The world has come together at the UN General Assembly to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals – 17 of them in fact.
But if you rely on mainstream media you may have missed the news, given coverage – including by my former colleagues in the BBC – has been relatively limited despite coverage of the Pope’s speech.
The SDGs are a commitment by all 193 UN members to eradicate poverty by 2030 by meeting people’s economic, health, education and social needs while protecting the environment.
They are much broader and more ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals they replace. The 8 MDGs, not all of which were achieved, were aimed at ending extreme poverty but lacked the environmental focus – the sustainable bit.
The SDGs have been a few years in the making and you can understand why journalists – apart from some specialist correspondents – were not interested in the process of how they were drawn up and agreed upon.
But the Goals are designed to address some of the most important challenges facing humanity and now they have been officially adopted by all the UN member states which represent most of people on the planet, the media, with a few honourable exceptions, is failing in its responsibility to inform those same people what they are and what their leaders have committed to do.
The UN, some governments and activists are not waiting around for the penny to drop.
They are using social media to get the message out about the #GlobalGoals and there is an imaginative global campaign, Project Everyone, devised by a team led by filmmaker, Richard Curtis, involving schools, cinemas and, among other things, music festivals hosted by leading celebrities aimed at making sure people around the world are aware of the SDGs and inspired to support them.
While journalists have a duty to remain independent and retain the necessary perspective to report objectively, they should give stories about the Goals, and the campaign to promote them, the prominence they merit given what is at stake for the people who read, watch and listen to them.
As things stand, public awareness is pretty limited and there is clearly a job of informing to do. And while social media is essential in this, traditional media still has an important role to play.
So why hasn’t there been more prominent coverage?
One basic reason is that many journalists themselves aren’t sure what the SDGs are and so haven’t appreciated the significance of what has been agreed.
Then there is the scope of what the Goals encompass – there are 17 of them and 169 targets to be used to assess progress towards them.
Journalists like stories to fit into categories. That’s a business story, that’s a science story, etc. But the SDGs as a whole don’t fit neatly. They cover issues including health, education, environment, business and social policy and summarising them requires thought and care in a profession where the pressure of limited resources and tight deadlines means there is less and less time to do that thinking.
But this isn’t really an excuse.
Some years ago, for instance, when the BBC’s business reporting was subject to criticism, the corporation’s journalists were expected to bone up on the subject as part of an effort to address the shortcomings.
Media organisations – and journalists generally – should have been taking their professional duty more to heart and doing the same to improve their reporting of development and environment issues.
When a nameless veteran reporter is quoted as offering the excuse that SDG sounds too similar to STD, you know you have a problem.
Apart from doing their homework on the Goals, part of the solution to ensure better coverage could be for journalists to think more creatively about the categories they divide stories into.
Instead of pigeonholing stories as “Environment” or “Development”, it has been suggested to me they could, for instance, think in terms of stories that relate to “People and Planet”.
There is the not unreasonable expectation that the media make an effort to publicise the Goals and find ways to make them accessible to their audiences.
As the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning (yes I know it’s a mouthful), Amina Mohammed, told Reuters: “it’s not being handed to you on a platter”.
Over the coming weeks and years let’s hope journalists and editors rise to this challenge.
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