Public-interest journalism on a post-abundance planet

“Saving our planet is now a communications challenge” (Attenborough, 2020, np).

Environmental sustainability is a multi-discipline (Stock and Burton, 2011), systems-level (Robertson, 2014) concept, related ultimately to the survival of our species on the planet we call home. 

Though managing environmental impact may be considered ‘business as usual’ for organisations generally, including those operating in news media, news that the Guardian, and now Sky, are planning to be ‘net zero carbon’ by 2030 (see: Guardian, 2019; Sky, 2020), suggests a new answer for questions of environmental sustainability for this industry, and business at large, echoing targets being set by growing numbers of policymakers.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “which may turn out to be one of the most important organizations in the planet’s history” (McKibben, 2011), the world had just 12, now 10, years to act (ibid.) on climate change. And yet, no one international organisation has ultimate control over global environmental efforts (Butler, 2020), and, climate change represents just one of nine “planetary boundaries” (Rockstrom et al, 2009) with the potential to be breached, of many other environmental harms that are of concern. 

Now is, therefore, an ideal opportunity to understand why and how news media organisations are planning to help save the planet from “long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems” (IPCC, 2018) already linked to “human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide” (ibid., PAGE), now focused on this effort to become ‘net zero’.

The aim of this research is to understand how news media organisations define and measure their environmental impact, and how this changes what they do, ultimately with a view to exploring whether key media values (Roberts, 2012) and practices need to be updated to take the environmental impact, and future sustainability of editorial, commercial and technological decisions, into account. 

Is environmental sustainability, and addressing climate change more specifically, simply a communication challenge, as internationally recognised broadcaster David Attenborough claimed upon his arrival on Instagram in 2020? How, then, are news media organisations prepared to meet this challenge? Or, does it remain more complicated than that? 

This research will examine how feasible true ‘environmental sustainability’ is, given the challenges with defining the boundary of responsibility for the environment and the relative, often unclear, merits of different approaches to achieving it. 

The ‘post-abundance planet’ in the project title is not a concept that has been written about elsewhere. Yet, ‘post abundance’, seems to accurately capture the moment we are in as we, in the West particularly, face the realities of dealing with our longstanding, huge and varied human impacts on the place we call home, too late, by some estimations.

This research is supported by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and as such has access to national newspaper associations, news agencies, regional press organisations and individual newspapers, as well as a clear pathway to impact for the recommendations that are an intended aim of this work.

PhD Candidate: Kirsty Styles

Partners: World Association of News Publishers / Global Alliance for Media Innovation

Funder: Global Allicance for Media Innovation

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