Searching for Sustainability in Journalism

In the 21st century, the economy, practices, contents, and values in journalism have to be re-thought. Who will keep the watchdog itself accountable? Nordic scholars and educators are increasingly engaged in the work for the future of journalism, under the umbrella and key term “sustainability.”

Sustainable is today’s buzzword. Sustainable development, sustainable energy, sustainable consumption, sustainable traveling, sustainable workplaces, sustainable transportation, sustainable cities, sustainable food, sustainable agriculture, sustainable economy, sustainable lifestyle – and the list goes on.

Sustainability has several definitions depending on who is using the term. There is no shared understanding of what it means.

Perhaps the most universal definition is, Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. Commonly this refers to the human and natural ecosystems. In other words, sustainability is a balanced co-existence between human and nature.

It is literally a matter of existence. Human life is dependent on healthy ecosystems because they provide essential products and welfare. Food, energy, building materials, medicines, clean water, and air come from nature. Therefore, human activity must be sustainable in order to continue thriving in the future.

“Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. It is literally a matter of existence.”

In the 21st century, science has made it clear that human behavior is getting closer to planetary boundaries, with the risk of irreversible consequences. Since the beginning of industrialization, human activity – burning fossil fuels, converting land, using natural resources – has caused Earth’s climate to warm by 1.1 degrees. The current phase of animal extinctions has been compared to the previous five mass extinction events when most animals vanished in a short geological period. (Last time this happened was 145 million years ago, when a giant asteroid hit the Yucatan peninsula, sweeping 76 percent of all species, including dinosaurs, with it).

Rapid transition towards sustainability is the great challenge of humanity in the next few decades.

What is sustainability in journalism?

So, what could sustainability mean in the context of journalism? There are at least four different perspectives to debate on this.

Laura Ahva, an associate professor at Tampere University in Finland, says that traditionally the discourse around “sustainable journalism” has referred to economically viable ways of producing content in the new digital environment.

The need for sustainability emerged when the traditional business models of the media crumbled. In the Internet era, media has tried to adapt to a new landscape involving giant players such as Google and Facebook. More competition and fewer print media subscribers mean less advertising revenue.

Journalism has balanced between old and new forms of journalistic practice in order to find a new, economically sustainable business model.

Social and ethical responsibility

However, sustainable journalism can also point to content that aims to sustain its relevance by being socially and ethically responsible. It can be a way to stand out from more subjectively curated Internet content, such as blogs, social media, and businesses’ and institutions’ public relations.

Ahva is a founding member of the Nordic Forum for Social Responsibility in Journalism, a recently established collaboration between media researchers and journalists. Its objectives include building knowledge about the societal effects of different reporting methods and exploring ways to practice socially responsible journalism. Ahva’s research has focused on conciliatory journalism.

Socially responsible journalism tries to escape some unintended negative consequences of journalism, such as polarization, stigmatization, and unproportioned negative bias. How do journalists name people? Who gets their voice heard? How to engender dialogue around sensitive topics?

The discussion around these questions is not new, but new concepts have been invented as tools to address occurring dilemmas, for example, traditional media’s relationship to social media.

– Journalists often become involved in public controversies, which disturbs their ability to work. Another thing is that addressing issues through confrontation does not attract people to participate in public debate, Ahva says.

According to Ahva, sustainable ethics is one of the key questions for the future of journalism.

Ahva says that when user data became a significant tool for the media, journalists tended to overemphasize clicks. Nowadays, user data is more developed, and the number of clicks is not necessarily the most important metric. It’s also understood that web analytics tells nothing about people’s reading preferences in print media.

“Sustainable ethics is a key question for the future of journalism.”

According to Ahva, the audience might want to be shocked and amused by click journalism while, at the same time, they are interested in current political issues and more contextualized in-depth journalism.

– Journalism that actually leads to subscriptions is often other than easy entertainment-focused content. I believe there is some kind of turning point going on with this, but of course, both forms of journalism still exist at the same time.

Addressing abstract and faceless phenomena

Sustainable journalism may also refer to content that acknowledges the importance and multidimensional impacts of climate change.

Riikka Suominen, a freelance journalist and climate activist, believes it is positive that climate change is frequently discussed in the media. She says the problem is that climate change is still usually a separate issue, although it impacts everywhere and should be taken into account in every single article.

– Journalists should at least consider with every article they write, does this have something to do with climate change? What does the issue I reported look like in a world that is three degrees warmer?

It may sound odd that climate change should be taken into account everywhere, but Suominen says that is already the case with money. “How much does it cost?” and “Who pays for it?” are basic questions in all genres of journalism.

What makes abstract phenomena like climate change difficult for journalism is that the processes driving these global phenomena develop slowly and, therefore, the processes appear intangible and faceless. According to Suominen, this is why the climate activist Greta Thunberg has been an important figure for addressing climate in journalism. Suominen believes that failure to address climate change issues means a missed opportunity to be relevant to the public.

– According to scientists, climate change is the biggest change in our lifetime. It comes with an endless amount of questions, uncertainty, fears, and conflicts that need to be discussed, Suominen says.

Suominen expects that climate journalism will, over time, become more diverse and visible in different sections of newspapers. For now, she thinks that climate news often deals with emission reduction targets, technology, and the economy. Still, the drastic effects and psychological impact of climate change on people’s daily lives are very rarely in the limelight.

Sustainability of media practices

One apparent sustainability perspective that is almost completely forgotten is the sustainability of media practice itself. Although climate change is a popular topic in journalism, media companies don’t seem to be eager to bring up emissions related to its core business.

Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller point out in their article “Making Journalism Sustainable/Sustaining the Environmental Costs of Journalism” (2017) that news reporting, distribution, and consumption contribute to global warming and other environmental problems.

They analyzed the media’s historical environmental impact and noted that it is significant. Paper production has toppled forests, polluted waters, and caused huge amounts of unrecycled waste since the 14th century. More recently, smartphones and tablets have replaced some of the paper, but it is unclear how much articles read digitally pay back the planet for damage caused through manufacture, use, and disposal of the devices. Notably, the whole “life cycle” of an electronic device includes mining raw materials for components, energy-intensive production, recharging, and end-of-life toxic waste.

In sum, both paper-based and online media have significant environmental problems.

“They have been major polluters for a very long time without much critical attention being directed their way. That’s an odd indictment of a profession that prides itself on investigative zeal,” Maxwell and Miller write in the article.

Maxwell and Miller propose researching and developing green accounting in accordance with the UN System of Environmental Economic Accounting in order to put journalistic practices and businesses on the path towards ecological sustainability.

Yet, it is a difficult question to answer. What happens after accounting emissions? It is hard for the industry to imagine putting a cap on unbridled growth, competition, and some less important formats of journalism (perhaps infotainment, junk news, meat advertisement?) to save energy and reduce carbon emissions.

Maxwell and Miller recognize that these kinds of ideas are hard to sell to neoliberal advocates. 

“Who is going to be in charge of deciding how much is enough, which news outlets should be stunted, and what kinds of journalism should be encouraged?” they write.

Another question is the actors who finance commercial media. Riikka Suominen says that journalism has become aware of the urgency of climate change while going through a radical crisis of its very essence.

– It is controversial that media runs with an advertisement based on fossil fuels, animal industry, and consumption generally, Suominen says.

Only a few media outlets have recognized the controversy publicly. One exception is left- and environmental-oriented Swedish newspaper Dagens ETC, which announced it wouldn’t advertise fossil fuel-based goods and services in order to earn credibility. Editor-in-chief Andreas Gustavsson urged other media outlets to come to the same conclusion.

In fact, this year, The Guardian newspaper took a similar stance and blocked fossil fuel ads. The paper earns about 40 percent of its revenue from advertisement, and advertisement from fossil fuel companies is estimated to be worth about 550,000 euros.

Journalism itself is dependent on what happens elsewhere in society. The discussion about sustainability has only just begun.

Further Reading

  • Peter Berglez, Ulrika Olausson and Mart Ots (2017). What is sustainable journalism? Integrating the environmental, social, and economic challenges of journalism. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Photo: Skandinav