While there can be no doubt that the modern information society does much to strenghthen the global sustainability movement, the mass media‘s shifting focus can also lead to serious problems when it comes to promoting those sustainability topics which do not make for interesting headlines and draw very little mediatic repercussion. In this context, one can distinguish several different problematic scenarios, to each of which I will devote a short passage of this essay.
The most striking and easy to spot is the vanishing of sustainabilty topics off the mediatic agenda in the face of „big news“ catastrophes. The latest example being the environmental tragedy in Brasil when the Samarco dam in the brasilian province of Minas Gerais broke, emptying out 55 million cubic meters of waste from Samarco and Vale’s nearby iron-ore mines, swallowing entire communities and polluting hundreds of miles of waterways, a desaster which initially was a no-show in national and international media due to the Paris terrorists attacks a couple of days later.
Another scenario is that of a sort of competition of sustainability topics in the media, where there is simply not enough space for all relevant topics. This can in turn lead to competition between experts intending to get „their topic“ on the mediatic agenda, a situation which does not prove very fruitful for interdisciplinary approaches.
It also leads to an often one-dimensional approach - suited to media-needs rather than reality - in explaining the issues, which in turn can influence public opinion in ways not always favourable to long-term sustainability politics.
The third, and no doubt most common scenario, though, is that many aspects of sustainability politics are either too complex or to „boring“ to cover them and thus they do not exist, mediatically speaking. In a media-based society, this can result in many difficulties for the people involved in these topics. When it comes to raising funds, it is hard to claim urgency if no-one ever heard about the problem. When it comes to agenda setting the same problem applies. Sustainability politics should therefore always also be PR- politics and much care has to be taken not to sacrifice one important topic for the sake of another one but rather to get everything on the agenda which needs to be there.
Also, one should not disregard the question of what can be said an what constitutes a taboo. The current system being capitalistic means for instance that the topic of degrowth is a sustainability issue which will not easily be endorsed by widespread political, civil and mediatic support, while other topics, which fit better into the capitalistic mold, are much easier talked about.
Lastly, I will discuss shortly the possible ups and downs of internet-based activism. While there is no denying its power, one can detect the general problem of activistic over- exposure looking at any one of the NGOs operating on the www.
Scenario 1: The rule of the worst news
In the world of news agencies, bad news is, of course, good news. Concerning sustainability, this leads to two different conclusions: Any catastrophe will blot out more subtle themes. If the catastrophe is in some way related to sustainability politics, the huge mediatic repercussion will often help propell things forward at astonishing speed, as has happened in Germany after Fukushima. If, however, the current catastrophe is not related to such a topic, chances are the media space for sustainability related issues will diminish for the time being. As mentioned in the introduction, this was the case when the Samarco dam broke in Brasil on November 5 2015, just eight days before the terrorist attacks on Paris (13.11.2016). Depending on the magnitude of the catastrophe in question, it can be hard to get other topics back on the agenda, thus possibly hampering progress in sustainability politics which may have depended on some mediatic help. This could be observed after the September 11th 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, which blotted out virtually all other themes for a long time.
It is also important to distinguish between environmental catastrophes, which, being bad news, make for good news, and more in depth coverage of everyday sustainability related topics: As one of the main characteristics of sustainability politics is their focus on long- term results, a certain acute boredom often goes along with the territory. Progress is often slow and not easyly conveyable to the general public. You‘re not going to sell many issues of your newspaper covering the latest in participatory methods concerning the European Water Framework Directive. Even though of course everyone should be concerned about the quality of their drinking water.
Here, obviously, advanced PR-work is required in order to create good news. Though difficult, success is not entirely impossible. For example, the Generalitat of Catalunya launched a media campaign in 2012 concerning the recycling of plastic bottles. A large amount of effort (and money) went into the campaign1, which in turn did receive widespread attention among the general public, even prompting popular culture to play with the slogan Env à s, on vas? 2
1 For the TV-spot see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MzQx8V9noc
2 Bottle, where do you go? - The text in the picture translates as: „I‘m made of plastic, but I‘m no bottle - where do I go?“