Journalism at the frontlines of civic action

Anabela Carvalho's picture

[This post is part of a series by IECA members at the COP21 in Paris. It is also at the Media Watch blog: ]

On Saturday morning, as the COP continued past schedule with successive postponements of the release of the agreement text, which was going to be, in all likelihood, a watered down, strategically vague version of what the world needs, I found myself wondering what to do. Having been all week at Le Bourget conference centre as an observer representing IECA, I decided to spend that day on the other side of history, the side of the citizens in the streets of Paris who defiantly organized several demonstrations to express their resolve in struggling for a better planet (eventually authorized by the police the day before).

After being prevented to exit at my intended metro stop (“closed for security reasons”) and then forced to change plans again as buses had modified their routes because of the “manifs”, I was lucky enough to walk right into the demonstration frontline. I was curious to check how many journalists would be present. There were plenty of cameras but I could only see a couple that looked like professional video cameras and soon realized that one was of RTP, the Portuguese public service television. Journalist and cameraman were talking to someone I know and I ended up being recruited to speak live at the start of one o’clock news as “an observer to the COP”. I hesitated for a bit. I had gone to the demonstrations as an anonymous citizen of a globalized world, one more body to engross the demand of respect for “red lines” (a strong activist icon at this COP), and was now pushed back into my other identity, which I thought I had left behind at Le Bourget.

I was proud to see my country’s public TV awarding much visibility to “civil society” in the stories told about climate change but worried about the kind of image of the day that was going to be constructed. Two weeks earlier, on the 29th of November, the day of the Global Climate March, I had seen that same television company change their normal programming in RTP1 (their main, generalist channel) to connect live to the activists-police clash in the Place de la République in what appeared like an alarmist and sensationalist journalistic choice. There were the police shields, the pushed metal bars, the pepper spray, all the usual ingredients of the usual “activism-as-violence” narrative.

As many studies (and our own experience as media consumers) suggest(s), the “violent protest” frame often subsumes any other layers of meaning and modes of affirmation of citizenship. That media imagery is likely to impact on social representations of activism and of activists, and conduce many people to distancing themselves from such practices and profiles, possibly promoting disengagement with public causes and claims.



A critical analysis of activists’ depiction (by a very small group of hooded young men at the 12th of December demonstrations)
Credit: Anabela Carvalho

In the evening news of the 29th of November, those same images had opened the coverage. There was also President François Hollande speaking of “disturbing elements”, who were “there to create incidents, not for the climate”. Arrests and a few wounded people resulted from the confrontations, viewers were told. To be fair, there was also a good amount of coverage of the Marches in Portuguese cities (and worldwide), with constructive interviewing of some participants. I looked at the news in other public service broadcasters such as BBC World, Deutsche Welle and France 24 and found some references but not much emphasis on the “violent protests” (it must be noted that this comparison is not fully adequate as unlike RTP1 these are news only channels and they may have changed their reporting throughout the day).

Back to last Saturday. As I walked with RTP’s crew ahead of the demonstration, I kept wondering how well thought through that kind of symbolic construct was at the different levels of the journalistic and editorial hierarchy within a public service broadcaster. I also thought about what I was going to say and what persona I was going to take up in the screens of one of the biggest channels back in Portugal. There was the “me, the citizen” that was frustrated and had political claims to make. But that was not what the journalist wanted me to speak as. There was the “me, the academic” that could make a “cooler” analysis of the situation. But an analysis of what? I am a communications scholar and that was not what the journalist wanted me to speak as/about. She wanted me to talk about the agreement. So the “me, the observer” kept thinking about the observer communities back at the COP and what they thought about draft versions of the agreement.

The UNFCCC awards observer status to multiple types of organizations: business and industry non-governmental organizations (BINGOs), environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), local government and municipal authorities (LGMAs), indigenous peoples organizations (IPOs), research and independent non-governmental organizations (RINGOs), trade union non-governmental organizations (TUNGOs), farmers and agricultural non-governmental organizations (Farmers), women and gender non-governmental organizations (Women and Gender) and youth non-governmental organizations (YOUNGOs). The nine UNFCCC “constituencies” have, obviously, widely diverse views in many points. Plus, each of them is a loose group of actors with multiple perspectives and preferred discourses. Furthermore, observers to the COP are not the same as observers to elections: they are there to try to influence the outcome in one way or the other even though they are given very little voice in the process.



Citizens claiming agency (besides climate protection) at the 12th of December demonstrations, and making me think about how I was asked to speak on TV from a position of privilege
Credit: Anabela Carvalho

I had gone to side events and press conferences by different types of observers and had heard the frustration of many of them towards the emerging text. However, as I wrote in another blog post, RINGOs (the constituency I was part of through IECA), were supposedly not advocating a particular outcome, a non-position that makes me wonder whether all of its members identify with. Coming back to my live interview, I didn’t have long to reflect upon which observer identity to take up. The microphone was in front of me for a predictably short time after references to a “report” of a girl “beaten up” by the police (which the journalist did not appear to be well informed about) and to the police helicopter up in the air. I ended up sounding more like the academic than the citizen but inserted cautionary “observer” points just before the helicopter was mentioned again. 



Polar bear turned journalist or (maybe) “another journalism is possible”, 12 December 2015
Credit: Anabela Carvalho

That evening I watched France24 for several hours, anticipating the celebratory, triumphalist tone and the symbolic dividends that France was going for. There was nothing about the large, peaceful demonstrations that had taken place a few hours earlier. Looking at the websites of other public broadcasters the story was pretty much the same.

For a contrasting mode of reporting on civic action see Democracy Now's report.