'Reporting' on the World Water Forum to understand media coverage and gaps

Abigail Schade, ACS/Mellon Fellow in Environmental History
Davidson College, History and Environmental Studies
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In Spring Semester 2012, I asked students to "report" on an event happening on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean: the World Water Forum takes place once every 3 years, and attracts NGOs, private enterprise, and government officials in addition to activists and media.

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Learning Goals

The object of this assignment, and for the course as a whole, was for students to gain proficiency in an area of their own interest on the topic of Water and Development, and to gain confidence in their own critical assessment of media coverage (or lack thereof).

Context for Use

In-class exercise, small group work, course discussion, and use of web-based course materials. The various parts of this event-driven assignment required web-based, discussion-based, and written assignments over approximately 4 weeks. This activity was structured around a special event that takes place every 3 years: the triennial World Water Forum in Marseille, France, March 12-17 2012. (next forum will be held in South Korea, Spring 2015).

Description and Teaching Materials

Before Spring Break in early March 2012, students were assigned to write a paragraph to identify their individual "news beat" or water development issue they would follow, report on in class, and write about for the World Water Forum. This issue could be thematic, regional, conceptual, or discourse-oriented, or a combination of these approaches.

Students expressed frustration with the official event website; commented on lack of accessibility and poor web design; and the event's lack of transparency.

During course discussions, students articulated frustration and also found helpful information from critical activist bloggers and social media users who proclaimed an "alternative World Water Forum" inspired by the social justice activism of "Occupy Wall Street." In a sense, the students' frustration also served a purpose: to allow students to analyze and understand an international media landscape with serious gaps in adequate coverage of current events of significance to sustainability. As a class, we further discussed whether it would be a good exercise to arrange for a delegation of students to the next meeting of the World Water Forum in Daegu Gwangyeoksi, South Korea, during Spring Semester 2015.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students quickly encountered difficulty finding adequate news media coverage for this world-wide event dealing with persistent crises of water scarcity and water quality for those who need it most. During discussions after the World Water Forum, March 22, officially designated as World Water Day, we discussed whether special events, negotiations, or designated "World Water Day" were helpful or productive for the international goals of awareness and implementation of sustainability goals.


One of the goals of this Environmental Studies course, "Critical Studies in Water and Development" is to assess sources of information: NGO (non-governmental organization), activist, and multi-media presentations of environmental issues. Undergraduate students arrive in this course motivated to make a difference in their world, both locally and globally, and students are interested in topics related to sustainability. These students have a genuine intellectual commitment to pursue strategies of sustainability, but it is difficult to know where to start in a contradictory and chaotic media landscape.

Students expressed frustration but also came out of the activity with a level of group discussion, genuine analysis, and criticism that met the intention of the exercise.

References and Resources

6th World Water Forum - Marseille 2012. http://www.worldwatercouncil.org/en/marseille-2012

Paumgarten, Nick. "Magic Mountain: What Happens at Davos?" The New Yorker, March 5, 2012. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/03/05/magic-mountain .