BBC Future Planet: sustainable development in a solutions newsroom
Future Planet was launched in February 2020 as a new sub-site of the UK public-service broadcaster’s commercial arm BBC.com.
It offers its global audience a ‘solutions journalism’ take on a whole planet’s worth of environmental issues – whether that’s the pros and cons of bike-share schemes or the contribution that whales make to controlling the temperature of the ocean.
“I think people sometimes get the wrong idea about solutions journalism,” explains the site’s editor Martha Henriques. “They think it’s about success stories or that it’s about ‘feel good’ stories. Sometimes a success story is a solutions story, but that’s not the whole of it at all. It’s about assessing solutions in the round and finding evidence-based ways that we can tackle these crises.”
Not only is there a growing body of academic literature on what is and isn’t solutions journalism, and why solutions matter, but there are also organisations including the Solutions Journalism Network that provide resources and training in this area.
“It’s essentially about audience,” Henriques explains. “And in a way, it’s quite common sense. If you have a totally ‘doom and gloom’ narrative about this crisis, then it feels insurmountable, and it’s just a really hard thing to engage with and is probably counterproductive. This is no longer a sort of debate about whether climate change exists… now, the important thing is what you do about it.”
And, what you do about it at Future Planet goes beyond simply seeking out the very best solutions, it’s also about getting an alignment between editorial values and working practices.
Fewer flights, greater diversity
“It might seem like a fairly small amount of emissions, sending a reporter from one country to another to cover a story, and when there’s absolutely no way to it without flying, I would say the editorial justification of covering a really important environmental story would win out,” Henriques acknowledges.
“But I think a lot of publications fall back on that crutch and that historic way of doing things, without thinking of the alternatives and of the benefits of thinking in a more sustainable way.”
By committing to trying not to fly people out from London, during a 10-month period she calculates this saw the publication cut its potential carbon usage from 26.5 tonnes, to less than half a tonne used.
“There’s obviously the benefits of the emissions if you don’t fly reporters around, but it gives you that extra impetus to expand your pool of writers and to work with more local reporters around the world.
“And there are just so many benefits beyond carbon emissions to doing that. You surface voices that you wouldn’t otherwise hear. You get a really grounded perspective, which is a vast improvement to someone being parachuted in and who only has a few days to try and get their head around the situation.
“And also, especially as we’re a very global publication, we see all the benefits in terms of diversity – 60 per cent of our writers on Future Planet are black or minority ethnic reporters.
“And we work with a lot of reporters in the Global South. That’s particularly important in terms of climate change, because, when you’re writing stories about solutions that are being brought into effect on the front lines of climate change, it matters to actually have voices from those communities telling those stories.
“So, you know, from the outset, there was this kind of net of benefits to thinking about sustainability in terms of our emissions and what that will also do sort of editorially for the publication. It’s also more financially sustainable as well, because you can cover more stories for the same amount of budget.”
This combination of environmental, social, cultural and economic benefits meets the very definition of sustainable development committed to by governments and companies around the world. And Henriques believes it’s also where you’re likely to find innovation.
“I think a lot of publications might be put off because it feels like you’re putting restrictions on yourself. You’re thinking,‘we’re already extremely busy people, so how are we going to cope with this extra work of making sure we make time to network with reporters beyond our existing echo chambers?’. But, I think by imposing those boundaries and challenges, you find that’s the way that you will really sort of push yourself into doing something new.”
Every story at Future Planet also comes with an estimate of the emissions per page view, relatively small at one to three grams, but no easy task to begin with.
“Our digital carbon emissions, that’s something fairly contained… [it’s] the energy necessary to transfer data over the wire and the energy intensity of the appliance used and so on. But even in that system, you have to make so many assumptions, because the device that someone’s using is different, and the energy intensity could be different in different parts of the world and so on.
“So even with that kind of contained system, getting a good estimate is remarkably difficult. When we launched, I also was really keen to include structural emissions into the calculation. So, for example, our team sitting in BBC offices, ‘what amount of power should be taken into account for that?’. But it gets remarkably complicated very quickly and really difficult to quantify. So rather than give a sort of bodged estimation, we decided, as you’ll read in the article, there are some places where we just draw the line.
“The vast majority of the writers for Future Planet are freelancers. So it would feel like a bit of an imposition to say ‘and have you updated your device recently?’. But within the staff, we do have conversations about which forms of communication, especially when we’re working remotely, should we be using. ‘Should we be sending one-line emails? How does that measure up against a Slack message or a WhatsApp message?’.”
No one’s solved this yet, although the DIMPACT team at the University of Bristol, along with 10 media organisations including the BBC, is attempting to answer some outstanding questions around the energy intensity of media consumption.
Another challenge many publishers have is with advertising – present on BBC.com sites when viewed from outside the UK.
“We have been particularly careful, for example, not having an airline buying out our ads for a year. We need to be careful around greenwashing. The BBC has compliance guidance to make sure that any advertiser that we work with makes sense for the publication.
“But all publications face challenges around their advertisers. And I think, especially when you’re covering environment journalism, the most sustainable, eco-friendly brands that are out there may not be the ones with the purchasing power for the advertising space.”
The solutions approach makes the site distinctive from the more straight environment features found on BBC Future, the parent site that’s been doing science, health, technology and environment features for its international audience for almost a decade.
It is also “not news” Henriques says. “Our remit is to take a step back from the news cycle and give the audience additional perspective that they might not get from the 24/7 coverage of current affairs – we look at systemic change.
“So that’s changes through industries and large-scale processes rather than, for example, ‘should I buy bamboo toilet paper or sort of conventional toilet paper?’.
“I think, you know, if anything, COVID has shown us that taking a systemic approach, that’s really the way that you are going to lead to any large-scale change in terms of climate change. You often have the idea that these really big changes to our lives lead to a big impact on the environment. But it’s actually a remarkably small blip in the scheme of things.”
Although solutions journalism, and traditional journalism, don’t typically aim to get involved with the action, Henriques says that in 2021, Future Planet may take a more active role in ‘citizen science’ projects with external partners.
The BBC itself led the way on doing so-called ‘sensor journalism’ in its environmental reporting, measuring air quality live at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many more media organisations have gone on to include their audiences directly in such data collection, perhaps most notably WNYC with its Harlem Heat Project, Cicada Tracker and X-Snow, all seeking to help citizens be part of the solution.
Martha Henriques, Editor at BBC Future Planet