The ten commandments of impact journalism

Publié le 03/12/2015

#1 About climate you shall not talk

Why not? Because the very word “climate” is frightening. As Anne-Sophie Novel, the founder of Place To B, explains, “the word climate sounds complicated as it refers to mathematics, sciences and other scary stuff.” Climate is without doubt a complex theme, even for scientists, which explains why even they find it hard to agree!
If you want to teach your readers about climate, why not try an interactive and playful approach based on scientific facts like The global carbon project, created by Karen Bastien, François Prosper and the WeDoData team?

Place To B Tip
You could also suggest they follow the COP21 MOOC by Nicole Ferroni

#2 About man you shall talk

We keep hearing and reading the same message everywhere, “Save the planet!” However, this slogan masks the real goal of COP21. The leaders of 195 world nations gathered for the first time in history not just to save flowers, pandas or whales, but to protect humanity, or because, as Prince Charles stated at the opening conference on November 30th, “in damaging our climate, we become the architects of our own destruction. While the planet can survive the scorching of the earth and the rising of the waters, the human race cannot.”

The “save the climate!” slogan tries to move the debate out of our sphere of action and responsibility, beyond the realms of “citizenship”. How can we mobilise people with a subject that seems so removed from our daily lives?
Human beings are naturally self-centred, as Pascal Canfin, newly appointed President of WWF, explains : “Ecology is the humanism of the 21st century“. Rather than saving the planet, the former Minister of Development suggests that we need to save man and his “crumbling natural capital”.

Place To B Tip
If you want to move your readers, follow the example of 4D and its informative website designed by and for the families across the world: l’impact du changement climatique sur le quotidien des familles (The Impact of Climate Change on Everyday Family Life).

#3 The word “ecology” you shall not use

When they use the word “ecology”, 21st century ecologists envisage a better world free from fossil fuels and pollution, where renewable energies and ultra-modern houses, thermic regulators, solar panels and integrated batteries are the norm. They think of pleasant cities with public transport, parks, roof-top vegetable gardens and an effective waste processing system similar to the one already implemented in San Francisco.
When they hear the word “ecology”, most readers see shepherds in sandals or militants who oppose creating new airport runways. The mayor of Montdidier, a French commune that pioneers renewable energy sources, admits that he never mentions the dreaded word when trying to convince people, but rather talks about the future and potential savings.

Place To B Tip
Hurry to see the film “Demain” (Tomorrow) by Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, which a great source of inspiration for anyone wanting to make people listen or talk about what is at stake in the 21st century.

#4 New words you shall create

Isabelle Delannoy explains perfectly in her interview how the ecological crisis is also a crisis of mythology, “The words we use to talk about the environment reflect an outmoded way of thinking. Human civilization is undergoing profound transformation, fundamental change on a global scale. If we want to explain the new world as it is becoming today, then we need to find new words to do so.”
Mankind evolved with idea that it needed to fight for survival in a wild and inhospitable environment. It is in these terms that Sean Penn describes the struggle of his hero in Into the Wild. These new stakes force us to rethink our place in this ecosystem, particularly as we are increasingly aware that our survival is intrinsically linked to the state of health of the world around us. How can we rethink the very reality of our existence? Journalists, bloggers and writers need to create new vocabulary to describe the new opportunities and situations facing us.

Place To B Tip
Come and visit the Bureau of Linguistic Reality at Belushi’s, the Place to B headquarters in Paris to see an exhibition about new words to describe new realities.


#5 Jargon you shall avoid

It all starts off badly with the name of the international conference, COP21! It couldn’t be more uninventive and uninspiring. What were the organisers thinking?
Naomi Klein, Canadian journalist and anti-globalisation activist confirms that, “following a UN climate summit is incredibly bureaucratic. It’s very difficult to understand the vocabulary used unless you’re a climate fanatic. There are tons of acronyms – IPCC, UNFCCC etc.- and that’s the easy part!”
The senior officials at the UN have been trained in diplomacy, but not in communicating. That’s the media’s job. We need to move away from the jargon and complex phrases used in negotiations in order to make them accessible to everyone, even if this requires extra thought and creativity to translate scientific and diplomatic vocabulary. Beneath all these complicated words, we need to reveal the lives, people and projects involved.

Place To B Tip
Follow the example of Tara Expéditions with their giant Ocean poster for the CNRS competition displayed at Paris metro station, Montparnasse. It uses simple words to remind passers-by that “the ocean protects us” and that we should also protect it.


#6 On nature you shall not put too much emphasis

Nature, chirping birds, flowers and beautiful landscapes doesn’t resonate with everyone. Some charities and organisations manage to play this emotive card very effectively like Conservation International in its campaign “Nature is speaking”. But they benefit from the talent and voices of famous actors like Harrison Ford and Julia Roberts. The risk of relying on this “poetic” approach is to be taken for a nice, but not very credible, idealist.

Place To B Tip
Reread “The Flowers of Evil” by Baudelaire and Murakami’s novels. These two great writers weave their works using the poetic language of nature, always from the perspective of an observer, treating it as something emotional, humane and universal. They use natural phenomena to describe the internal state of mind of their heroes.

#7 How to tell stories you shall learn

Do you know that the petition against deep sea trawling by Bloom was so successful that it crashed their website? That’s right, deep sea trawling! You couldn’t find a more complicated and unsexy topic that is of very little interest to the general public. So, why was it so successful? It’s all thanks to Pénélope Bagieu’s artistic talent and funny, offbeat tone and ability to tell stories about a world hidden in the darkest depths of the oceans.
The cartoon strip follows a very effective classic narrative schema. It begins by making the ocean beds endearing by comparing the coral to our homes “a coral reef is like Sim City, it works just like a town”. But, this idyllic balance is soon threatened by an exterior event, the arrival of trawlers that sweep across the ocean floor. Why? To fish three kinds of fish that “no one gives a damn about”! Using word play and clear explanations, the artist slowly makes angry about the situation and gives a concrete way to do something about it with a link to the petition.

Place To B Tip
Like Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion, who directed “Demain” (Tomorrow), choose your heroes carefully. They need to make people want to help and act. What kind of hero does this? One that is simultaneously modest, committed, funny, moving, strong and fragile. Like us!


#8 Overemphatic you shall not be

“Save the planet”, “Save the planet”! The message starts to become oppressive after a while. And, it’s a mission that most people just don’t want to take on. They have enough to do protecting their families and offering them the best possible life.
The formidable modern storyteller Pierre Rabhi understood this. You may well have already heard his story about the American Indian hummingbird, after which his movement was named. A small bird decides that it’s going to put out a forest fire by carrying tiny water droplets in its beak. A nearby toucan laughs, saying “you’re a crazy hummingbird, can’t you see that it’s pointless?” To which the hummingbird replied, “Yes, I know, but I’m doing my bit”. The toucan starts to follow its example and soon all the other animals join in and the forest is saved. We can resist this story because it takes away our guilt and frees our desire to act.
Like the hummingbird, each of us needs do our bit and give what we can.

Place To B Tip
Test the 90 jours (90 days) application by Elliot Lepers, which “boosts us to start questing our lifestyles, automatic reflexes and find a form of ecology in our image.”


#9 Dramatize you shall not

Yes, it’s true that it’s urgent. But, talking about catastrophes in a dramatic tone e.g. “melting iceberg are going to make entire islands and coast lines disappear” is rather stressful. This 80s-style ecology needs to make way for a 20th century approach complete with technological solutions, knowledge and even money. What we need to do is make people want to do something, to act.

Place To B Tip
Follow the example of Place to B mentor Nicolas Hulot with Break the Internet. Use humour to spread the message.


#10 A desirable world you shall describe

Rather than trying to frighten people or make them feel guilty, light up their imaginations and show them concrete way to take action. As Pierre Radanne, one of the COP21 organisers said on France Inter radio, “And, what if you tried to overcome this collective state of depression?” Describe what the world could be like if the energy transition is successful and, if needs be, invent concepts, like American essay writer Jeremy Rifkin in his book, The Third Industrial Revolution.

Place To B Tip
Read a story about the future by writer Jean-Pierre Goux, in French newspaper Libération, entitled “Le probable n’est pas certain.” (What’s Probable Isn’t Certain) Nouveaux mythes, nouveaux imaginaires, (New Myths, New Imaginations) Editions Les Petits Matins


Eve Demange

Translation: Victoria Wall/Annelise Meyer

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