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Unexpected Voices

22 March 2024

by Isa Jorritsma


What roles do journalists take in response to climate change?

The way journalists and writers position themselves within the climate challenges was the main theme discussed during the second edition of Unexpected Encounters. Three editorial writers were invited: Maartje Bregman, Jaap Tielbeke, and Ties Joosten, who all share a common desire to use their practice to contribute to the climate issue. The need to act on a societal problem you are personally engaged with, is a character trait that probably sounds very familiar to social designers. Let’s see how we as social designers can compare our work to that of journalists, and maybe more importantly: what can we learn from this field?

Sensitivity to the world around us

“My goal as a journalist was to engage with the world and to engage with the big problems of our time,” Jaap said. This is perhaps the clearest point where socially engaged designers and journalists share the same need: to engage with the social problems in the world and strive for positive change within society. Both fields have a sensitivity when it comes to societal issues: they observe what is happening around them and respond to it. Both fields dive into society to gather input, experiences, and stories. While a writer shares their insights with a wide audience in the form of stories, a designer uses this input to design solutions and interventions.

The boundaries of our positions

It is clear that designers and journalists want to make a positive change in society, but to what extent are they positioned to do so? When we talk about the climate issue, journalists have an influential role in keeping climate news on the front page, so that the public awareness continues to exist. Ties noted that you cannot solely place the responsibility on those who deliver the message: “What most people say they want to read, is not what they’re reading. So do not place the blame game on journalists and media that we didn’t respond to climate change enough, it’s also on the public.” Maartje pointed out that she as a writer, wants to ensure that in-depth articles are more inclusive and accessible to everyone, especially those who are not in a position to pay for articles. 

Designers also deal with the question of the extent of their influence, as they consider how far-reaching their role is in effecting change. Ultimately, it is several people who must want to change and the policymakers and industry who should commit to actually implementing changes. Designers sometimes have to acknowledge that they are not always in a position to actually change things, this is also not their responsibility. But they are in a strong position to recognize social problems, design for them, and persuade stakeholders.

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Objectivity versus subjectivity

Journalism often places its emphasis on seeking objectivity, by using fact-checking and verification, which enhances its credibility among audiences. However, focusing on objectivity too much also has a downside. As Jaap explained: “Climate scientists came up, telling us the future is really going in the wrong direction. Then journalists would think that was interesting to give attention, but for a counter narrative, they also invited this other person who says it’s not a big problem at all. And for a long time, this false balance was actually a big problem in climate change coverage.”

While objectivity remains essential in certain aspects of design, designers frequently draw upon more subjective sources, such as personal perspectives, experiences and beliefs. Getting inspired by subjective sources often leads to strong narratives evoking emotional responses, though convincing a broad audience may be a challenge. Certainly, the balance between objectivity and subjectivity is a fundamental aspect of both journalism and social design. 

The world is changing, and so are our professions

The professionalization and industrialization of both design and journalism throughout the 20th century have led to significant development. Think about the birth of climate journalism: Jaap mentioned that in 2015 he was one of the first climate journalists, and meanwhile it is impossible to avoid this topic in the newspapers. Similarly, social design has emerged as a subdomain responding to our times and current issues in society. 

The world is changing, which sometimes brings positive aspects but also certainly new problems and challenges. An example of such a newly emerged societal problem, which I personally, as a social designer engage with, is how news about the climate crisis has a significant impact on mental health. I might not be able to solve the climate issue on my own, but I can make an impact by addressing its consequences. As Ties beautifully said: “The climate issue is going to change the entire society and it’s not only about solving this big problem, but it’s also about how you are going to serve this big change.” The climate problem is going to change the balance of society, and I see it as an inspiring task and challenge for social designers to respond to this change. And this applies not only to designers, but also to other professions such as journalists and many more.