Veteran environmental journalist John Yeld was invited to share his story by SAFREA (Southern African Freelancer’s Association) in Cape Town on Thursday 28 January.
John Yeld’s first passion was photography and he started his career in media as a press photographer for the Cape Argus before moving to journalism in 1977. He was inspired by photojournalism such as the likes found in Life Magazine. His best assignments were human interest stories where he could produce picture essays. He even had a photograph published in the Annual World Press Phonebook in 1982. After a five year tenure as a news reporter the editor offered him the post as an environmental journalist.
John is said to have led the way in South African environmental reporting. It is story of a man who “made the environment ‘sexy'” according to Cape Argus journalist Vivien Horler. Since 1982 he has travelled to Antarctica six times, attended the Earth Summit in 1992 and the 2002 World Summit in Johannesburg, and even hiked Mount Kilimanjaro with the Working for Water group.
With twenty-two years of experience in the beat of environmental journalism before retiring in December 2014, John talks to us about the challenges and rewards of his field. He was part of being ‘green’ even before the word became the “currency of environmental issues”.
It is critical to be aware of the environment, he emphasises.
“People are not separate from the environment, but in fact depend on it entirely on the environment for their survival. It’s not about people versus nature,” states John.
“But people being part of nature.”
In fact, many of the environmental ‘crisis’ we face is as result of human activities and practises of over consumption threatening the environment. He uses this to contextualise the ‘shark’ and ‘baboon’ problem we face in the Cape. “The baboon problem is caused by people behaviour,” John shares. Sharks are also important in ocean ecology; and killing sharks will “come back to bite us”.
John also draws attention to the complexities of some articles, and refers specifically to the case of fracking in the Karoo. On one end of the scale, it provides economic benefits by decreasing its dependence on importing oil and it creates local job opportunities. Yet, on the other end there is ecological devastation in an already water scarce region which will increase poverty and threaten the necessary tourism. It is tough to write a well balanced story where all parties are acknowledged.
During the discussions of pursuing hydraulic fracturing in south Africa John was invited by oil giant Shell to visit the United States to examine fracking sites in action. This also enters a morally complex area, John reveals:
“Do you accept invitations to go to places? And does it make you beholden to the host and hence less critical of coverage?”
In terms of moving forward with journalism, John advises to avoid specialising in print journalism. “Newspapers will still be around for a while, but the multimedia world is important”. Additionally he imparts that the Promotion for Access to Information Act (PAIA) is essential arsenal in every journalists’ armoury. It allows for access to information and can even be followed up by taking the last step to the High Court.
Despite many challenges he reflects fondly on his tenure at the Cape Argus. “It was a career that gave me opportunities to see extraordinary events and extraordinary places, and to witness some extraordinary times. And I have met the most interesting and inspiring people,” John says. He concludes with a final piece of advice for future journalists:
“All journalists have the right and duty to stand up for journalistic integrity and against bullying of any kind, however difficult it may be.”
Video as courtesy of Jaco Wolmarans.