Interview with Earth Journalism Scholar Rosalia Omungo


Internews, Berkeley, CA

Rosalia Omungo has been selected as the first Earth Journalism Visiting Scholar at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism(JSchool). The program is part of a partnership created between Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) and the JSchool that features a graduate level class on international environmental reporting and travel grants for students to report from abroad.

As part of the project, EJN will bring working journalists from overseas to attend the JSchool for a semester as visiting scholars over the next two years. A call for applications went out last summer, and an international panel judges reviewed over 60 candidates before deciding to select Omungo as this year’s visiting scholar. Another call for applications will be announced this coming May.

A television journalist and editor for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation in Nairobi, Omungo leads KBC’s Science Desk and produces Earth Watch, a weekly news feature focusing on environment, agriculture, science and technology.

Below, Omungo tells Internews about how science and environmental reporting became her passion, and what she hopes to learn in her semester at Berkeley.

How did science and the environment become your main area of reporting interest? How do you choose the stories you, and KBC, focus on?

I started off at KBC as a general news reporter, and sometimes reported on business stories. I showed a great interest in technical and science stories, and thus was always assigned to cover stories related to environment, scientific conferences and topics such as malaria. With time I developed interest in environmental reporting, and began narrowing down slowly. In 2008, Earth Watch was born, a weekly environmental segment with focus on environment, agriculture, science and technology.

KBC stories are of national interest and public interest, being the State Broadcaster. We also focus on stories of destruction and success stories on conservation.

You pioneered KBC’s science desk. What was the process of establishing this like? Why was it needed, and how were scientific topics handled previously?

After being a reporter for four years, I was appointed a news editor in charge of features and the science desk. The scientific topics were mainly environment, agriculture, technology, health and chemistry. It is not the usual science desk you would find in a large newsroom in the developed world. It was all in the context of a developing country, and to make stories easy for our audience, which meant giving them a human face. 

The process of establishing this desk was basic. We do not necessarily have a section in the newsroom designated for the science desk. It is mainly about planning and on what stories and story angles to follow, and keeping tabs with the events in the sector.

Scientific topics were hardly covered previously, unless in the case of a launch or discovery. Right now, we can do follow ups and get more stories along the way. The desk was created out of the interest that I showed in reporting these topics, and the impact they generated. In my view, it was the Editor-in-Chief’s way of saying: “This is good, continue with it, make it bigger.” I plan on doing just that upon my return.

Tell me about a time when you knew an environmental story or topic would have a big impact on your audience.

When the story has a human face, and especially when the stakes are high for the ordinary people and even for the more privileged in society, then a story is likely to have a big impact. By high stakes, I mean when something drastic is likely to happen when the story is exposed. For instance, the socio-economic lives of the people are likely to be disrupted, either through eviction, relocation or displacement. The “big fish” in society may lose out on a project they have heavily invested in.

One such story is that of the Mau Forest, in which local residents were duped into buying large parcels of government forestland at throw away prices. Powerful politicians also benefitted from fertile prime pieces and put up big companies within the forest. This happened during the Moi regime in the 1990s. When a new government came into place, it was time to reclaim what had been taken away illegally. The eviction process of the locals began as politicians began to take sides with the evictees. What began as a process to reclaim the forest from degradation ended up as a tool for politicians to play the blame game. It ended up changing the political landscape and alliances shifted.

What are the challenges to environmental and scientific reporting in Kenya?

In Kenya there is hardly any specialization before one gets into journalism. Those who have chosen the less-travelled road of environmental and scientific reporting are those that have developed a passion for the beat, thus learn on the job. They learn by attending workshops and scientific conferences and creating a network of experts in the field who become their sources. The number of journalists showing interest in and reporting in environment and science has been on the rise, albeit very slow. I believe more training will help boost the field. I am not aware of any local Kenyan university offering a course in environmental journalism, maybe because the institutions feel the field is still young.  What they offer are short courses or trainings.

The [media] industry is dictated by profit margins, and politics, being one of the commodities that sell in Kenya, seems more attractive, and easier to handle for journalists. Political stories seem to dominate most of the media outlets, and many reporters want to specialize in political affairs. Environment stories are taking fewer slots mainly in the form of feature segments or pull outs in newspapers with only a few stories. Better funding will thus play a big role in boosting environment reporting.

Another sticky issue is the pressure for breaking news or general news thus lack of time for research.

You reported from the Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009 [as a Climate Change Media Partnerships Fellow]. What surprised you about reporting from the international negotiations?

There were so many activities going on concurrently, and the amount of work that goes into the negotiations was enormous, let alone the numbers from around the world that have arrived for the cause. The activities ran into the night. It takes a while to understand the working groups in these forums.

I was surprised that after two weeks of intense discussions, there was no tangible outcome. Let’s hope that COP 21 in Paris in 2015 will make a difference, so that the countries most affected by climate change are cushioned.

There are very many interest groups from around the world advocating for the same thing – climate justice. But they all do it in unique ways, though the energy displayed by some of the groups was immense. There are those who would sing and dance and roll on the floor in the name of climate justice.

What are you looking forward to as an Earth Journalism Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley? Why is this opportunity important for you, and what do you hope to share with the Berkeley students?

This opportunity is important to me because it gives me a chance to learn from professors specialized in different fields even find new story ideas and angles. I am taking classes in both journalism and environment and natural resources, thus this will broaden my perspective. Earth Journalism, which is the core course, is a boost for me as it lays emphasis on the areas of focus that I have been handling, including climate change, biodiversity, environmental health and agriculture, among others. I hope to undertake many more of such assignments internationally.

Berkeley gives me the opportunity to mingle with other scholars around the world in various disciplines thus a chance to network. I studied journalism at the University of Nairobi, rated as the best university in Kenya, thus I believe it is a good experience to compare how differently things work here at Berkeley, rated as one of the best in the world.

I like the fact that the competition for this position was stiff and selection process fair, which should inspire hope to science journalists and indeed all other journalists that excellence and professionalism does pay.

This is an opportunity for me to share with the students some of the challenges facing the environment and natural resources in Sub Saharan Africa and indeed Kenya. I also hope to share with them some of the challenges facing journalists in Kenya. Kenya remains the hub of the Eastern African region, and arguably the most favorite destination. Nairobi is also home to several international news agencies, where some of the students are already working or have been attached in. Being a developing country, there are so many more needs.