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  • Writer's pictureCielo Naara

Paving the way for Sustainable Journalism

A call for a more reflective and conscious practice


Keywords: sustainable journalism, sustainable development.


Cielo Naara Ríos Camacho




The role of journalists in sustainable development is twofold (Berglez et al., 2017). First, they are responsible for reporting on and researching the subject. Second, they are the ones capable of transforming the crises of their own sector into sustainable practices. The fragile business models in place, rising unemployment, the multiplication of information brokers, discursive dilemmas, and other challenges are some of the barriers the sector faces when building a practice that can be resilient over time (Berglez et al., 2017; Subervi et al., 2022). Considering the inescapable role of communication in development and that journalism faces crises, the expectations journalists are presumed to fulfill must be tangible and concrete. Sustainable journalism could offer some answers.


Sustainable Development Goals: stakeholders and limitations


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for transforming our world (General Assembly, 2015). The wide-ranging, interconnected, and cross-cutting goals pretend “to end poverty and inequality, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy health, justice, and prosperity” (World Health Organization, 2022). Such an ambitious aim requires the intersectional work of several stakeholders. Some stakeholders, social services, and social dynamics are established explicitly through the Goals´ targets and actions. Some examples are Goal 4 (Quality Education), which is directed toward learning experiences and its participants, and Goal 5 (Gender Equality), which covers some injustices committed against women on the base of gender. Nevertheless, certain players' roles in achieving the SDGs are unclear, including journalists'.


Media organizations and journalists are often associated with Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Social Institutions (Adjin-Tettey, 2021). This penultimate goal strives for “peaceful and inclusive societies, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (United Nations, 2023). Certainly, journalism has a role in this goal because the profession is dedicated to demanding effective accountability in search of continuous transparency. In addition, the social role of journalism could be described as being a tool to channel justice and as a historical record in the making, among other roles. However, there is a need to broaden the perspective of journalism’s role in the rest of the SDGs, among other reasons, because journalists are expected to inform, educate, and entertain (Adjin-Tettey, 2021). Berglez (2023) argues that; 


“Instead of obtaining the status of a goal in its own right, communication has been taken for granted as a practice which is embedded, but seldom explicitly mentioned or problematized in the selected seventeen SDGs, be they about solving gender inequality, war and conflicts, energy supply or the ever-more alarming water supply issue.”


The fluid relationship between journalism and sustainability


Before explaining sustainable journalism and its possible contributions to sustainability, or any world-transformation frameworks, it is important to disclose that all efforts in this direction are not necessarily directly based on, refer to, or are associated with the SDGs. The United Nations’ proposal is one of many interpretations of what sustainability should look like, and how stakeholders should participate in such a vision. Moreover, Berglez, et al. (2017) cites Mawhinney (2002) stating that sustainability “appears to be an over-used, misunderstood phrase”. Berglez, et al. (2017) goes over to describe the term as “the most debated, elusive, and ambiguous”. Therefore, every time one explores a sustainability approach, one should understand the underpinnings to acquire a full comprehension of its direction.


If journalism is said to have a relationship with sustainable development, it is not without responsibility as well as influence. Journalism, as the “first draft of history” (Barth, 1943, cited by Subervi et al., 2022), is in direct connection with the global crises that distinguish our time. Without doubt, climate change, political uprisings, genocides, impoverishment, and other descriptors of our contemporaneity are, somehow, influencing the narratives worked through the media. Perhaps they are not headlines as frequently as they should be, or not written as critically as needed, but they certainly shape the events newspapers and other outlets cover. 


One could also argue that those events shape the journalistic sense of those who write stories and influence their individual perspectives on affairs, as well as the practicality of their lives. Undoubtedly, in whichever scenario, “journalism has a central role in society when it comes to communicating to citizens about current sustainability events and issues; explaining why they are important, and clarifying what makes it legitimate (or not) to enact policies and legislation in the name of this or that SDG” (Tallert, 2021).


On the other hand, journalism also has its own sustainability challenges according to Berglez (2017) and Subervi et al. (2022). The dawn of the digital era shook its business model by allowing publicity to find spaces outside of newspapers. Ads could now be placed in other publications so newspapers needed new ways of financing their work. Shrinking advertising revenues progressively combined with collapsing share prices, falling news consumption, and rising unemployment are some of the factors that describe the current workforce state of traditional media. 


Today, newspapers have to compete with a wide array of information brokers, misinformation, disinformation, user-generated content, citizen journalism, and more. That is, the discovery, production, and distribution of information is not a centralized task private to a few, anymore. Contemporary contexts also instigate a discursive crisis regarding content and journalism’s role in democracy (Adjin-Tettey, 2021). 


Therefore, as agreed by Berglez (2017), Adjin-Tettey (2021), and Tallert (2021) journalism is at the intersection of 2 sustainability crises: one concerning society’s current affairs and another facing internal viability challenges of the industry


Sustainable journalism: introductory definitions

Sustainable journalism comes from the intersection of these two crises. This relatively new term, with diverse definitions as well, has come to reconcile these crises. Berglez takes the idea from the UN definition of sustainable development and defines it as “journalism that meets the information needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their journalistic information needs” (Berglez et al., 2017). On the other hand, Adjin-Tettey (2021) proposes 2 definitions. One looks at the journalism practice inwards, while the other establishes relationships with the outside world as distinguished below:

  1. Journalism as professional reflexivity: “Sustainable journalism is journalism that meets the information needs of the present without compromising the ability of a future generation of media workers to meet their information needs”.

  2. Journalism is connected to the external world and its challenges”: “Sustainable journalism is journalism that meets the information needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

It’s interesting how these three perspectives do not focus on financial aspects, given the intense consequences revenue generation has had on the landscape recently. However, it is still important to recognize how media revenue models practiced by media organizations should respond to sustainability. Even more, as you’re probably asking, how can sustainable journalism be practiced at all?


Tallert (2021) states that sustainable journalism has no methodology or theory that identifies it per se. However, that does not mean there have not been efforts towards concrete, practical applications of what we currently understand as sustainable journalism. For example, Berglez (2023) adapts the traditional news criteria to design parameters that guide the creation of sustainability-oriented news. From their part, Tallert (2021) proposes some ideals and demands expected from media companies, publishers, and journalists who aspire to practice sustainable journalism. Here, we will add to these reflections so that journalists in all stages can start or continue their assessment of sustainable journalism.


Practical reflections on sustainable journalism


The first consideration journalists must think about is what sustainability means to them individually, to the media company they work for, and in their country. As we previously established, international definitions are not the only interpretations. This is particularly critical for journalists in colonies, war zones, or other geographies that are systemically subjected to oppression. Some questions that could help address this are:


  • What are the most pressing issues we face? This question will help practitioners identify the urgencies in the contexts they live and/or cover and reflect on how they interact with each other.

  • Are the current conditions sustainable? Most probably not, therefore, the sustainability definition agreed on should acknowledge and reflect that.  

  • What does a sustainable future look like for us and others? This may appear as an academic question. However, this reflection allows participants to envision the realities they aspire to build and sets a standard from where to backtrack to the current present in order to understand the steps needed from the present onwards. This question also recognizes that sustainability can be different for diverse stakeholders and inspires practitioners to reflect on whether or how other visions will be part of the definition. Defining sustainable futures can help journalists identify possible stories, sources, and tools.

  • What power dynamics are intersecting in the current sustainability definition? Thinking about the hierarchies between people who are defining the term (or should be, but their opportunities are being limited) allows us to identify the inequalities at play when building our perspective on the term. 

  • What privileges and oppressions intersect on our views on sustainability? This reflection allows participants to look inward at their social, economic, cultural, and environmental resources in contrast to others and how those accesses impact their lives. 


Another consideration journalists should take into account is the circumstances of the media industry they work in. Some reflections could include:

  • What’s the ratio of beats? What are the subject priorities of your industry? To whom and what do they respond to?

  • How do the main subjects of coverage relate to the context’s urgencies? For example, if you cover an area with several environmental violations, does journalism prioritize that? 

  • What operational challenges does your context impose on your journalism practice? Think about barriers to accessing information, violence against journalists, weak business models, among others. Recognizing these challenges in the light of sustainability may help identify the challenges between the current coverage and the future imagined.


Lastly, journalists can reflect on their scope of action within their current circumstances. Whether working as freelance journalists, as part of a big media enterprise, or somewhere in between, journalists have opportunities of inspiring and doing change. Some reflections around that can include:

  • Do my sources represent the diversity of stakeholders of sustainability? This question brings the old questioning of “official” sources and challenges the idea that correct information can only come through government or corporate voices. Analyzing your sources periodically and identifying the power balance between them can be an insightful exercise that helps you understand the version of sustainability and development you are narrating through your pieces.

  • How can sustainability be integrated into my everyday beat? Of course, your media could have a section dedicated to sustainability. Regardless, the subject could be approached through every “traditional” subject. Think about sustainable enterprises, for example, or how businesses can report on their work towards this goal. Angles like these could be included in every day’s beat to help pave the way to sustainable journalism.

  • Can I relate my beat to a sustainability framework? Some journalistic traditions can be deeply insular. Establishing relationships with relevant outside referents can broaden the problem’s perspective, allow comparisons, and situate the matter in question within a bigger context.


These questions propose a macroanalysis, as well as a microanalysis, of the sociopolitical, cultural, and occupational contexts where journalists work. The reflections are introductory cerebrations on ethical and practical considerations journalists face everyday while building stories. They can be an initial guideline for reflecting on the challenges and opportunities for practicing sustainable journalism and should be developed further. 


Final thoughts


Sustainable journalism proposes several reflections regarding the content created and the operational traditions of the industry. Even though it represents a paradigm transformation, there are small, relatively accessible steps journalists can take to introduce sustainability as a priority in the agenda. It is imperative to emphasize journalists are not the only group responsible for fueling this transformation. Editors, managers, producers, photojournalists, marketers, and other members of the media also need to propel this agenda forward. Sustainability is not a responsibility of the few, but a calling for all. A step forward for the journalism industry should be to admit its responsibility on the subject and act upon it for a more relevant and practical job. 


References

Adjin-Tettey, T.D, Garman, A., Kruger, F., Olausson, U., Berglez, P., Tallert, L., Fritzon, V. (2021). Towards sustainable journalism in sub-Saharan Africa: Policy brief. Sweden: Fojo Media Institute.


Berglez, P., Olausson, U. & Ots, M. (2017), What is sustainable journalism? An Introduction. in P. Berglez, U. Olausson, & M. Ots (eds.), What is Sustainable Journalism? Integrating the environmental, social, and economic challenges of journalism (pp. xi-xxvi) New York: Peter Lang


Berglez, P. (2023). Ten News Value Criteria for Sustainable Journalism. Journal of Applied Journalism & Media Studies. https://doi.org/10.1386/ajms_00105_1


General Assembly resolution 70/1, Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, A/RES/70/1 (2015), available from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf


Subervi Vélez, F., Rodríguez Cotto, S., & Lugo Ocando, J. (2022). Para entender los medios de comunicación en Puerto Rico: periodismo en entornos coloniales y en tiempos de crisis. Ediciones Filos.


Tallert, L. (2021, March 1). Transforming traditional journalism into sustainable journalism - People Power Truth. People Power Truth. https://peoplepowertruth.com/transforming-traditional-journalism-into-sustainable-journalism/


United Nations. (2023). Peace, justice and strong institutions - united nations sustainable development. United Nations Sustainable Development. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/peace-justice/


World Health Organization. (2022). Sustainable Development Goals. https://www.who.int/europe/about-us/our-work/sustainable-development-goals




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