Interview

Val Vestil on Writing Environmental Stories

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Why aren’t there enough stories about the environment being published? One environmental reporter is taking his training and bringing it to young Filipinos.

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Winona Sigue
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A year before Greta Thunberg staged a climate protest outside the Swedish parliament, Val Vestil was on the other side of the world, leading Camp SEWI: Student’s Environmental Writing Initiative in Negros Oriental. It was his very first project as the founder of the Association of Young Environmental Journalists (AYEJ).

It was 2017. Climate strikes were unheard of and environmental stories were few and far in between.

Since then, Val and his team have conducted several youth environmental journalism workshops in different parts of the country, from Dumaguete City to Occidental Mindoro. Under his leadership, AYEJ has grown into a youth-led environmental news network and non-profit organization, recognized by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Val currently works full-time at AYEJ as its executive director. He also teaches science journalism and communications for development at Xavier University - Ateneo de Cagayan.

In this interview, he talks about the role of science communication, the myth of youth apathy, and the future of environmental journalism in the Philippines.

Palawan river photo by Miguel Nacianceno
Photo by Miguel Nacianceno, published in GRID Vol. 01.

Can you tell us how you got started in environmental journalism?

VAL: I was enrolled in an environmental journalism elective in my third year at Silliman University. I found out that environmental journalism as a course is actually not offered in a lot of universities in the Philippines; I think there are only three that  do.

I was supposed to pursue the TV production track, but [while] attending that class, I noticed there weren’t a lot of environmental stories [being covered] in Dumaguete City. I did an informal survey on how much the media was covering the environment and [found] that in the three local newspapers, less than 25 percent of the stories covered environmental [issues].

When we talk about environmental articles, people assume that it’s just about bagyo, baha, sakuna, and crisis.

I asked, why aren’t there enough stories about the environment being published? There weren’t enough journalists writing about it, and that science journalism is highly technical and [difficult] to write. Hindi [ito] editorial agenda of the press; they prefer news on business, crime, politics, and drugs. This informal research really sparked my desire to pursue environmental journalism as an advocacy.


Having worked in environmental journalism for around five years now, what are some of the most valuable things you’ve learned so far?

VAL: The most valuable thing I’ve learned is that young people really have the ability to look for a unique angle in a story. When we talk about environmental articles, people assume that it’s just about bagyo, baha, sakuna, and crisis. [Our brand is] hopeful, solutions journalism. We empower the kids we train to pursue stories that are more positive and solutions-oriented. I really find value in empowering young people to find their voice as writers; that's one [of my] most amazing realizations.

Also, stop waiting for adults to do the work for you.


What do you mean by that?

VAL: Initially, I was . . . just like a bystander waiting for big media outlets to prioritize the environment. Then I said, “Maybe it’s time to stop waiting for the adults. Why don't I, as a young person, start a movement on environmental journalism myself?” I’m still a work in progress, but the vision is definitely there.


Why is science communication important, especially here in the Philippines? What role does science communication play in dealing with environmental issues?

VAL: People rely on science to make decisions. People trust science. . .[but] for science to reach the masses, there needs to be that vehicle or channel [that delivers] hard sciences in a digestible and understandable way. Science communication is important because it gives people the information they need to make the right decisions for themselves, their families, and the community.

Environmental stories always need to be science-based. An environmental story explores the impact [and] human dimension of environmental issues. When we talk about climate change, the rising temperatures—these are sciences, these are numbers. Environmental journalism will talk about: Sino ang naapektuhan sa rising temperatures? Sa pagbaha? Sa pagbayo? Sino ang mga naaapektuhan sa mga isyu regarding environmental crisis and degradation?

[Our brand is] hopeful, solutions journalism.

Once the journalist tells the audience that this indigenous community is affected by the flood, the journalist then needs to put credible information to include the science in his story. Hindi pwede na sad story lang; the audience needs to understand why flooding or global warming happens.

The connection between science and environmental journalism is that every environmental story needs to integrate scientific concepts para grounded 'yung story on scientific facts. You cannot raise awareness on environmental issues if you don’t understand the science behind [them]. If an environmental journalist can [do that], then mas magiging credible ‘yung environmental story nila.

From your experience, what are common mistakes in environmental reporting that need to be addressed?

VAL: First, when numbers aren’t explained. When numbers just become big numbers like “one out of 10” or “70 percent.” There are a lot of numbers [involved] in science; journalists need to communicate their [context] in more understandable terms. . . para mas maintindihan ng readers kung ano ang ibig sabihin ng mga konsepto. Numbers [can be] big, scary, and hard to understand. I’m not saying to remove them, but [we need to] make sure they’re explained.

Secondly, we tend to focus on the doom-and-gloom aspect; puro na lang bad news. This [kind of reporting] creates a culture of repulsion among audiences; [turned off] na sila sa balita tungkol sa kalikasan kasi feeling nila it’s [all] just about things they have no power over. When you make environmental issues more relatable and closer to home, it’s less scary... There are so many ways to angle and frame a story in a way that doesn’t scare your readers. If you scare your readers, hindi na nila babasahin ‘yung storya mo.

Val Vestil during a session of AYEJ's Camp SEWI: Student's Environmental Writing Initiative
"I really find value in empowering young people to find their voice as writers." Val during a session of AYEJ's flagship program, Camp SEWI: Student's Environmental Writing Initiative. Photo courtesy of Val Vestil.


As you’ve mentioned, a lot of environmental stories can cause readers to feel helpless and repulsed. How can we talk about environmental issues like climate change in ways that don't alienate people?

VAL: Give [people] opportunities to engage and help out. There are many organizations [with] initiatives out there being done to fight climate change; if you want to talk about climate change, find a person in your community who is doing something about it. Find a teacher who is teaching her kids beyond the school curriculum. Find an organization who is planting mangroves in this distant coastal community. There are many... from the private sector and NGOs [working with] local communities [to] create solutions [regarding] climate change.

Journalists should [look] for these positive stories. If I’m a journalist who was asked to write about the forests in Palawan, I have an option to zoom in on the illegal logging [activities], or... on a local organization focusing on the conservation of frogs living in this forest. That’s good news. Somewhere in my story, [I can] integrate yung facts on illegal logging and how forests are being degraded in Palawan, which threatens the frogs living there. There are really more ways around environmental issues that we can talk about.

People rely on science to make decisions. . . .[but] for science to reach the masses, there needs to be that vehicle or channel [that delivers] hard sciences in a digestible and understandable way.

Jumping off from that, how can journalists become better environmental reporters?

VAL: Find good models. This [advice] goes for everyone—filmmakers and writers. Maghanap kayo ng mga environmental journalists na gusto niyo ‘yung work and study their work. Read the article and see why it works. See why it’s a good article. Break down the article. Look for inspiration. And read more, so that you know what stories are underreported and overreported.

Corals and fish with a diver, photo by Francisco Guerrero
Photo by Francisco Guerrero, published in GRID Vol. 1.


Do you think we should start writing environmental stories in native languages to make it more engaging and accessible?

VAL: My quick answer is yes. Sa dinami-dami naming workshops and talks on environmental journalism, parating lumalabas ‘yung question na, “Do you offer this training in Tagalog?'' After our training, the participants produce environmental stories in English. And some participants ask us, “Pwede ba Tagalog? Pwede ba in the native language?” We always argue yes, because we need to be able to communicate what we want to communicate effectively.

If writing it in a dialect that is understood by [your] audiences is better, then go for it. People should definitely invest in producing content on environmental issues that are localized [and] in their local languages.


Since you run a youth-led organization, do you think the burden of engaging with our leaders lies primarily on the youth?

VAL: I feel that the burden and responsibility of wanting to engage with [young people] lies with us—organizations in positions of power, event organizers, media outlets, and institutions. We should run programs that engage the youth.

‘Yung youth apathy na ‘yan, I really don’t believe it. In my experience working with young people, they are interested and engaged, we just need to provide [opportunities] for them to actually engage with us. If they aren’t engaging, it’s not because they’re apathetic; it’s because your strategies to employ your programs and initiatives [are] boring para sa mga kabataan.

Coconut trees, photo by Sonny Thakur
Photo by Sonny Thakur.


Given the lack of opportunities available for environmental reporters, what do you hope for the future of environmental journalism?

VAL: [It’s time for] communication schools [to include] environmental journalism electives for students. I created an organization from taking that course [so] you can only imagine what could happen if more environmental journalism electives were opened in universities [across] the Philippines.

I hope that more journalists pursue environmental stories [and] see the importance of pursuing the green beat; for media outlets and editors to prioritize environmental stories and lead these stories to the front pages. That would be great because it’s less work for [environmental media groups like] us. Finally, I hope that more young people immerse and integrate [themselves] into the world of environmental journalism through the work that we do at AYEJ. We want to become the ANC, CNN, or the Rappler for the environment. My hope is that we would become that in five years.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

  • AYEJ is looking for student journalists to participate in The Green Beat: Islas, a virtual online training on environmental journalism. The training will be held throughout May 2021, every Saturday, starting 2 to 4 pm. Applications close on April 30, 2021, 10 pm. Interested applicants can register here. Visit their website to learn more.