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We too can speak for ourselves: journalist urges collaboration and respect in reporting Pacific climate crisis

With capable reporters on the ground covering the climate threat to vulnerable Pacific islands, Samoan journalist and academic Dr Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson has called for international media to reject outdated journalism models and, instead, empower local voices and respect their critical cultural connection. Hannah Hammoud reports on the 2022 A. N. Smith Lecture in Journalism at the University of Melbourne. 

We too can speak for ourselves: journalist urges collaboration and respect in reporting Pacific climate crisis

Image credit: Qiyun Liu

Words by Hannah Hammoud
 

Journalism must trust and empower local perspectives when it comes to reporting the climate crisis in the Pacific, said a leading Samoan journalist and podcaster.

Dr Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson told an audience at the University of Melbourne’s annual A. N. Smith Lecture that  “parachute journalism”, where foreign correspondents travel from their base to report individual stories in other countries, is not helping address the challenge of climate change.

“The foreign correspondent and parachute journalism model continues to be problematic for the Pacific. Not just for climate reporting, but for general news,” Lagipoiva said.

“We need to acknowledge that there are talented journalists on the ground who are capable of reporting the news.

“Relationships should be built with those journalists who have covered issues from our Islands without the need to send in a correspondent each time.

“We too can speak for ourselves,” she said.

The University of Melbourne’s annual A. N. Smith Lecture invites a leading authority to speak on an aspect of journalism. Lagipoiva’s presentation, ‘Va o matagi: climate journalism from the frontlines’, highlighted cultural nuances in reporting on the Pacific and how  international journalism often ignores local voices and languages. ‘Va o matagi’ translates as ‘in between storms.’

Dr Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson with Associate Professor Andrew Dodd, Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at University of Melbourne. Image credit: Qiyun Liu

Dr Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson with Associate Professor Andrew Dodd, Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at University of Melbourne. Image credit: Qiyun Liu

Dr Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson has reported on Samoa and the Pacific islands for over 20 years for national and international media, and was the first female editor of an independent national newspaper in her country, aged just 25. She has covered climate change as well as human rights, gender, and culture. Lagipoiva is the 2022 recipient of the Journalist of Courage and Impact Award at the International Media Conference by the East West Center, is a board member of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, co-founder of the Samoa Alliance of Media Practitioners for Development and host of The Guardian podcast, An impossible choice: when climate change arrives at your door.

Lagipoiva said that it is imperative that the collaboration between international and local newsrooms does justice to the stories emerging from climate-vulnerable islands within the Pacific.

She referenced many examples over her career in which the standards of Western journalism conflicted with the cultural nuances that Pacific Island journalists observe.

In particular, she cited the cultural custom of gift-giving, such as mats, money or food, at almost every ceremony or formal occasion.

“In one such case, when a television crew covers a large event in the village, they are, as per cultural protocol, given a gift as an offering.

“It is considered deeply disrespectful to reject the gift, to the point where the [television] crew may not be accepted back into the community if they reject the gift.”

Lagipoiva said that these entrenched cultural practices mean that many journalists in the Pacific islands accept the gifts offered to them. These cultural nuances conflict with the ethics of Western journalism, which reject the acceptance of gifts as creating the potential to affect the objectivity of journalists and their stories.

Local Pacific island journalists straddle an intuitive balance between their cultural traditions and their commitments to journalistic practice.

Lagipoiva said that it is their lived experience that allows local journalists to tell local stories with nuance, and which is impossible for a correspondent or foreign journalist to emulate. Collaboration can help bridge the cultural gap, but local efforts deserve recognition within that relationship.

“As a stringer over the years, I made sure that the correspondents I worked with got the full picture and were able to relay the stories accurately.

“Despite having great pride along with other stringers in facilitating access and content for a story. It was always disheartening to see the end-product and receive no acknowledgement.”

Lagipoiva said that this dynamic is an outdated model of journalism that needs to change. She says that in empowering local journalists, it is necessary that they be given due credit in the productions of news coverage,

“At the end of the day, it has been demonstrated that Pacific island journalists can effectively tell the story of the Pacific.

Lagipoiva said that while local reporters are capable of telling Pacific stories effectively, there is still a place for foreign correspondents. Photo credit: Shanshan Lin

Lagipoiva said that while local reporters are capable of telling Pacific stories effectively, there is still a place for foreign correspondents. Photo credit: Shanshan Lin

“Reflecting the voices of the Pacific for local languages within the framework of our culture is essential in telling the true impact of the climate crisis in the Pacific.

Lagipoiva says that within the Australian context, there is an opportunity to strengthen coverage of the Pacific through a more nuanced approach by involving Indigenous Australian journalists in its reporting.

Whilst Lagipoiva stressed the importance of giving space for local voices, she also says that there is still a role for foreign journalists in the Pacific.

Across the Pacific Islands, elders and authority figures are regarded with high esteem, evidenced in institutions such as the ‘Fa’amatai’ indigenous political (‘chiefly’) system of Samoa.

Lagipoiva says that many local journalists lean on their international colleagues to utilise their cultural distance to ask the difficult questions of such respected figures — questions which would be considered disrespectful if asked by a local journalist.

She says that it is in these unique nuances of honouring traditions in telling the stories of the Pacific that she hopes more foreign correspondents take up and respect in the future.

“I only hope that as Australian journalists cover more of the Pacific, that you cover it with dignity and respect, as you would any community.”

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