeera, Australia First and The Guardian took part.

The two symposia, held in Melbourne and Hong Kong, covered a broad range of topics, including how journalists use microblogs to source, promote and research stories, but also the metrics and analytics of news delivery, the changing business models needed by news organisations, and news audiences.

There are huge contextual differences between China and Australia. The most obvious is the volume of microbloggers. There are nearly 300 million active users of Weibo in China compared to 2.8 million Twitter account-holders in Australia.

Not so different is the way that social media in China and Australia is used as an alternative channel to centrally controlled forms of state media and concentrated forms of mainstream media respectively. But while social media in China is controlled by the state, it is an important place for people to vent their opinions, frustrations and even anger.

One example of this that was discussed in both Melbourne and Hong Kong was the extraordinary phenomenon of the video produced in China titled “Under the Dome”. It was uploaded to the Tencent Video portal and to Youku Tudou on February 28 this year.

The video was produced by Chai Jing, a journalist who had become famous across China as a news presenter on CCTV. When Chai Jing became pregnant last year, her doctors told her that a scan had revealed a tumour had appeared on her unborn child, and that it was most likely linked to the urban pollution that she, like millions of Chinese, endure each day.

Chai Jing’s reaction was to immediately quit her celebrity job and make a documentary about urban pollution. It has been hailed by some as China’s version of An Inconvenient Truth but without the climate change message. It featured Chai Jing introducing powerpoints on stage, including ultrasounds of her womb, crossing to images of pollution-sufferers all over China.

The video received 200 million views in four days, distributed mainly by Weibo and WeChat – a hybrid chat, networking and messenger service.

‘Under the Dome’.

On the first day, state media outlets like the People’s Daily and the Global Times ran positive articles about the film, which were actually feeding off the Weibo spike. On day two, it attracted praise from the newly appointed environment minister, Chen Jining. After all, the documentary had used information supplied by the Chinese government and interviewed government officials.

But on March 2, Ministry of Propaganda officials were concerned that the film was attracting negative criticism toward the government on Weibo and Wechat. With the backdrop of the sitting of the two congresses of government on that day, the ministry notified all media users and producers to erase references to the film and Chai Jing.

In China, protest is tolerated if it is specific, contained, and does not constitute a threat of collective action. Under the Dome was getting too big too quickly. The Chinese government really is trying to fix the urban pollution problem, but would rather take the credit for this itself.

As well as censorship, the government also deployed thousands of so-called “50-cent people” – state-serving trolls – who began to pillory the film as well as Chai Jing, who was denounced for linking her unborn child’s tumour with urban pollution as baseless and attention seeking.

But here is the twist. Two weeks after Under the Dome was banned, the website of Beijing’s government-controlled Economic Planning Agency made an extraordinary announcement. It was immediately closing two of the three remaining coal-fired power stations in Beijing. The third one is to be closed next year.

Whether this can be linked directly to the viral video incident is difficult to establish. But the pressure was there to take this action – more than it ever has been.

This event was followed by the Tianjin explosion in August, which killed 114 people. Within ten days, the hashtag #TianjinTanggu, which marked the massive explosion, 3.32 billion views on Sina Weibo, 3.62 million comments and 420,000 followers (on The event sparked an enormous national conversation that is putting the government under further pressure around issues of environmental and industrial safety.

At the Melbourne symposium, environmental issues were again identified as central to social media platforms – but mainly around particular “crisis events” such as extreme weather. Rod McGuinness, social media editor for the ABC, declared that:

There was one single event that transformed the ABC’s use of Twitter – the Black Saturday bushfires.

As Australia’s emergency broadcaster, McGuinness pointed out that “normal ABC programming” is interrupted when such events are taking place. With some radio transmission towers in the fire area taken out, Twitter came into its own. The ABC’s Twitter account was able to push information out to people that it got from the emergency services. It was also to get information from people on the ground and from the public.

So, it is interesting that when a major broadcaster such as the ABC loses its capacity to distribute information, microblogging becomes a readymade substitute.

This is true of Twitter even when mainstream broadcasters are fully functioning. During the 2011 Queensland floods, where there was more time to respond to the looming crisis than in the case of Black Saturday, mainstream media such as @abcnews @couriermail @sunriseon7 and @612brisbane were the hubs in a Twitter frenzy centred on #qldfloods. But those participants formerly known as the audience were just as much a part of the flow of information as the traditional broadcasters.

It is worth noting that many of the comments columns at news websites – be it News Corp, Fairfax, ABC, The Guardian or The Conversation – are often longer than the article itself. In this context, the agenda-setting function of the mainstream media is much more complicated as audiences continue to generate their own content.

In China, there is evidence that trends in microblogging and messenger apps have more influence on the choice mainstream journalists make on what stories they cover than the state.

Interestingly, most social media sharing in Australia in relation to news outlets is for political communication. This fact can be read as a kind of protest to media concentration. The highest incidence of sharing is of the smaller news outlets.

The monopoly providers, while enjoying large audiences, are not getting that audience amplified by social media. The smaller news outlets are getting much more amplification.

Herein lies another characteristic – the tagging and sharing of quality, longform and more progressive online news media is more prevalent than it is of tabloid and popular ones. This is true in China, in the Chai Jing example, and in Australia. The ABC and Fairfax and The Guardian consistently lead as the media’s most tweeted and retweeted news sites.

Another trend emerges here – in Australia, those media frequented by Labor voters are more likely to be amplified by social media, while Liberal voters seen to have less interest in consuming or sharing content on social media. Could this be because social media itself has been strangely politicised?

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