Transforming traditional journalism into sustainable journalism

  Lars Tallert explores the concept of ‘sustainable journalism’. He argues that a sustainable society requires a journalism that addresses the sustainability challenges. Furthermore, he argues that a sustainable future for journalism, as a practice and business, depends on its capability to do precisely that.  

Lars Tallert is Head of Policy and International Development, Fojo Media Institute at Linnaeus University. He is also Sweden’s representative to the UNESCO IPDC Intergovernmental Council. During more than thirty years he has been an advisor to governments, media companies, the UN, OECD/DAC and NGOs on issues related to development, communication and journalism. He is presently establishing the Sustainable Journalism Partnership to explore how journalism and sustainability can be interlinked.

Whenever you engage in journalistic activity, ask yourself: ”How does this affect sustainability?” If you do so, you are already on the threshold of practising sustainable journalism. 

The concept is obviously about journalism in relation to sustainable development, and departs from two contemporary sustainability crises:

The sustainability crisis of society related to climate change, democracy, poverty, inequality, armed conflicts.

The sustainability crisis of journalism related to decrease in revenues, capture of the media, disinformation, clickbait journalism, deteriorating trust in the media.

Sustainable journalism suggests that these crises are intrinsically intertwined. A sustainable society – economically, ecologically, and socially – requires a journalism that addresses the sustainability challenges facing society; and a sustainable future for journalism as a practice and business depends on its capability to do precisely that.

Sustainable journalism is concerned with how decisions, processes and activities will affect the possibilities for future generations – our children and grandchildren – allowing them to have the same possibilities as our generation.

In relation to sustainability, the mission for the individual journalist may seem simple: the public needs to know how their behaviour and decisions affect sustainability. The individual journalist is also expected to hold power to account, ensuring that the people in power stick to their commitments and make wise decisions related to sustainability.

But if we look at the bigger picture, transforming traditional journalism into sustainable journalism is challenging. 

It demands that we redefine the traditional logic of news reporting as a way to describe the status quo – typically focusing on the immediate and geographically close, and preoccupied with reporting on sudden, negative and sensational events. 

The concept also expands the traditional role of journalism in society. Journalism has long been seen as a lever for democracy. Sustainable journalism also regards journalism as a lever for sustainability, thereby expanding its potential function and importance in society. 

The concept of sustainable journalism was first coined by Ulrika Olausson, Peter Berglez and Mart Ots, professors at Jönköping University in Sweden. Thereafter it was explored by around 25 other international academic media researchers in the anthology What is Sustainable Journalism? Presently, a number of researchers and practitioners are exploring how sustainable journalism could be applied in practice, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa.

So is sustainable journalism something unheard of, something never experienced? Not at all. We see brilliant examples of sustainable journalism every day. But there is no explicit theory or method to actually identify what it is, what the demands are, and how we can foster more journalism to become sustainable. This is why we need to define and introduce the concept of sustainable journalism. By doing so, we will be able to categorise and label it – and from there, incorporate the concept in journalism education, training and content production.

When turning sustainable journalism into practice, we are inspired by several journalistic concepts: solutions-oriented, constructive, gender- and conflict-sensitive, global-local, entrepreneurial and ethical; as well as ‘unbreaking news’, developed by Rob Weinberg and his colleagues at De Correspondent, and the concept of ‘factfulness’, invented by the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling.

Sustainable journalism is obviously related to financial sustainability, but in this context it does not simply mean that media organisations should be able to make profit, regardless of what content they produce. What is needed is a broader view of media viability, one that looks beyond the money and focuses on quality journalism in combination with profitability. DWA has developed a model based on media viability that encapsulates exactly this approach, incorporating five dimensions related to financial sustainability — economics, politics, content, technology, and the community.

Someone may object: when there are so many different attempts to define new kinds of journalism, do we really need to introduce yet another one? 

The answer is yes. Because sustainable journalism is not an ad hoc concept. It relates to the two most important international treaties of our time, both relating to sustainability: Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement. The treaties include both global and national commitments, and they are realised through national initiatives as well at municipalities, private companies, civil society organisations and others, making them an ideal arena for journalistic watchdog coverage. 

While most media development organisations have focused on how journalism could be seen as part of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – and the answer is always SDG target 16.10 – sustainable journalism turns the tables, and asks: how can journalism make sure that our leaders keep their promises and deliver their undertakings, not only in relation to the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, but on anything related to sustainability? How can journalism inform the public and hold power to account when it comes to the most important challenges and the biggest story of our time – the well-being (and ultimately, the survival) of us as human beings? 

We know that human impact on climate change is not a matter of opinion; it is a fact. We know that time is limited; we need to fundamentally transform society, starting immediately. In 10 years, it will already be too late. We also know that practically all world leaders have made strong commitments to sustainability. And we know that a sustainable society – ecologically, socially and economically – requires a journalism that addresses precisely this.

Increasing drought and pollution and how it impacts on the world is a global environmental crisis. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

It shouldn’t be too difficult to make really good journalism based on this knowledge. Yet, while civil society organisations often do a good job holding power to account in relation to the SDGs, we rarely see journalism doing so – even if, as always, there are brilliant exceptions. Perhaps the logic of ‘breaking-news reporting’ is too occupied with sudden, sensational and negative events to be able to spot and report on the slow, long-term changes? 

Furthermore, the concept of sustainable journalism is based on one of the most important UN reports ever published: Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland report, inspired by the Stockholm Conference in 1972 that introduced environment concerns to the formal political development sphere. 

The report states that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It also establishes the three dimensions of sustainability: environmental, economic and social. It further claims that the many crises facing the planet are interlocking crises, meaning that they are elements of one single global crisis. Hence, there is a need for active participation and cooperation from all sectors of society, in all countries, to ensure a sustainable development.

The importance of the Brundtland report can hardly be overemphasised. More than 30 years after it was written, it constituted the basis for Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. And likewise, it was an invaluable source of inspiration when the Paris Agreement was prepared.

Having a dream

We live in a time of unprecedented challenges; but also, unprecedented possibilities. Perhaps the internet and social media demonstrate this better than anything else? We have all the knowledge in the world just one fingertip-click away. But this is also true for the endless flood of disinformation, hate speech, harassment and threats that sometimes threatens to drown us.

Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968) addresses a rally at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 14th October 1963. (Photo by Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Still, somehow the development agenda seems to be mostly concerned with analysing the problems. And the majority of civil society activists seem to be preoccupied with defining all the things they are against. There is a lot of talk about shrinking space for civil society and freedom of expression, about the crises for journalism, about polarisation, racism, ethnic divides, gender inequality, disinformation, democracy in decline, repression and harassment.

I agree with all of this. But do I want to be part of a movement that is only against? Martin Luther King didn’t say, “I have a nightmare.” He said, “I have a dream.” Perhaps it is time for the development community, civil society activists and journalists to also better define what it is we are for? As journalists, would it be possible to envisage a possible sustainable transformation of society, without deserting our obligation to the truth and our loyalty to the public? I think it is possible; and I believe there are many exciting ideas in the new generation that we need to explore!

Lastly, good journalism is by no means produced only by what is traditionally defined as the media industry. We see lots of content that meets the criteria for sustainable journalism in unexpected places: in academic institutions, in civil society organisations, within government watchdog institutions, on private companies’ websites, on professional influencers’ YouTube channels and on citizen journalists’ digital platforms. 

The concept of sustainable journalism has the potential to serve both as a point of departure and as a platform for exploring new possibilities, if we can establish a space – and not a shrinking space, but an expanding one – for collaboration, partnerships and coalitions to contribute to the public discourse in finding solutions to the great challenges of our time; that can hold power to account, and provide the public with the information they need to make informed, sustainable decisions. 

The pioneers of sustainable journalism are presently discussing how to establish such a space. We call it the Sustainable Journalism Partnership. We hope you will join us! 

Sustainable journalism in practice

This is an attempt to define an ideal practice of sustainable journalism. It is a work in progress; additional remarks are welcome. Hopefully, these bullet points will serve as inspiration if you wish to participate in the development of the concept.

The foundation is built on established ideals, where journalism:

The challenges of our time are to be the central focus

Besides these more traditional ideals, the sustainability challenges of our time put even higher demands on journalism; namely that it:

Transparency is a precondition for sustainable journalism

It is not just the content that determines whether journalism is sustainable or not; it is also the transparency of the company or organisation behind the publication.

Publishers should:

Production of news must be sustainable

The production process must comply with the demands of social, economic and environmental sustainability. This could be a very long list; but as conditions vary depending on the size and nature of the publishing unit, here are just some examples:

1 March 2021