The challenges of reporting on sustainable development in Ukraine. What is this ‘sustainable development,’ by the way?

“Although less than a month remains till the UN Conference on Sustainable Development – Rio+20,” complained an Ukrainian media observer Maryna Dorosh in a May article on the United Nations in Ukraine site – “Ukrainian mass media rarely provide information either on Rio+20 or on sustainable development in general.” This is, she claims, because the notion of sustainability “sounds too global and distant to the Ukrainian public, including journalists. They say the ‘world leaders’ have their own events while we have our own one here.”

CNN International’s Deborah Rivers (centre), UNDP Ukraine Country Director Ricarda Rieger, moderated by Yevhen Fedchenko, director of the Kyiv-Mohyla School of Journalism (photo courtesy of Osvita.Mediasapiens.ua)

Well, for those of us in Ukraine who are familiar with an average (read ‘parochial’) journalist’s proclivity to lazy out each line of an article or script, Post-Soviet development communication prospects got a bit brighter. The United Nations in Ukraine recently co-organized a seminar “Synergy between government, business, society and media on the threshold of Rio+20,” where she brought together CNN International‘s Deborah Rivers, Kyiv-Mohyla School of Journalism’s Yevhen Fedchenko, CIS media expert and founder of an Eastern Europe/Central Asia-focused strategic communication and planning agency Pro.movaYevhen Hlibovytsky. (See Whose premise: UNESCO-Harare or UNESCO-Paris?A 10-step guide for creating effective UN-Business partnershipsBiosphere Connections by Star Alliance+UNESCO+National GeographicUNESCO partners with NHK to produce World Heritage videos)

Kyiv Fashion Park’s Lubava Ilyenko and artist Natalia Makeeva inaugurating Makeeva’s art installation “Turnip or an old Eco-tale” by the UN office in Kyiv (Photo courtesy of United Nations in Ukraine)

The speakers encouraged Ukrainian journalists to develop a fresh angle at the issues of sustainability and to make sure that it is rendered more attractive to their audiences. The sustainable development theme is unpopular because some journalists have not heard such a concept at all, whereas those who have do not understand its meaning in full, believes Serhii Volkov, Senior Programme Manager at UNDP Ukraine, who oversaw work on the National Education Development Doctrine in Ukraine 2015 (2000), Evaluation of Ukraine’s Preparedness to the Modern Information and Communication Technologies (2002), National Environmental Strategy of Ukraine (2007).

Volkov’s colleague, UNDP Ukraine Country Director Ricarda Rieger, who has had experience of work in North Korea (1989-1991), Thailand, Egypt, Cambodia and the Philippines,  said that some pressing issues facing Ukraine today are:

For people to make decisions, discussion should be initiated. It is media that put the subject on the agenda. Journalists should not only report statistics but also propose possible solutions.

For the sceptics who cite the prospects of boring Ukrainian audiences with ‘global’ topics as too high in reporting on sustainable practices, CNN International’s leading producer, Deborah Rivers, who was responsible for the production of the Road to Rio: A Green City Journey programme series, came out with,

Sustainable development is naturally an important and serious topic but it looks tiresome to the audience. Hence, beginning a series of reports, we decided to change the angle of view and show what others do, rather than teach or tell the viewers ‘don’t do that’. I mean we focused on positive examples, on what had been already created by some communities in various places.

The CNN crew went to China, India, UAE, Turkey, Mexico, among other countries. Their main task was to talk about local ‘economy greening’ projects. For example green initiatives in Delhi or Darjeeling tea plantations where renewable hydropower is used.

Ricarda Rieger and Yevgen Zelenko of UNDP in front of the art installation “Turnip or an old Eco-tale” (Photo courtesy of United Nations in Ukraine)

However, the CNN sustainabilty reports produced by Rivers are not overburdened with detail. The reporters certainly communicated with experts and scientists but did not go too deep into technical or industrial data. According to Rivers, they tried to keep a balance between information and entertainment in the programmes and their key goal was to draw attention to the subject and to kindle interest. Great attention was paid to creative approaches in journalist’s work and drawing vivid pictures. So the CNN producer suggests:

In the international format, we have to generalise many things. Meanwhile, raising the sustainable development issues locally, including in Ukraine, you can get deeper to the bottom, show the context. Not only make a description but also explain reasons and consequences.

This approach – focusing on concrete examples and highlighting local initiatives – was showcased during the seminar by Tamara Malkova, director of the Ukraine-based Green Dossier information centre. She believes that journalists need not go too far to find sustainable development examples in Ukraine. They can look at the most traditional field in the public perception, Ukrainian countryside.

We implemented a few projects collecting positive stories of farming in the Carpathian Mountains. It turned out that an ordinary farmer has this natural ability of living and working in a sustainable way without knowing that this kind of  lifestyle is called ‘sustainable development.’

The Carpathian Mountains

The Green Dossier projects include Dumka (‘Thought’ in Ukrainian), a local newsletter covering issues like recovery of traditional agriculture in the Carpathians. Examples of their stories include reports about the valylo, a traditional mountain washing machine in Horod village and a private cheese dairy in Nyzhnie Selyshche that uses the latest Western technology.

To lure the audience, Ukrainian journalists should not invoke a mythical public welfare right away. It is rather recommended to focus on ‘personal usefulness’ of sustainable living by paying particular attention to personal health and well-being. Hence, reporting about a factory’s hazardous emissions or about an improper use of materials in road construction it is worth explaining what specific impact the problem has upon personal health and everyday life. Offering solutions to a non-sustainable problem is no less important in reporting. But one should be careful not to abuse the stats. To learn more check this blog about science training for journalists.

In short, be attentive to your local environment, make the story fun, do it regularly.

P.S.

The United Nations Office in Ukraine recently partnered with a waste treatment and recycling company Kyivmiskvtorresursy and the first Ukrainian eco-channel ECO –TV” as well as the first Ukrainian park of modern sculpture and installation Kiev Fashion Park, whose aim is to beautify public outdoor space of Kyiv and other cities by installation of modern and contemporary art objects.

A fragment of an art installation “Turnip or an old Eco-tale” by Natalie Makeeva by the UN headquarters in Kyiv (photo courtesy of Arsenale2012.com)

The partnership resulted in an art installation “Turnip or an old Eco-tale” by Natalie Makeeva by the UN headquarters in Kyiv. The title alludes to a traditional Slav fairy-tale “Turnip,” in which a turnip grows so huge that it becomes extremely hard to harvest it. It is a metaphor for the old gadgets that people one day might not be able to control. In other words, technical and media development leads to a huge waste track which we deny to see.

See related material:

UN4U in Eastern Ukraine

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