Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘SDGs’

The tyranny of the seemingly urgent: why the media neglects international development


George Monbiot – the environment commentator – wrote a recent cri de coeur on the failure of the media – by which I think he meant most mainstream outlets – to give sufficient coverage to climate change, despite the tumbling of global temperature records and accompanying floods and droughts that are hitting people all over the world.

He’s right of course.

It’s striking how little has been published or broadcast since last December’s United Nations Paris Climate summit agreed to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees.

Do editors think the pledges – and that’s all they were – made in Paris are the last word on climate change?

A recent conversation I had with a former colleague, and a respected environment journalist, suggests they may.

He lamented that he just couldn’t get climate stories on – even with the record temperatures and constant flow of natural disaster stories so-beloved of those same editors.

Surely giving climate change prominent coverage is in the public interest, I observed.

Unarguable you might think, whatever your views on the causes of rising global temperatures.

But then, it’s not just climate change where mainstream media journalists are failing the public.

There is also scant coverage of sustainable development.

As I wrote last year, when all UN member states came together in a historic agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals that aim to produce a fairer world which actually has a long-term future, there was barely a peep of interest.

And things haven’t changed since then.

The first high level meeting to review progress towards the SDGs a couple of weeks ago, where 22 countries reported what they have done and plan to do, was largely ignored by the media.

If you do an internet search you’ll find stories on specialist development blogs and a few niche business news sites, but little else.

The only mainstream media outlet I could find that published anything was The Guardian, which actually has a development sub-index on its website. Although, even that merits only a qualified welcome given the Guardian gets the Gates Foundation to subsidise this coverage, suggesting even the editors there still don’t see development as deserving of much coverage purely on its own merits.

So why are journalists largely ignoring sustainable development?

Well, partly it’s because they are subject to the tyranny of the urgent over the important – there always seems to be something more immediate they judge needs reporting.

But they also fail to see development as a story because they’re prone to what I’d call a tramline mentality. There are certain kinds of stories they’re used to covering – be it political rows, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or even changes in interest rates –  and they think they know how to cover them.

It means they stay in their comfort zone, but it’s a failure journalistic imagination.

How to break out of this compartmentalised thinking?

One way may be to create new indices on websites and in papers to encourage journalists to see the importance of sustainable development stories.

Many papers and news sites already have “environment” pages or indices – which is not just a way to help users navigate stories, but also, I’d argue, a reflection of how journalists categorise stories in their own minds.

So one suggestion I’ve heard – and will repeat here – is to rename those indices “people and planet”.This may help editors and reporters to think about environment and development, and their impact on people’s lives – the all-important human interest angle – as deeply entwined and interrelated.

Then there is the public interest argument.

What could be more important than the future of the planet we all depend on for our very existence?

Yet, many of the editors who respond to criticism of their coverage of the foibles – and worse – of politicians by citing the public interest (even when the scale of that coverage risks turning the public off) are the same ones who routinely ignore or underplay sustainable development.

If editors don’t see coverage of such existential matters as in the public interest, there is a more mundane, but perhaps more familiar, reason for covering the issue.

That old hoary chestnut “the way taxpayers’ money is spent”.

There has been a lot of media scrutiny over the past year in the UK of the foreign aid budget, including from outlets which, shall we say, are not well-known for their international coverage.

So there is already an appetite for covering development aid.

It’s also becoming clear that from now on much of that aid is going to be prioritised according to the commitments made in Sustainable Development Goals.

So, with a bit of joining up of the dots, there may be hope that editors, who up to now have had little interest in covering the SDGs and international development, could be persuaded that there are good reasons for changing their approach.

SDGs? What are those?

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.





The Pope and climate change – a pivotal intervention?

Pope Francis may not be infallible in many people’s eyes, but he is indefatigable when it comes to provoking debate on global issues that matter.

This week it has been climate change.

The Vatican has published the papal encyclical “Laudato Si” on the impact of human activity on the environment and especially the threat of climate change.

By doing so the Pope has got the world’s media talking about the single biggest challenge facing the human race – one that puts the crises in the Middle East or Ukraine in their proper context as serious geopolitical issues but not existential threats.

The letter sends a powerful message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics – as well as Francis’s 6.3 million followers on Twitter, not all of who will be of the same faith.

That message is simple: the world faces catastrophic climate change and we need to take urgent action to prevent further global warming.

The letter is perfectly timed to raise awareness of the issue and increase pressure on political leaders as governments prepare for two landmark global conferences later in the year.

In December, the next UN climate change summit takes place in Paris and the pressure is on to agree legally-binding limits to carbon emissions to prevent average global temperatures rising more by than 2 degrees Celsius – the level above which scientists agree climate change will have a disastrous effect.

Before that in September, world leaders will gather at the UN in New York to agree on new Sustainable Development Goals, which are intended to ensure the eradication of poverty through equitable economic development, but in a way that does not damage the environment.

Climate scientists and environmental activists have been sinking into despair at their seeming inability to get across to the world’s politicians and public the scale of the threat from climate change and the need to take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.

The message from the Pope should help raise their morale. Although, it calls for urgent action, it is clear from the encyclical the Pope believes there is still time to avert the worst effects of global warming and also – critically – that the solution lies in humanity’s hands.

So the Pope’s intervention in the climate change debate has come at a critical moment and will increase pressure on climate negotiators and their political masters to make the necessary compromises and commitments at the coming global summits to ensure action is taken to prevent catastrophic global warming.

It is no accident this Pope has gone further than his predecessors in raising the alarm about the impact of economic development on the environment. On his election by his fellow cardinals in 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, chose the name Francis to acknowledge the importance to him of St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology, who taught about the importance of the natural world and the need to respect it like a sister or mother.

In line with the social teachings of his namesake, Pope Francis is also alive to the need to ensure that when taking action to ensure the wellbeing of the environment, the impact does not fall disproportionately on the poor and he seems to be on the side of the developing countries which are pushing the richer, developed nations to make proportionately deeper cuts in carbon emissions and provide greater financial support to help poorer countries leapfrog to clean technologies as they develop.

The papal encyclical also notably bases its argument in the latest science on climate change demonstrating how religion and science can work hand in hand and need not be anathema to one another, as some atheists, like Richard Dawkins, argue.

It is doubtful the Pope’s intervention in the debate will prove decisive on its own, but it adds a powerful voice in favour of concerted action on climate change and should influence not only public opinion and governments, but also that other pivotal constituency – the people running carbon-emitting businesses.


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