MEDIA’S ROLE, RESPONSIBILITY IN COVERING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT ADDRESSED
DURING PANEL DISCUSSION IN JOHANNESBURG SUMMIT PREPARATORY COMMITTEE
Shashi Tharoor, DPI Interim Head, Moderates; Panel Includes Executives,
Journalists from South Africa, United States, United Kingdom, China, Brazil
The power of the media was its capacity to influence how people and politicians thought and acted, Shashi Tharoor, Interim Head of the Department of Public Information (DPI) said this afternoon, as he moderated a special panel discussion on “The Media and Sustainable Development”.
The panel was part of the second session of the Preparatory Committee for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held from 26 August to
4 September in Johannesburg, South Africa, and included senior broadcast executives and journalists from China, United States, Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Mr. Tharoor, in his opening statement, said there was no question that news executives had enormous impact on what and how the media covered world events. That, in turn, moulded the impressions and understanding of audiences, whether they were in a small village in the south of France, the teeming metropolis of Hong Kong, or a hacienda in Mexico. Thus, one of the issues for the panel would be how news executives saw their responsibility to promote sustainable development.
Mr. Tharoor added that he hoped the discussion would reveal what the media understood by sustainable development, what it was doing to cover the issue and what it considered its responsibility in that regard. The DPI had chosen to focus primarily on television, rather than radio or print media, because of its enormous influence.
Jim Laurie, Vice-President of News and Current Affairs for Star TV, Hong Kong, China, said he had hardly ever uttered the words "sustainable development", which had little meaning for ordinary people. Out of 60 magazine reports broadcast since January 2001, only about 10 per cent dealing with sustainable development were aired. However, several series on environmental issues were broadcast each week. The problem was getting around the language, breaking down the issues and giving them meaning for individuals.
The New York Bureau Chief, Globo TV, Brazil, Simone Duarte, said that there was more coverage of sustainable development in her country than in the United States, or other parts of the developed world. In Brazil, inserting environmental issues into soap operas had proven successful in raising public interest. She advocated using celebrities to promote the message of environment and sustainable development.
Snuki Zikalala, Executive Editor of News, South African Broadcasting Corporation, South Africa, said his network was trying to reduce subjects into language that people could understand. Also, it was trying to ensure that issues coming from other African countries focused on environmental dimensions, and not just poverty and conflict. Most of the time, development issues were not headliners. It was difficult to put sustainable development issues onto commercial television stations.
Tim Hirsch, Senior Environmental Correspondent, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), United Kingdom, said that it was difficult to reflect issues in an informative way. Doing so might sometimes be seen as being “preachy” in coverage. If something sounded too preachy, it would not get on the networks. There was a big problem with the phrase “sustainable development”. It had not entered the public conscience. While sustainable development was the buzzword after Rio, since then interest had declined.
In the ensuing discussion, participants explored why sustainable development was such a difficult sell, whether the media “dumbed down” the issues to the lowest common denominator, the need to make sustainable development relevant to average people and the effect of market pressures on programming decisions.
Snuki Zikalala, Executive Editor of News for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in Johannesburg. An award winning print and broadcast journalist, Mr. Zikalala is in charge of planning and commissioning all news stories for SABC radio and television with a combined staff of 380 correspondents. SABC News broadcasts to 19 radio news stations and four television channels, and produces 12 current affairs programmes in addition to its news. The SABC will be the host broadcaster for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, working with United Nations television to provide coverage to international broadcasters.
Mr. Zikalala is the focal point within SABC for the Summit.
Barbara Pyle is the former Corporate Vice-President of Environmental Policy for Turner Broadcasting in the United States, and CNN’s former Environmental Editor. Her many award-winning films include her series “People Count” on environmental and social issues; “Earth Matters”, CNN’s weekly environmental news programme that she created; her 1992 film “One Child, One Voice” that initiated a worldwide letter-writing campaign to heads of State in support of the Earth Summit; and “Captain Planet and the Planeteers”, the world’s first animated action adventure series making environmental issues accessible to children. In 1997, she was the first filmmaker to receive the prestigious United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Sasakawa Environmental Prize.
Tim Hirsch is the Senior Environmental Correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London. Mr. Hirsch, a former newspaper journalist, joined the BBC in 1986 working primarily as a political correspondent. In 1997, he became the environmental correspondent for the new digital channel News 24. He is currently one of the BBC’s principal environmental correspondents working mainly to radio and has been closely involved in BBC coverage of the climate change negotiations.
Jim Laurie is the Vice-President of News and Current Affairs for Star TV in Hong Kong, China. The Star Group, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, encompasses television, radio, the Internet and film production entities. Its television arm includes more than 25 satellite channels broadcasting across Asia and the Middle East in as many as seven languages, reaching a total audience in excess of
300 million households. Mr. Laurie oversees Star News, India’s first bilingual 24-hour all-news channel that was launched in 1998. India is Star’s biggest market, followed by China. Mr. Laurie is also Executive Producer of a Star News award-winning weekly one-hour TV magazine programme called “Focus Asia”, which is also broadcast in the United States and Australia. During his 30-year television career, his awards include a Peabody and three Emmys.
Simone Duarte is the New York Bureau Chief of Globo TV, the major network in Brazil and the largest TV broadcaster in Latin America. Ms. Duarte oversees the work of the 15-person New York Bureau, choosing the news stories to be fed to Brazil four times a day. Prior to her assignment in New York, she was foreign news editor in Rio de Janeiro for Globo TV’s primetime newscast “Jornal Nacional” with an estimated audience of 40 to 60 million viewers. In 1999, Ms. Duarte spent five months working for the United Nations in East Timor. She then produced a series on East Timor for Globonews –- Globo TV’s 24-hour News Channel.
Moderator’s Opening Statement
SHASHI THAROOR, Interim Head of the Department of Public Information (DPI), noted that today’s sustainable development agenda was vast, covering issues as diverse as ozone depletion, child labour, and socially responsible investing. Globalization was also now a part of the sustainable development equation. Sustainable development was a complex concept and, as a phrase, not very user-friendly. Today’s discussion hoped to find out what the media understood by sustainable development, what it was doing to cover the issue and what it considered its responsibility in that regard.
In organizing the discussion, he continued, the DPI had chosen to focus primarily on television, rather than radio or print media, because of its enormous influence. Also, television today crossed national borders, which posed the question of whether international television, therefore, had additional responsibilities. In addition, commercial television, with its plethora of advertising, promoted consumption patterns that contributed to what some considered an unsustainable pattern of living.
There was no question, he said, that news executives had enormous impact on what and how the media covered world events. That moulded the impressions and understanding of audiences whether they were in a small village in the south of France, the teeming metropolis of Hong Kong, or a hacienda in Mexico. The power of the media was its capacity to influence how people and politicians thought and acted. Thus, one of the issues to address would be how news executives saw their responsibility to promote sustainable development. Did they believe they had a responsibility to do so at all?
JIM LAURIE, Vice-President of News and Current Affairs for Star TV, Hong Kong, China, said he had hardly ever uttered the words "sustainable development", which had little meaning for ordinary people. Out of 60 magazine reports broadcast since January 2001, only about 10 per cent dealing with sustainable development were aired. However, several series on environmental issues were broadcast each week, especially on forestry issues in Indonesia, water in Bangladesh and others. The problem was getting around the language, breaking down the issues and giving them meaning for individuals.
BARBARA PYLE, former Corporate Vice-President of Environmental Policy for Turner Broadcasting in the United States, said she had used the term "sustainable development" at first because it was the language of the United Nations. But in the first three or four years, she had found that focusing on the issues was not working and had then begun to profile people who were immersed in the issues. The audience had become deeply involved with those people. The audience had to relate to the people they saw on television and care about them.
SIMONE DUARTE, New York Bureau Chief, Globo TV, Brazil, said that there was more coverage of sustainable development in her country than in the United States or other parts of the developed world. Primetime newscasts had sustainable development as one of its priorities, which was hardly the case with United States networks. The question was how to use the media to discuss issues such as sustainable development. In Brazil, one successful method was inserting environmental issues into soap operas. Another was having environmental campaigns. Both of those initiatives had received great responses from the public.
SNUKI ZIKALALA, Executive Editor of News, South African Broadcasting Corporation, South Africa, said it would be a challenge to cover such a huge event like the Summit. His network was trying to reduce subjects into language that people could understand. Also, it was trying to ensure that issues coming from other African countries focused on environmental dimensions, and not just poverty and conflict. Most of the time, development issues were not headliners. It was difficult to put sustainable development issues onto commercial television stations.
TIM HIRSCH, Senior Environmental Correspondent, British Broadcasting Corporation, United Kingdom, said that it was difficult to reflect issues in an informative way. Doing so might sometimes be seen as being “preachy” in coverage. If something sounded too preachy, it would not get on the networks. A challenge was to somehow insert those issues into other broadcasts. There was a big problem with the phrase “sustainable development”. It had not entered the public conscience. After Rio, sustainable development was the buzzword, but then interest declined. Perhaps one reason was that Rio had created hope and optimism that governments would put sustainable development into practice.
The thing to do was to take an aspect of sustainable development and pitch it in a practical way, he added. Those stories would sell. The problem was the vast concept of sustainable development and what was worrying was that it seemed to be growing all the time. What was Johannesburg about? There was a danger in pitching the concept so wide.
Mr. LAURIE added that sustainable development was not a single issue, but a group of 26 issues. It was important to look at the smallest unit of sustainable development and bring it down to the person on the street. It was important to deal with small stories, in a relevant way. That was the only way to sell such concepts.
Mr. THAROOR, noting the importance of the future of the Earth as a theme, asked how it lent itself to news stories. How did Mr. Zikalala react to the big event about to happen in his backyard?
Mr. ZIKALALA said there was no lack of human-interest stories in Johannesburg, including those on poverty eradication, job creation, disease and education. But, although they all involved aspects of sustainable development, he regarded them simply as development stories. They touched the lives of ordinary human beings.
Mr. HIRSCH agreed, but pointed out that the difficulty was relating those stories to what was going on in the Johannesburg Summit and how to include the huge number of issues under discussion.
Ms. PYLE said one could not make a film about one isolated sustainable development issue. But, if it was packaged in the right way, the audience would buy it.
Mr. THAROOR asked whether there was a concern about the "dumbing down" of complex issues.
Ms. DUARTE said there were ways to air the issues without dumbing them down. The difficulty was to get the issue into the headlines. In the United States, it had been difficult to find coverage of the economic crisis in Argentina, because everybody was tuned to the war against terrorism.
Mr. ZIKALALA added that sustainable development stories would usually get air time on quiet new days, but never on busy days.
As to how much television mattered in setting the global agenda, Mr. LAURIE said that television mattered very much. In the United States, the three old-fashioned networks were still the networks from which most Americans got their news. The highest rated programmes on the cable networks reached 2 million people. Those on the major networks still reached between 6 and 7 million. Television in India, for example, had taken off tremendously. In 1990, there was only the State-owned network, Doordarshan. Today, there were no less than seven channels dedicated to news and information.
The market also had to be considered, he added. CNN’s primary market was the United States market. There was intense competition between CNN, MSNBC and FOX cable network in dealing with the market. They had to deal with what sold. They had to programme to their audience in order to gain market shares. In Asia, environmental issues were extremely important and, therefore, given more priority.
Addressing the issue of whether the news “dumbed down” the issues to the lowest common denominator, Ms. PYLE wondered why television dumbed down the environmental issues when other issues, such as health, were not dumbed down. Eighty per cent of Americans got their information from television, which made her wonder just how much they knew. Why was the Summit going to produce yet another document and not focusing on implementation? How was the Summit going to excite the journalists when dealing with the same issues again?
Ms. PYLE said her films were truer now than they were when she first made them, owing to the increasing importance of educational policy.
Ms. DUARTE said nothing would be done if one gave up in the face of market-driven broadcasting. If one only aired topics that people knew about, one would be abdicating one's journalistic responsibility to educate people.
One had to take risks, she went on. Brazilians, like people in the United States, were not interested in international affairs, but when she had overcome her editors' resistance to a story on her visit to Afghanistan two years ago, the programme had attracted huge ratings, she added.
Questions and Comments
A participant, noting the broadcast and print media background of all the panellists and the absence of the new media, said people now sought information on their own and no longer relied on filtered 15-minutes news pieces, as in the 1990s. How would the DPI operation in Johannesburg differ from Rio de Janeiro in 1992? he asked.
Mr. THAROOR, while acknowledging the rapidly increasing importance of the new media, replied that the broadcast and print media still reached a far larger number of people than the new media. However, the Department’s own Web site had become a major Internet destination and had registered 1.3 billion hits last year.
Another participant, noting that conflict provided an immediate "hook" for news, asked what theme the SABC was using in view of the one employed by the host Government, which was dear to people's hearts -- "People, the Planet, Prosperity".
Mr. THAROOR drew attention to the “UN Works” page on the United Nations Web site, where success stories were posted.
Summing up, Ms. DUARTE said that governments had not done such a bad job delivering the message of sustainable development. Using celebrities was a good way to bring attention to the issues.
Ms. PYLE said it would be a tough sell in a difficult environment due to what was going on with Afghanistan. A start could be made with government television stations and information programmes.
Mr. LAURIE predicted that going to Johannesburg and doing a story about the Summit would be boring. What would be interesting would be to send television crews to locations around the world where projects were going on that related to the Summit. At the same time, that required money, which was a reality in the commercial industry. On any issue, good storytelling, good personalities and relevance to average people were what it was all about.
Mr. HIRSCH said that sustainable development issues were competing with such issues as wars and the economy. The more focused and tangible the agenda, the more likely that the Summit would get on the main news.
Mr. ZIKALALA said that heads of State shaking hands was not the story, nor were they good sound bite material. The story was, for example, how to ensure development and good governance in Africa.
Mr. THAROOR, in a closing statement, said the discussion had pointed to the extraordinary challenge of communicating information about sustainable development. The Department’s mandate was broadly based on media outreach, with a focus on the Secretary-General's report to the Summit and key issues before the Summit. Several newspapers were now showing interest in the issues and it was hoped that in-depth coverage would help educate the public at large and dispel the notion that the Summit was primarily about the environment.
He said the DPI had convened a coordination task force involving information staff of United Nations agencies. Last December, the General Assembly had agreed to allocate some funds for Department coverage of the Summit, which would include coverage by United Nations radio, United Nations television, as well as the publications Africa Recovery, and the UN Chronicle. In addition, the UN Works Web site would focus on human-interest success stories.