Turning the spotlight on sustainable development

A unified approach is needed for reporting on sustainable development

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All members of the media must work together to ensure sustainable development is given the attention it deserves.

The Brundtland report, published 20 years ago this month and named after Gro Harlem Brundtland, was the first report authored by a UN-appointed expert commission to make broad links between environmental, social and economic concerns.

It was the outcome of over three years of consultations and deliberations by experts, activists, government officials, industrialists and citizens from across the world.

But it is perhaps best remembered for introducing the concept of sustainable development to a mass audience. The report defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

In doing so, it helped the environmental movement evolve from simple pollution-preventing, tree-hugging and whale-saving action to a much broader developmental agenda — one integrating issues such as poverty, international trade, peace and security into a single framework.

But, equally importantly, it inspired a generation of young journalists, educators and activists to take up the challenge of advocating new thinking and behaviour in communities, businesses and governments.

Bridging the gap

Our understanding of the ecological, societal and cultural dimensions of sustainable development has increased since Brundtland. ‘Agenda 21’ — the 1992 Earth Summit’s principal legacy — covered topics ranging from the traditional ‘green’ and ‘brown’ environmental issues to mainstream economics, trade, social justice, scientific research and even international relations.

But we still face a vast gap between knowledge and action. By reporting on issues and inspiring public discussion around them, journalists can help narrow this gap.

In doing so, they can sustain Brundtland’s momentum and help build sustainable societies everywhere.

There has been a steady supply of expert commissions in recent years, but few have had the seminal influence of Brundtland. The UN’s standing commission on sustainable development debates issues to exhaustion — but often at the cost of timely action.

And the spread of new information and communication technologies since the 1990s has only accelerated intergovernmental babble and led to endless studies, reports and strategies.

Research, reflection and debate are all necessary in our quest to live within our planet’s means. But scientists, diplomats and politicians alone cannot change the status quo — it requires public understanding and participation at every level.

Given their ongoing dialogue with multiple audiences, journalists are well equipped to inspire such public support. They can both inform and engage the public in the debate on how to achieve sustainable development.

But we cannot rely on environmental journalists alone to do this.

Indeed, the growth of environmental journalism, with its cheer-leading green activism (allowed in moderation) and occasional fear-mongering (not recommended), risks ghettoising environmental issues within media organisations.

A unified approach

This is not to argue against specialist journalists covering the environment or other development sectors, such as health, gender or human rights. As issues become more complicated, journalists need to have enough background knowledge and ongoing interest in a field to do their job well.

But environmental journalists can, at best, only weave part of the multi-faceted tapestry of sustainable development. Grasping the bigger picture, and communicating it well, requires the active participation of the entire media industry — from reporters, producers and feature writers to editors, managers and media owners.

Climate change — rapidly emerging as today’s charismatic mega-issue — could provide the means for unifying media and communication industries for this purpose.

Already, there is recognition of climate change’s far-reaching impacts. Echoing the United Kingdom’s Stern Review on the economics of climate change, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is pushing for climate change to be ‘rebranded’ as a development, rather than an environmental, problem.

In this scenario, we urgently need more good journalism that covers sustainable development as an integral part of mainstream human affairs.

So it’s time to go back to the first principles of journalism, often overlooked or compromised in today’s highly competitive and fast-paced media world.

Journalists — environmental or not — must be rigorous in their fact-checking and field investigations. They must provide balanced analysis of issues, impacts, choices and alternatives. They must also be committed to sticking with unfolding and evolving stories.

Finally, they must remain open to new perspectives and knowledge — questioning conventional wisdom, challenging established notions, and even taking unfashionable positions when the need arises.

Nalaka Gunawardene
Chief Executive Officer, TVE Asia Pacific and SciDev.Net trustee