One of the key responsibilities of the media is to hold the powerful to account.
So who would ever think we’d see the day when major companies would be training journalists in the art of challenging the corporate sector on their social, environmental and governance performance?
That day has already arrived, as the more progressive members of the UN Global Compact (UNGC) in Turkey – who do not have strong political affiliations or significant media interests – recently organised a two-day conference for nearly 30 journalists from daily national newspapers, television and trade magazines. The aim is to build journalists’ knowledge about sustainability issues, ranging from climate change to biodiversity loss.
The Turkish network says it “has taken an important first step to help develop the capacity of the media in Turkey on what sustainability is, what it is not, how it’s different to CSR and, most importantly, why sustainability efforts based on a principles-based framework like the UNGC can play a vital role in the overall sustainable development of the nation”.
Of course, the companies are not doing this purely for altruistic reasons and readily admit that they want the media to report on their own sustainability activities, believing it will differentiate them in the marketplace.
What the Turkey event highlighted is how often the media globally is falling short of informing and educating society about the sustainability challenges we face.
While corporates, politicians and citizens and consumers are often criticised for failing to respond, the media must also share some of the blame.
But why is it falling down on the job?
Outside of developed western democracies, large businesses and political parties often own or control newspapers and television stations, and prevent them from challenging the status quo.
Turkey is a case in point. A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) showed the country has taken the top spot in the global list of the number of imprisoned journalists. The CPJ says this illustrates how “the Turkish government is engaging in a broad offensive to silence critical journalists through imprisonment, legal prosecution and official intimidation”.
Being critical is not easy, even before politics gets in the way. Most major newspapers in Turkey are controlled by private conglomerates and, on top of that, major advertisers expect their money will promote their goods and services, as well as keep critics quiet.
Journalists also struggle with long hours and often poor pay. As one journalist told me: “The government and its sanctions really tie our hands at times. But sometimes the problem is the private companies. They act like they have won the media through advertising. They actually feel proud of the fact they can play with us like a cat plays with a mouse.
“That’s not to say the media has no fault in that. Not just through advertisements, but part of the media has been bought via goods provided by the private companies. That is a hushed reality never spoken about, though everyone knows it.”
Turkish journalists are not the only ones in the developing world to be operating under dangerous conditions that make it difficult to expose a host of sustainability issues, ranging from corruption to poor corporate behaviour.
But what’s the excuse of media houses in Europe and the US? Many of these are also controlled by major businesses with a conservative outlook, but this does not explain the whole story, as writers tend to have a lot more room to operate than their counterparts in the developing world.
The west is locked into tradition
One explanation is that many journalists, like corporate executives, are locked into a traditional view of business and are failing to reframe their coverage.
While I was in America recently, there was a critical article on the GreenBiz website about the lack of coverage of sustainable business in the New York Times.
Matt Polsky, a senior fellow for sustainability innovation and multidisciplinary thought at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, wrote: ”On the general subject of sustainability … there is little or practically nothing on key developments in corporate social responsibility (businesses stepping up to do the right thing), business and non-profit partnerships, a few businesses starting to look at how much their prospects actually depend on ecosystems, alternative measurements to GNP, sustainable consumption, etc.
“But there are vital developments going on in the field of sustainability, including some that question conventional wisdoms, that NYT’s readers deserve to know about. But our field could stand more mainstream press coverage, don’t you think? Why should sustainable business, and what we do, still be such a secret?”
Part of the solution?
One of the reasons I work at the Guardian is because I believe we are different. In fact, we have more than 25 editorial staff specifically creating our core sustainability-related websites: environmentguardian, Guardian Sustainable Business, Global Development and the newly-launched Global Development Professionals network.
We are also committed to being sustainable as a company and have just published our 10th annual Living our Values report, which was the first in the sector to be independently audited.
The simple truth is that the media sector can be either part of the solution or part of the problem. At the moment, it is largely the latter, overwhelming us with tittle tattle and further embedding a culture of consumption.
What comes to mind is the image of the orchestra playing ragtime and waltzes as the Titanic started to sink.
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