Seeing through Thai haze

Seeing through Thai haze

A roundtable presents ideas on how the media should report effectively on the air pollution crisis

SOCIAL & LIFESTYLE
Seeing through Thai haze
Air pollution shrouds Bangkok. (Photos: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

According to the Thailand Development Research Institute, the government became aware of PM2.5 pollution in 2018 when the Pollution Control Department included PM2.5 in the calculation of the air quality index.

Since then, there have been many reports regarding PM2.5 pollution. However, the news seems to focus only on daily reports about the Air Quality Index, which measures the concentration of PM2.5 in the air and is divided into a colour-coded system of green (good air quality), yellow (moderate air quality), orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups), red (unhealthy) and purple (very unhealthy).

To ask questions, criticise and discuss how media in Thailand reports on PM2.5 pollution, the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication at Thammasat University organised an online roundtable, "Dust (That Never) Gets In The Eyes" on facebook.com/JCThammasat.

In the forum, Ekapon Thienthaworn, a lecturer at the Department of Journalism, commented that the media in Thailand pays close attention to PM2.5 pollution and provides news on the issue daily.

"The daily reports raise awareness of PM2.5, but can also make people feel alarmed, powerless and hopeless about the situation. There should be more than daily reports," he said.

However, Asst Prof Duangkaew Dhiensawadkij, a lecturer at the Department of Corporate Communication believes that the media is doing the right thing.

"In the past few years, the media has raised awareness of PM2.5 pollution and that has helped government agencies and Thais become more aware. The forum's tagline mentioned that media should report news beyond colours of the AQI," Asst Prof Duangkaew explained.

"I believe the media is fulfilling its duty. It is their responsibility to warn people daily about PM2.5 pollution. Overwhelming reports may make people worried, but the pollution issue is something to be concerned about. The daily reports about pollution may make people feel powerless because they can do nothing. Thus, we should question if it is possible to take some action instead of just feeling powerless."

Assoc Prof Ruj Komonbut, another lecturer at the Department of Journalism, commented that media reports only AQI colours because news has become an entertainment business which prioritises entertainment over information.

"News has become more entertainment-focused. It is not important information like it used to be. Current news needs to be reported very fast, but almost instantly as it happens in real time, which often leads to a lack of details. As an entertainment business, news must be dramatic or emotional, so it tends to be simple. Any complicated content is edited or removed," he said.

Both Assoc Prof Wilaiwan Jongwilaikasaem, a lecturer at the Department of Radio and Television, and Asst Prof Duangkaew pointed out that downsizing in media outlets has had negative effects on environmental news reporting as reporters specialising in the environment were often the first to be laid off.

Asst Prof Duangkaew stated that reporters work separately for their own sections. This results in a disconnection. For example, the PM2.5 pollution issue rarely connects with topics like electric public transportation or how the approval of the draft of the Clean Air Act will affect people.

In addition to downsizing, Assoc Prof Wilaiwan added that the government's monitoring of criticism creates a climate of self-defence among individuals which leads people to focus on personal solutions to the pollution issue rather than collective action. This kind of censor from the government weakens active citizenship.

Ekapon, who specialises in data journalism, suggested that reporters should use data for their reports. He emphasised that data journalism is not as complicated as many reporters assume. It requires only basic statistics and the use of spreadsheets.

"The heart of data journalism is presenting data to the audience and letting them make their own decisions. Reporters do not have to present complicated data or explain in depth all at once. They can gradually provide data which focuses on information relevant to daily life. For example, when is the best time of the year to purchase an air purifier? This could be followed by an advanced report where reporters collect data from children's centres and mark locations with or without air purifiers," he said.

When Assoc Prof Ruj was asked from which aspect should the media should present PM2.5 pollution news, the lecturer suggested that although agricultural burning is one of the sources of PM2.5 pollution, reporters should report news with an understanding of farmers instead of blaming them.

"In Thailand, there are 5.9 million farmer households and only 48% of them own their farms. Moreover, many of those who do own farms have their farms under mortgage. This means they need to save costs and slash and burn farming is the easiest and cheapest way. Clearing remaining crops requires a lot of manpower or machinery that farmers cannot afford. People should understand their reasons because we may be one pair of invisible hands who push them towards slash and burn farming," he said.

Assoc Prof Ruj suggested that topics should relate to incomplete combustion which also causes pollution and comes from transportation, food industry and other industries.

"While diesel vehicles cause black smoke, the government tries to control the price of diesel to please voters. Reporters should connect this issue with political issues and spark a debate between acquiring votes and prevention of air pollution. Another interesting question was, can a labourer who makes a minimum wage of 300 baht per day afford to travel using electric public transportation?" said Assoc Prof Ruj.

"Reporters should question the prime minister about which project will be achieved first, the land bridge project or the 20 baht fare for electric trains. Additionally, reporters can connect organic food to the PM2.5 pollution because organic farms do not use slash and burn farming. Audiences may be able to relate better to these kinds of topics."

In addition to producing interesting news related to PM2.5 pollution, lecturers agree that there should be reports that influence the direction of policies. Assoc Prof Wilaiwan mentioned her experience with a TV station which helped her learn a formula for presenting an issue in a way that initiates government policy. The process begins with reporting a human-interest issue which leads to public interest and push for a beneficial policy. However, most issues only reach a level of human interest because reporters obtain information for their news reports by interviewing scholars. Reaching policy interest, however, requires data analysis.

If media representatives do not actively cover PM2.5 pollution from more various angles, Assoc Prof Ruj suggests that other groups should initiate a movement. For example, civil society organisations, non-government organisation or scholars may convey messages through alternative media forms such as documentaries, songs or performances.

Assoc Prof Ruj mentioned an interesting movement in Chiang Mai. Last year, approximately 60 people in Chiang Mai filed a lawsuit against the former prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the National Environmental Board and the Securities and Exchange Commission for failing to exercise their authority to solve the PM2.5 pollution problem in the North. The case is an example of active citizens showing the media what they want.

Asst Prof Duangkaew ended the forum with the message that people and media representative should not give up on addressing PM2.5 issues.

"We cannot be weak or give up on speaking up about environmental issues. If we give up, it means we give up our health and lives."

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