Is Transition Journalism Activism?
At first glance, Transition Journalism contradicts the basic journalistic principles of neutrality and distance. However, the very choices we make about what to document and for whom and what positions to publicize are value judgments and, therefore, political. For example, suppose journalists unconsciously assume that our society needs economic growth to succeed. In that case, this influences how they report and reinforces existing structures, institutions, and associated values.
Transition Journalism takes responsibility for the knowledge and networks that emerge from journalistic research. Only when no other solutions to a problem exist or are foreseeable, and critical knowledge is in danger of being lost, do journalists temporarily leave their role as mere observers, bring stakeholders together, and moderate solutions.
Independent of choosing a traditional, constructive, or Transition Journalism approach, research must meet the highest journalistic quality criteria regarding the depth of research, openness of results, fairness, diversity of sources, and on. This includes constantly questioning and, if necessary, correcting the results. However, the transparency of the research process, the choice of stakeholders, the search for solutions, and funding sources are even more demanding in transition journalism.
What’s new about Transition Journalism?
There are conferences and events on a wide range of topics organized by social, scientific, or political organizations. The participants have expertise and, ideally, long practical experience of the issue. However, vastly diverse stakeholders with unconnected expertise are rarely invited to these events even though it is scientifically proven that innovations usually occur at the borders of a branch or discipline or are even brought in by outsiders who switch debates from familiar patterns to new, unexpected ones.
Journalists often have domain expertise in a subject area. At the same time, they are specialists in familiarising themselves with new subject areas and understandably communicating their findings and challenges to their audience. They combine insider and outsider perspectives, proximity, and distance. They are thus ideally positioned to bring together positions that are difficult to identify from within the respective bubbles.
One example: I have been documenting the drying up of the Salton Sea in Southern California since 2015. There have been countless conferences on how to avert or mitigate the impending environmental disaster. Local stakeholders and residents are occasionally invited to testify, for example, to illustrate the health consequences of this ecological disaster. But, they are rarely at the table when proposing and negotiating solutions.
One oft-discussed solution to stabilize the Salton Sea’s water levels and ecosystem and to reduce toxic dust storms is to import water from the ocean and desalinate it. A local engineer has come up with a sustainable, energy-saving method. The problem: what to do with the salt, for which there is little market? Through my global research on agriculture, energy, and climate, I came up with the idea of bringing the engineer together with a German architect who has worked in deserts for decades, researchers from North Africa who specialize in saltwater-based agriculture, and the local community: Together they will develop a project that uses salt as a building material, extracts and stores renewable energy from the waste products of desalination, produces a variety of food and fodder with salt water, builds fertile soil in the desert, and develops an ancient technology from the Arab region to cool the community, where many cannot afford the expensive operation of air conditioning.