Tetiana Bakotska: “Environmental journalism is a lifestyle rather than a way to earn a living”

To write on environmental topics, you have to change yourself first. Then you can change the audience you write for, according to Tetiana Bakotska, a graduate of the UNDP School of Environmental Journalism in Ukraine. Find out more about how studying at the School stimulated the search for new topics and got the attention of experts.

Tetiana Bakotska. Photo: UNDP in Ukraine

Tetiana Bakotska has now been working in environmental journalism for 13 years. Over this time she has covered lots of issues, received several awards, and studied European practice in environmental journalism. In fact, it all started by accident — with her participation in a competition: “Journalists were offered to write materials on waste sorting and recycling,” the journalist says. “I sent my contribution and was very surprised to learn that I’d won. I was even more surprised to go on a fully paid study tour to Barcelona to learn about their sorting and recycling experience. And then — here we are.”

The trip to Barcelona in 2007 was a milestone for Tetiana. She saw that for Spaniards caring for the environment was not the whim of minority but a common standard. She remembers being surprised by the fact that Barcelonians kept five trash bins in the kitchen for sorting waste.

So, this sincere “we can act no differently” set the journalist thinking. Why are Ukrainians, in particular journalists, not ready to understand and accept this? What can be done to make them ready? It is clear that the only solution is to disseminate knowledge about successful practices from other countries and motivate Ukrainians to change their ways.

School of Environmental Journalism

The UNDP School of Environmental Journalism was Tetiana’s first experience of such training, as it has been for many other journalists from all over Ukraine. The journalists attended lectures on climate policy, waste management, renewable energy, and the Environmental Impact Assessment procedure. Working in teams, they learned to look for verified information and use the right terms. The school programme inspired Tatiana to create new materials:

I believe that new ideas for problem-solving dawn on you during communication with professionals. Besides, there were people who were striving to make a difference. Because journalism, including environmental journalism, is a lifestyle rather than a way to make a living. This is what drives me to produce better materials.

While studying at the UNDP School, Tetiana met colleagues from other oblasts, and this resulted in further cooperation. At present, Tetiana works as an editor and presenter at UA: Suspilne channel in Mykolayiv. One of her reports on the implementation of the EU and UNDP EMBLAS-Plus project (“Improving Environmental Monitoring in the Black Sea”) in the Mykolaiv Oblast featured phone calls from Kherson colleagues. At that time, it was something that had never been on the air before, and Tetiana says that but for the School, it was unlikely it would have ever happened. Likewise, there would have been no series of programmes with ecologist Oleh Derkach, who heads several environmental organizations. “For me, the school was an opportunity to have better communication with experts and get the most relevant first-hand information,” says Tetiana.

The practical task during the School of Environmental Journalism. Photo: UNDP in Ukraine

It turned out that it is often the case that the most up-to-date information like that on the Black Sea project needs to be provided not only to viewers but also to local specialists. During classes at the UNDP school, the journalist learned about the maritime strategy being developed in Ukraine. On returning to Mykolayiv, Tetiana set about collecting comments on it from local experts. However, this turned out to be a difficult task. “They told me they’d never heard of it. But these are people whose work is directly related to environmental issues!” says Tetiana.

Now the same experts ask her to send them a link to her materials so they can keep track of all developments, and then provide their comments as well. Moreover, it incentivizes them to do more. For example, a large discussion event was held at the Black Sea University with the participation of experts from other cities. This happened after Tetiana’s programme on the maritime strategy. Afterward, the organizers visited Tetiana’s studio to talk about the outcomes of the discussions. “They are becoming more interested in changes. It looks like our programmes motivate them,” the journalist laughs.

Advice for journalists

Anyone who wants to work in environmental journalism should be prepared to meticulously collect information, and meet resistance from editors: News editors are interested in material that is easy to grasp, popular, and “clickable.” And ecology doesn’t usually fit the bill.

“Such materials require more time to produce; there are not always experts available who can provide a good comment and a solution to an environmental problem. Yet this is no reason to give them up. You create materials for the long term. This is something that is true for everyone,” the journalist says.

At UA: Suspilne, Tetiana plans the topics of her programs in advance. However, according to the rules, if nothing related to the chosen topic has happened within three days prior to the broadcast, the topic won’t get approval. This does not discourage Tatiana: “If a journalist is really eager to create materials on environmental issues yet there are no newsworthy events, he or she will find a solution. Even if the newsroom’s leadership is not interested.”

Tetiana Bakotska. Photo: UNDP in Ukraine

For those who just start out as environmental journalists, Tetiana advises choosing the topics that appeal to them personally: “For me, it is, for example, the maritime strategy, because the territory of our oblast is washed by the Black Sea. In addition, we have the lowest afforestation in Ukraine, whereas currently, forestry reform is underway. So I take interest in this issue too. “Having selected a topic and when working on it, it is important not to focus on the negative stuff. When writing about the environmental status, it is very easy to fall into this trap. For example, by saying the “impoverishment of the people” and “high cost of energy resources” are the reasons for illegal logging.

“Elaborate the topic along the lines of constructive journalism so that you don’t just deliver negative information. Find experts who know what to do about this notorious logging now, and how to prevent it in the future. Let it even be the experience of another oblast or country — a good example to follow,” says Tetiana.

Viewers are often surprised that the European Union invests heavily in protecting the environment in Ukraine. Tetiana remembers one of the programmes about the EMBLAS-Plus project implemented by the EU and UNDP, which was bombarded with questions like “Why is Europe doing this?”, “Why spend money?”, “What’s in it for them?” The journalist has her own answer ready: “The European Union is interested in financing environmental protection in Ukraine because we share the environment with them. Water and air have no boundaries.”

The UN School of Environmental Journalism was established as part of the UNDP/Sweden project “Support to the Parliament of Ukraine on Sustainable Energy and Environmental Protection”. During May-October 2019, the School’s training modules were held in Kyiv, Lviv, Kramatorsk, and Odesa, covering almost 100 journalists from all over the country.

This story is a part of a communication campaign about environmental changemakers, which became possible thanks to the UNDP project “Support to the Parliament of Ukraine on sustainable energy and environment” with the financial support of Sweden and UNDP project “Plastic Waste Management at the local level” with the financial support of the joint New World Programme of the Coca-Cola Foundation and Global Water Challenge.

Author: Yulia Hudoshnyk for UNDP in Ukraine, edited by Viktoriya Yashkina, UNDP

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