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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Transforming big media’s performance on sustainability

NOTE: This is my latest Blog for WME's Business Environment Network (see links below) and is reproduced here with an extra 'personal footnote'. 

Opinion polls are warning that a price on carbon pollution is political poison, renewable energy is under assault, life-saving environmental flows for the Murray-Darling are evaporating and biodiversity is disappearing. So are sustainability advocates losing the communications war, asks Murray Hogarth.

Progress, or is it?

Big environmental sustainability issues for Australia and the world are getting unprecedented attention in the political and public discourse of the nation. Climate change, a price on carbon, water challenges, renewable energy, coal seam gas and coal industry expansion, a fair rate of tax on mining and other resource extraction, public transport deficiencies, species crises, and more are in the news most days.

So isn’t that progress? Aren’t the issues that sustainability advocates care about now on the agenda, getting headlines, being debated, causing political mayhem, stirring public passions? Wasn’t that the whole idea of decades of activism to raise awareness about the awful reality of humans pursuing endless economic and population growth inside a finite ecological system?

Yes, but. There’s a problem. To borrow a football analogy, it looks like sustainability advocates are often dominating possession but failing to score. It’s not enough to elevate your issues, at least not if the media itself, and the business and political realms that still dominate in its coverage, haven’t themselves changed at a more fundamental level.

Sustainability 'meta-narrative'

In my view, media coverage of sustainability has barely progressed in over a decade. If that’s right, why does this paralysis persist in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of the sustainability crisis ‘meta-narrative’ for people on the planet? Individual journalists aren’t to blame. However good they are, they can’t effect the change required here. It has to be systemic, and the media must accept a role to lead society not merely reflect its confusion.

Look at this from a corporate perspective. The emerging, logical approach for reporting by businesses is now to integrate all of the important information about an enterprise’s policies, plans and performance – across financial, governance, social and environmental dimensions – into a single annual report, quarterly updates, and also into continuous reporting via the Internet. The point is to make, and to communicate sustainability as being integral to the business, not a satellite concern held at the margins by more exotic, segregated reporting.

Change the business pages

This structural evolution also is required from big media if sustainability is to win consistently in the communications war, as I for one believe it should and must. The business section of any newspaper is a great place to start the restructuring, with the first steps to include:
  •          Accepting overtly that the science of climate change is solid and has major economic and financial consequences that can be articulated, tracked, tested and reported on, including in terms of how they relate in value-at-stake terms to individual stocks and economies, and also sectors and markets as a whole.
  •          Innovating to produce and promote new metrics and indices that can track and compare performance on diverse relevant areas such as quality of life, happiness, ecological integrity and biodiversity protection, climate change impacts, major resource reserves and reliability, rural productivity and production trends, water resilience, employee participation, and much more.
  •         Adopting a relentless journalistic rigor in questioning and editorially challenging corporations, governments and oppositions, community organisations and all of the other players that make up our economy and our society to show what they are doing to identify, manage and reduce or eliminate any social, environmental and economic harm they are doing, and also to create positive outcomes through their processes, policies, products and people.     

The real power to influence

This is completely different territory than a media group like News Limited doing its credible 1 Degree program to achieve carbon neutrality, or Fairfax Media’s good internal sustainability focus and foundation support for Earth Hour with WWF Australia, or a greener ABC. It’s great that media organisations just like any other businesses run their operations more cleanly and efficiently, and also support good causes, but their real power to influence for good lies in what they report and how they report it.

The defining sustainability challenge for the whole sprawling mass communications sector is to help redefine how the economy and society are described, measured and reported on. That’s what real change looks like. And who knows, getting this right might make a difference to the financial sustainability challenges now confronting big media, especially our newspapers. Otherwise, a myriad of minor and social media will fill the void, as they are doing already.

*Murray Hogarth is a business environmentalist, Principal of consultancy the 3rd degree and a former Environment Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He also is Senior Adviser to Green Capital, the corporate sustainability arm of the Total Environment Centre, where he currently is working on a November event series, Media, Marketing & the Green Message: Are we losing the sustainability communications war? The opinions expressed here are Murray’s alone

My personal footnote

Recently I’ve been working on a book covering the first 25 years of the Environmental Defenders Office of NSW, often known simply as the EDO, Australia’s pioneering public interest environmental law centre. The book is not finished yet, but the emerging manuscript has some relevant touch points for this discussion. In the words of one of the EDO’s founding figures, Emeritus Professor Ben Boer of the University of Sydney, the mission is to achieve a future where the laws of man conform to the laws of nature. Another of the EDO’s founders, retired Federal Court Justice Murray Wilcox AO, makes a great point when he says legal battles alone will never deliver real transformation towards a truly sustainable society, where environmental protection can trump economic growth as a matter of common agreement: ‘In the end that is the only guarantee. If you get to the point where no government would dream of doing something that is your best hope.’

A dozen years ago, as the then Environment Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, I began a personally painful process of ending my 20-plus years career in print and TV. Convinced that old-style environmental journalism populated mainly with nature conservation and pollution outrage stories was approaching its use-by-date, I mounted a quixotic little campaign to have my paper break new ground by elevating sustainability to the reporting mainstream, especially in the business pages.

I argued that market research showed that around 70 percent of the Herald’s readership was environmentally aware and concerned. That just as the paper had led the way in Australian journalism with the appointment of the first designated environmental writer in the 1970s, the fondly remembered Joseph Glascott, it should do so again by establishing sustainability reporting as part of its business section. Less constructively, perhaps, I insisted that as a solo environment reporter I was pitted against a whole business section with dozens of people writing the development at any cost view of the world. And I asked, where was the journalistic balance in that?

I got nowhere then, and left journalism for a whole bunch of reasons to find my way into sustainability consulting as a new career. Now, these 12 years later, the Herald has a sustainability-focused column in its weekend business section, written by Ethical Investor magazine founder Paddy Manning, and it still has an Environment Editor, Ben Cubby. Paddy and Ben are both excellent, hardworking journalists who cover many important issues, as are many of their counterparts at other media outlets. Furthermore, over recent years other business and environmental journalists writing in the Herald and its sister paper The Age in Melbourne have produced wonderful, awarding-winning reports on crucial issues ranging from climate impacts, to carbon trading chicanery, to greenwash, to toxic pollution.

It’s none of their faults that media coverage of sustainability has barely progressed in over a decade. Along with the ABC (with the possible exception of still paying too much attention to climate deniers), the Fairfax Media stable is as good as we get from the mainstream media in Australia. Yet even there the same general structures continue, and there’s no real recognition of how profound the sustainability challenge really is, nor how urgent, nor how transformative it needs to be for everything. I see now that I was hopelessly naïve back in 1999 thinking a new business sustainability reporter’s position might make a real difference, because that’s just the start.

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