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A changing climate

Volume 6 Number 3 March 8 - April 12 2010

A shrinking mainstream media landscape and uncertainty on the future of ‘news’ could have profound implications for how Australia and America respond to climate change, according to Dr Jennifer Day. By David Scott.

Responding to climate change, adapting urban planning and working out the future of news media would, on the face of it, appear to be three disparate issues. Not so, says Dr Jennifer Day, an urban planning expert at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.

Dr Day says that many responses to climate change are rooted in urban planning, and the decline of traditional media could have serious implications for governmental ability to effect positive change on climate outcomes.

“In California, for example, they have the new ‘California Senate Bill 375’, which is an attempt to tie urban planning outcomes directly to climate change outcomes. The Californian Government really wants to try to co-ordinate transport and land use planning to reduce emissions, reduce reliance on vehicle travel, and produce more space-efficient cities,” she says.

“Now, individual cities in California will have to sort out how to conform to SB 375 mandates – because cities in America are governed locally, unlike in Australia, where governance occurs at state level. So the implementation of the planning responses becomes subject to the competing ideologies and interests of voters and politicians.”

The connection between urban planning and climate change is necessarily political says Dr Day, as we saw in Copenhagen late last year. And ultimately it is governments, with the ‘permission’ of the people, which implement measures to mitigate climate-altering behaviours.

“That’s where the media comes in. In democratic countries, we rely on newspapers and other local media to provide a venue for democratic debate on how to proceed in generating effective climate outcomes while sustaining economic growth for cities and nations.

“Nobody really knows how democratic outcomes change without an active and critical media keeping government decision-makers accountable to the public they serve.

“My research is really about what happens to democratic participation in places where the media is crippled. I am using climate change response as a frame to explore this larger issue of media decline and governmental accountability.”

In the midst of debate over how to – and whether we should – respond to climate change, the vehicle connecting the public with decision-makers is contracting.

Since March 2007, at least 11 metropolitan daily newspapers in the United States have ceased operation due to financial insolvency, and at least five other major metropolitan areas have seen newspapers change formats and, either partially or fully-cease print publication. In Australia, newspaper closure is not as serious a problem as the under-funding of local reporting and locally-produced content – which results in local issues failing to gain media coverage unless they have larger regional significance.

And social media is not necessarily the answer either, says Dr Day. “The media comes into play because of the processes involved in developing legislative and social rules for urban planning and climate change. It’s quite clearly a political issue, and the media provides the bridge between decision-makers and the public.

“As the media declines, that bridge or connectivity between the public and the people who make decisions deteriorates, and the public finds it can’t participate in those processes.

“If I’m a concerned citizen and I now have to spend, say, three hours searching the web to collect and take in the day’s news, rather than getting it off the front step, that’s a problem, and that’s going to affect how I interact with my city and the people who make decisions in it.

“The rise of citizen journalism is really important, and one of the questions I want to answer is, can casual bloggers or even dedicated amateurs serve this vital function as well as a cohort of professional journalists whose job it is to walk the beat, and to know and report on the actions of politicians and city agencies?

“To me, it is questionable whether mayors and other local decision-makers will continue to operate in a transparent and ethical way without the constant threat of a trained reporter pointing out the consequences of, and alternative perspectives on, their policies.”

It’s a question Dr Day, a former transport engineer, plans to spend some time answering, after receiving a research grant from the United States Studies Centre in Sydney to pursue her research into “Planning, Media, and Local Democracy in Australia and America”.

The founder of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, may have lit a fire in the hearts of many in the early 1980s when he declared that the party was there to “keep the bastards honest”. But Dr Day says now more than ever it’s important for people to have a vehicle to gather information and vent their thoughts and frustrations, and that ‘legacy’ publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle just aren’t worth reading any more.

“In the US the local newspapers have historically been a way to participate in the political process, for people to educate themselves, and write letters to the editor: basic information sharing. Some of that is still there, but in many cases critical commentary is going away and people are on the hunt for other ways to participate.

“And citizen journalists are responding. In Seattle, a network of neighbourhood blogs is being attempted, along the lines of ‘I went to the school board meeting, I went to the planning meeting and here’s what happened’. The explosion on Twitter following the 2009 riots in Iran is another well-known case in point where social media transformed debate on a critical issue,” she says.

So how else do we, the wider concerned population, find out about how governance and urban planning processes are linked to the important issues of the day, for example on climate change? “I’ve talked to a few journalists in small towns in the US,” says Dr Day. “They say that the backroom deals start happening as soon as the newspapers close.

“Of course journalists have vested interests in the process, but what happens to us as democracies without that level of accountability, without the scrutiny of the so called ‘fourth pillar’? It’s the vehicle we’ve relied on to keep the government in line for so long. If that goes away, what takes its place? Is it (Rupert) Murdoch’s proposed pay wall or something else?

“I’m not tied to a particular ideology. If a cohort of interested citizens can improve democractic participation, that is all the better for us. I just want to find out if we need to do more to make sure critical news reporting stays alive,” Dr Day says.