In previous articles, we have discussed the visible deterioration of Georgia’s energy security, where energy demand keeps increasing and the share of domestic energy sources in the overall primary supply (the gross amount consumed by the country over one year) is declining. Reversing this trend requires the country to accelerate the pace that it develops domestic – and mostly renewable – energy generation capacity; ideally in combination with greater efforts to improve energy efficiency. Both of these actions are fully in line with the country’s commitments to move towards a greener development path. Unfortunately, however, so far Georgia has struggled in both directions. Developing domestic generation capacity has proven itself a challenging endeavor, while energy efficiency has also been increasing at a reduced pace, particularly in comparison to other post-Soviet countries (e.g., Latvia). Such struggles are exacerbated by the fact that the debate over environmental and energy issues have been significantly – and negatively – affected by fake news, by a poor understanding of the challenges the country is facing, and a lack of reflection on the potential opportunities of moving towards a greener development path (along with the potential cost for not doing so). For the country to get back on track, towards a more inclusive and sustainable development path, it is crucial that the Georgian public receive far more detailed and accurate information regarding the existing challenges, as well as the options available to overcome them. Naturally, the Georgian media have a key role to play in this – but are they ready?
QUALITY OF INFORMATION
Unfortunately, it appears that the quality of average information is still inadequate in Georgia. According to the latest available IREX Media Sustainability Index, the Georgian media sector was in a far from the ideal state in 2019 and assessed as having “Near Sustainability” – with a score between 2 and 2.5 out of 4 (full sustainability) – and characterized by a declining trend in the professionalism sub-index. Another very recent assessment of the state of the Georgian information system, the Vibrant Information Barometer (2021), provides a similar, possibly slightly deteriorated, picture. The Georgian information system is classified as “Slightly Vibrant”, with an average score of 19 out of 40, and a score of 18 out of 40 in information quality. In the words of the latter report: “Despite an abundance of information created by both professional and non-professional content producers, a plethora of misinformation spreads through print and broadcast media, digital media, and social networks”.
If we look at the specific preparation that journalists carry out towards energy transition, and green economy issues, the situation is hardly more comforting. During our review and assessment of media output, we found insufficient media coverage on these issues. Moreover, the information produced was of a questionable qualitative level, thus greatly diminishing the potentially positive impact of the Georgian media, and leaving the door open to erroneous and misleading interpretations of the existing data. It does not help that, at times, journalists attempt to compensate for their lack of analysis by presenting excess, unfiltered information; even including data and figures from questionable sources or taken from research reports and papers created by interested parties, without independent validation.
WHY IS MEDIA PERFORMANCE SO POOR ON THE GREEN AGENDA?
There are multiple causes behind such a weak performance from the Georgian media on green agenda topics. We have subsequently attempted to identify them and discussed the issue with several media professionals. Our team contacted 49 journalists, among which, however, only 20 showed willingness to participate in the interviews. We also conducted a survey of journalism students, distributed to three universities, and only 12 people responded. This itself is an indicator of the lack of interest towards the topic.
Our interviewees and survey respondents identified three key factors linked to the poor performance of the Georgian media in covering topics related to the green economy: the country’s present socio-political environment, the Civil Society and NGO approach to addressing the issue, and the incentives the media and journalists encounter in deciding whether to cover issues related to the green agenda.
In contrast, socio-political developments around the country regularly capture great attention across all media platforms. The severity of social and economic problems, as well as the nation’s characteristic political uncertainty, pushes Georgian society to perceive the move towards a greener economy as inessential and hardly urgent. The combination of low awareness and skepticism about the gravity of these problems, and the expected benefits of action, lead to reduced demand for media products that focus on green economy issues. To ensure stable sponsorship, media platforms mostly focus on political clashes and consequently become amplifiers for more controversial, ratings-oriented news, rather than reliable channels spreading awareness of fundamental topics – like the need (and opportunities) for energy transition and for a greener approach towards economic development.
According to our interviewees, broader NGO and CSO campaigns to increase knowledge and interest about such topics among the public and the media have not – thus far – been very effective; which has caused demand for media products on these issues to remain low. Even when NGOs and CSOs have engaged in more focused initiatives, for example working to build capacity in the media sector, only a few training courses were designed to be truly flexible or interesting for journalists (keeping into account their time constraints, favorite formats, etc.), which reduced their appeal and impact. Finally, these interventions have placed too little attention on the needs of regional media platforms, those which require the greatest support.
Georgian journalists and journalism students, as well as the media industry, are certainly aware of the scant public interest in these topics. This lack of interest is also reflected in the formal education system, where journalism students have little to no chance to close their knowledge gaps on the green agenda. Ultimately, due to insufficient institutional support, a lack of demand, time scarcity, and low levels of motivation, most journalists never devote time to specializing in green economy issues. They are also reluctant to invest in closing their knowledge gaps, gaining additional information, or attending specific training courses on these topics, even when they – occasionally – become of greater public interest. Since we live in a realm of abundant information, journalists and media producers prefer to focus on issues that draw attention from the public and are far simpler to prepare. Thus, those media representatives and journalists who do broadcast or publish material concerning environmental and energy issues do so purely because of their personal interests and sense of social responsibility.
THE WAY AHEAD
The short answer to our initial question is ‘no’, the Georgian media is not yet up to the task of adequately contributing to the transition towards a greener Georgian economy. All our findings indicate that to close the information and awareness gap over the importance of energy transition – and more generally of the shift towards a green economy – journalists and the Georgian media sector as a whole need to step up their efforts. However, our analysis also indicates that, due to the complex nature of the problem, this will only be possible with the support of other key parts of society and international stakeholders.
The government, NGOs and CSOs, and even international donors potentially have a great role to play in helping the local media fulfill its – key – mission of increasing public knowledge and awareness of energy and environmental issues. One example of potentially beneficial interventions can be found from recent ISET-PI experience with journalists and students training in the green economy, sponsored by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The before and after assessment of trainees’ knowledge regarding green economy issues, designed to measure the impact of the course, showed an average improvement of almost 50% in trainee scores, suggesting that targeted training can indeed help to close existing knowledge gaps in this area. The main challenge, therefore, remains in being able to attract a large number of motivated participants.
Additionally, the most informed parts of society can also help the situation by requesting better coverage – in width and depth – of the green economy and energy transition issues.
Making the Georgian media a strong force for the green transition will not be simple, nor immediate. Nevertheless, with the help of key stakeholders and each of us, it can be done.