A comparative analysis of coal and renewable energy coverage across the five countries in this study yielded some interesting similarities and differences that will be further explored in this section.
We will first discuss the three prominent thematic trends seen in reporting, and then move on to examine two trends in journalistic practices, before ending by discussing significant outliers and best practices observed.
Each of the countries in our study—the five “tiger cub” countries of Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines—has a unique media landscape with different challenges and opportunities for energy reporting.
Trends in Energy Framing
The portrayal of coal in media closely approximates the country’s coal dependency
Though Southeast Asia is often monolithically framed as the region where “coal is still king,” there are significant differences in how each country uses this fossil fuel, as well as how civil society reacts to coal development. All these elements affect how coal policy discourse plays out in national media.
Looking specifically at coal reporting in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand, it is striking how much the media’s framing of coal depends on how reliant a country is on this energy type.
Table 1. compares the number of articles framing coal positively as a percentage of total coal articles versus how much coal contributes to national energy capacity as a percentage of the total energy mix.
For three of the countries examined, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, the difference between positive frames per total coal article sample and coal capacity per total energy capacity fell within 1 to 2 percentage points. Given the margin of error associated with our small article sample size, the only significant outlier was the Philippines, with a 10-percentage-point difference between the two.
Even though the Philippines is just as reliant on coal as Malaysia, 88 of 133 coal articles in the Philippines framed the fossil fuel negatively, while only 46 of 113 articles in Malaysia did so.
Aside from possible sampling biases, a few factors can account for the Philippines’ disproportionately negative portrayal of coal. The Philippines has consistently placed within the world’s five most-climate-vulnerable countries, with ever more intense and erratic typhoons forcing the government and media to be more receptive to an energy transition, at least in rhetoric. Furthermore, the Philippines’ Roman Catholic Church, which claims 86 percent of the population as followers, is a formidable institution that has spoken up against coal and been extensively quoted by the press. And although the Philippines is one of the deadliest countries in 20
Asia for environmental activists, it is also a place where grassroots environmental movements are particularly strong. As previously mentioned, prominent energy activists such as Gerry Arances from the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development were quoted in more than half of all articles that criticized coal.
Renewable energy overwhelmingly framed as a lucrative investment
While the tiger cubs’ media outlets disagreed on how large role coal will play in their countries’ futures, one thing was clear: they were overwhelmingly optimistic about renewable energy’s growth. Solar, in particular, generated much excitement, as seen in the fact that positive articles about it outnumbered those about coal in all countries analyzed except for Indonesia, where the two were equal.
Additionally, for four of the five countries, positive frames made up more than 75 percent of total stories about non-hydro renewables (solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal).
The outlier was Vietnam, where only 65 percent of non-hydro renewable stories portrayed these technologies positively. Vietnam doesn’t lag in terms of renewable energy development.
However; in fact, the country is a definitive regional leader with 4.5GW of installed solar capacity or more than that of the whole ASEAN region combined. It is not that more articles in Vietnam framed renewables negatively compared to other tiger cub countries; more articles displayed a neutral, cautious tone, which acknowledged Vietnam’s renewable potential while highlighting challenges encountered in its development. Common difficulties discussed were unclear regulations, lack of transmission lines, and a tight FiT deadline. Vietnam’s media have been following the solar development story since the first FiT scheme in 2017 led to a massive investment boom; articles went into detail about the minutiae of solar technologies and policy challenges for a mainstream audience. This corresponded with comparatively high solar energy literacy among journalists as well as the average reader.
In other words, with the “solar experiment” well underway, journalists in Vietnam prioritized analyzing the remaining barriers to further growth rather than simply promoting solar power or renewable energy as an abstract concept.
In Indonesia, meanwhile, where neither solar nor any other renewable energy technology has been installed in significant numbers, 96 percent of renewable energy articles adopted a positive frame.
However, nearly half of these stories discussed renewable energy in the abstract without providing any specific policy analysis or recommendation. Journalists here viewed renewable technologies as difficult to understand and write about in-depth.
Indonesia’s Kompas editor Erlangga Djumena described the situation, saying renewable energy “has limited sources [for journalists to cite/interview] because it is still rare…plus the sources are too technical. Not only the readers, but the journalists are also sometimes confused.”
Because of this lack of understanding, it was difficult for journalists to dive deeper into any specific renewable energy source.
Not all renewables are treated alike
When analyzing the articles that do dive into specific renewable energy technologies, it was clear that not all renewables were treated alike by the media. In all countries analyzed, solar received the most coverage as renewable energy with high potential for future growth; this was true even in the Philippines, where geothermal contributes 67 more megawatts to the total energy capacity.
In contrast to solar, other renewable energy forms—notably wind, geothermal, and biomass—received relatively little attention from media outlets across the region except for Thailand, where the government recently implemented more-aggressive biomass development programs through the Energy for All initiative, which attracted positive and negative coverage.
In Indonesia, biofuel turned out to be a close contender to solar in terms of frequency of coverage, as 20% of Indonesia’s energy articles focused on solar while 17% focused on biofuel.
Unlike Thailand’s Energy for All initiative, Indonesia’s B-20 biodiesel mandate received overwhelmingly positive coverage, despite its potential environmental risks.
Meanwhile, despite being a renewable energy source, hydropower was not regarded as such during our time frame of interest, especially in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, where it was blamed for multiple environmental and ecological issues downstream of major dams.
As reporter Trung Chanh in Vietnam explained, hydropower is not considered in the same category as solar and wind because “although hydro dams don’t cause pollution similarly to the way coal plants do, they destroy biodiversity, alter fish populations and sediment levels in water sources.”
To conclude, news outlets across the five Southeast Asian countries examined portrayed renewable energy, especially solar, as a lucrative investment for energy producers as well as consumers looking to benefit from new, fast-developing technology.
However, lacking were in-depth analyses of the role renewables can play in the future energy mix as more than an additive to fossil fuels. Roughly a fifth of the sampled articles about renewable energy in Vietnam started to broach bigger-picture issues such as redesigning the energy grid and energy market to accommodate renewable growth, though this type of farming was limited to solar energy.
Hydropower was often not regarded as renewable energy, while wind, geothermal, and biomass generally did not attract much coverage.
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