“Can’t relate!”: The need for climate change news in a language South Africans understand

Language and culture are crucial to achieving great things. The Bible’s ‘Tower of Babel’ parable tells the story of humanity’s attempt to make a name for itself with a tower reaching the heavens. God responds by confounding people’s language, leading them to speak in different tongues and scatter across the Earth. At the end of the story the tower’s construction is halted and unfinished. The parable emphasises the need for humility, but also the importance of communication and unity in bringing about great change.

While the media coverage of climate change in South Africa is growing, it overlooks the need for climate change news to be inclusive. Climate change reporting must not only expand and cater to the country’s diverse linguistic landscape, but also talk to South Africans in a way that makes sense to them.

Inclusive reporting on climate change plays a key role in raising awareness and encouraging action. The climate crisis impacts different people in different ways, and by presenting the issues so they resonate with local communities, the media can foster a sense of collective responsibility and help boost adaptation. 

The current state of climate change reporting

South Africa’s media houses rely too heavily on events like conferences, climate disasters and the release of scientific papers in their reporting, according to a recent study by the Wits University Centre for Journalism and the Fojo Media Institute of Linnaeus University, Sweden. This approach creates the potential for day-to-day issues related to climate change, like ongoing mitigation and adaptation efforts, to go unreported.

The media also relies on stories from foreign news networks in its reporting, creating the impression among audiences that climate change is not a local concern. It has been well-established in media theory that when something is not reported on, it is viewed as less important. Reporting that lacks local or regional significance creates a psychological distance between audiences and climate change; they come to see it as a remote problem.

The need for localised reporting

To effectively address the climate crisis, it is essential for climate change reporting to be available in languages spoken by the majority of South Africans. The country has 12 official languages, with many citizens relying on local language stories for their daily news. Providing climate change information in diverse language media can help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public, making the issues more relatable and accessible to broader audiences.

Crucially, we have to be asking the everyday questions that matter: How does climate change impact the everyday person? What does it mean for the rural family that relies on their small garden for food? Or for the health of those living in informal settlements when the temperatures are rising as well as the cost of bread?

This year, the University of Cape Town released a synthesis report, ‘Climate change impacts in South Africa: What climate change means for a country and its people’, highlighting the climate crisis in South Africa and its cascading effect on people’s lives. The report is a good example of the kind of information and storytelling we need to see more of in the news. 

The research is there; we must start using it.