This article is co-written by Tim Lehmann.
“We recognize the severity of the global loss of biodiversity…” says paragraph 197 in the The Future We Want declaration. The same can be said for media-diversity, particularly in print. “Breakthrough in Rio+20!“ is a headline you would not find in any mainstream news outlet. Indeed, the declaration more closely resembles a 50-page work of art, merely painting a picture of importance without actually making commitments characteristic of a historical document. Nevertheless, the general media missed the point of Rio+20 in various ways, arriving too late, as most of them arrived just for the last 3 days, and with headlines already prepared in mind to be filled with celebrity statements.
Sorting through some of the mainstream news with similar dramaturgy, we extracted the following predictable key statements:
- The final declaration is weak. An article in the center-right newspaper Economist is titled “Many ‘mays’ but few ‘musts’ – a limp agreement at the UN’s vaunted environment summit”.
- There is no historical breakthrough. Editors of the center-left German Sueddeutsche Zeitung justify the unnecessariness of Rio: “If all countries are satisfied with the lowest common denominator, if they no longer want to discuss what needs to be discussed …, then the dikes are open. There is no need anymore for a conference of 50,000 attendees. Resolutions that are so wishy-washy can be interpreted by every member state as they wish. No one needs Rio.”
- NGO’s are not satisfied. The liberal International Herald Tribune describes the UN report as a ‘suicide note’ for the environment, quoting Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace who declared Rio to be “a failure of epic proportions”.
We recognize, however, that there are some but few deviations from the aforementioned storylines, such as an New York Times article titled, “Progress on the sidelines as Rio conference ends”. Similar to our stance on Switzerland, the authors recognize the important shift in global powers in this arena with a focus on “Europe, traditionally the driving force behind environmental action yet distracted now by efforts to contain a financial crisis“. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the authors look beyond the center stage of the public debate: “the activity outside the main negotiating sessions here produced hundreds of side agreements that do not require ratification or direct financing by governments and that offer the promise of incremental but real progress”. Nevertheless, seen from a bird’s-eye view the media coverage on Rio+20 was rather a standard factory than a showpiece.
During the 3rd preparation committee meeting, the media hall was almost empty, providing endless space for our already tuned-in team of reporters. This continued until the actual summit; and just as ministers, primes and other high-ranking representatives arrived, the media circus followed. Even though the final whistle was not yet blown, the result was already out and many important off-site side events, such as the Global Compact Corporate Sustainability Forum, were finished. After only the first day of the summit, it seemed as if the main news was out and there was nothing left to cover. As we were still working in RioCentro media area for press, Michael Stocks, German outlet ARD correspondent in Rio de Janeiro and coincidentally situated within earshot, went through the day’s statements and grumbled, “We already had this. What should we bring next?” Similarly, on the second day, many journalists sweat blood trying to find stories to cover; luckily, the civil society led by youth started their protest, which provided some meat for hungry media workers looking for signs of frustration and dissonance – a common preset framework for journalists. Daily Telegraph’s Environment and Science correspondent Tamara Cohen explained that a journalist’s convention is to follow updates from mostly frustrated NGO representatives during these events. “We might reconsider this practice,” she added.
Image: Media at Rio+20 (Source: Student Reporter).
Why are media struggling to cover Rio+20 from different angles? For sure, many major media outlets are not blessed with a large budget or freedom to diverge from the standard practice. Combine tight fiscal and time constraints and a demand for entertaining, easy-to-read bite-sized pieces, and what we have is a mix not very sustainable for media diversity. This phenomena is enforced by the tremendous lack of interest of the readership back home.
Ms. Cohen expressed her frustrations after the conference that print readers, hence editors, are simply not interested in reading a more nuanced representation of global environmental concerns – a view echoed by Elisabeth Rosenthal, International and Environment correspondent with New York Times. Ms. Rosenthal explained in a pre-Rio interview that the interests of the audience are those with local needs and concerns in their day-to-day lives. In an informal email exchange we had with a freelance writer of a major global newspaper we met in Rio, he wrote back on our conversation about his article on a classical environmental topic in the contemporary light of Rio, “I had a line in there about alternative solutions but, as is so often the case in professional journalism, it was cut for size.” Why are references about alternative solutions cut for size, if the old ones were proven to be wrong?
Indeed, the G20 Summit, Euro Crises and European Soccer Championship happening concurrently with Rio+20 were hard to beat for headlines and interests of the audience back home. Even UNEP’s spokesperson light-heartedly but ironically mentioned in a Rio+20 interview with Student Reporter Anna Ritz his concern with how England was going to beat France in the European Football Championships which was streamed side-by-side to the Summit.
Finally, we should not underestimate the complexity of Rio+20, which is much more than the scribble on a document. With all the side events organized by countries, civil society or businesses and many off-site events spread out all over the city, Rio+20 was a major gathering of the global voices for environmental and social concerns, which provided a huge potential for solutions. Being a young media outlet at such a mega event for the first time, we struggled with many organizational issues. But still, as delegates and other Rio participants were fighting to preserve ecological biodiversity, we tried to seriously challenge our own severe loss of diversity in the arena of media and journalism – something we will continue to do in future coverage of events worldwide. As a a student-based program with reporters from different backgrounds and interests, Student Reporter tries to provide different perspectives and include alternative aspects of solutions. We do not cut them out because they are not mainstream or conventional views, and we certainly do not cut them out for size.
Sunmin Kim contributed reporting from Rio.