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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 3 - No. 1 - 1997 - Partnerships (HABITAT, 1997, 65 p.)
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View the documentIs it Possible for the Media to Become a Partner in the Struggle for Sustainable Urban Development?

Is it Possible for the Media to Become a Partner in the Struggle for Sustainable Urban Development?

by Debra Grant

Breathless, after running in the hot, June, Istanbul sun from a press conference, dodging taxis in Taksim Square, racing past Besiktas shops and mounting five flights of stairs at our newspaper publishing office, The Home Planet, I took a moment to pause and consider what other media covering the Habitat II Conference were thinking. During my five years following the United Nations and its many meetings, conferences and issues of “global concern,” I have often wondered whether the media is a mere spectator, looking on at a distance through a camera lens or are these individuals, in their professional journalistic capacities, actual participants in creating a global, just and humane society? I hope the latter is the case, but sometimes fear the former to be true.

Addressing the Habitat Partners’ Consultation, held in Geneva on 31 January 1997, Dr. Wally N’Dow, Assistant Secretary-General of UNCHS (Habitat), welcomed those attending as Partners of Habitat, and as Partners of the United Nations. It is precisely this partnership and how (or if) it extends to the media that has long interested me. Posed the media partnership question during a press conference, Dr. N’Dow emphasized his conviction that “unless the media plays an active part in the process of accompanying the implementation of the Habitat II plan of action it would not happen.” He reiterated that, although it is the job of the United Nations to make sure that the Habitat Agenda reaches the ordinary people in villages, towns, cities, and mega-cities, the media is best at doing this and could achieve it better than anyone within the United Nations system.

He outlined the United Nations’ regional work of holding media consultations, roundtables, and strategies to accompany the Habitat process. Organizing a day-long dialogue with the media in Istanbul as well as encouraging their participation in the Habitat national committees, he felt, demonstrated their advocacy.

In the follow-up to Habitat II, Dr. N’Dow stressed that the media has “a vital role in educating the world.” The importance of the media is not questioned, but the nature of their role remains a topic of discussion. Several other journalists I interviewed were unclear and skeptical about their participation. Others whole heartedly agreed to the necessity of media involvement. In reality, there are many considerations to engaging the media as a “partner” in the struggle for sustainable urban development.


Ideally, the media’s responsibility is to provide responsible, accurate reports without being controlled by any interest group. There are, however, significant and growing constraints under which media work today. In most countries they are under increasing pressures from advertisers and business to conform to the demands of the marketplace, and in some countries, Governments and authorities control their information.

Money is a major factor in determining the media’s partner role. The media industry is a commercial enterprise, often defined by the bottom line. It depends on high ratings or sales - which mean that viewers are watching, listening or reading. The fact that advertisers’ dollars keep networks alive makes the media’s main purpose to produce an audience for advertisers. When it comes to securing this audience, issues such as human rights, the environment or sustainable urban development are not hot topics.

Another constraint to establishing a partnership with the media is the fact that in certain countries, the media does not enjoy the same freedom as in the West. Some Governments utilize the media to manipulate information to their own political ends. State controlled media does not “invariably assume the voice of informed dissent in the context of public policy” and therefore, does not reflect the considered needs and rights of the abused sections of the population.

The media’s own independent identity imposes a different, yet equally limiting factor in the partnership context. To remain unbiased and objective, it is important for the media to maintain this autonomy. Although their agendas may not necessarily coincide with that of sustainable urban development, they cannot, and should not, be co-opted. On the positive side, there are various ways in which the media can be engaged as a partner in the struggle for sustainable urban development.


Many believe that the media have a responsibility to inform and to educate and a significant role to play in cultural development throughout the world. There are numerous examples of individuals and organizations with this philosophy. Young Media Partners, a media association whose purpose is to work with young reporters who care about the future of our planet and the survival and quality of life of its inhabitants, is just one example. Video producer/distributor, Television Trust for the Environment (TVE), is dedicated to keeping a global audience tuned into issues that are central to the well-being of humankind and the planet that supports the economies of rich and poor nations alike. Crosslines is a newsjournal reporting on international development, humanitarian action and global trends. The computer network, the Association of Progressive Communitcations (APC), provides internet access to NGOs and individuals worldwide. The list goes on.

Working with media as a partner requires compromise and definition of common ground. It is necessary to better understand their reality and work with them in a professional manner. Providing newsworthy information, accurate data, and innovative slants on old themes is important. Building up the interest and knowledge of media over the long-term may have a more fruitful outcome than one-off reporting of UN conferences, which quickly fade from the minds of participants and media alike.

The question of media as a partner in the struggle for sustainable urban development is a complex one. It is a partnership that will take time and effort, but one which is worth cultivating.

Debra Grant is a producer/journalist and co-founder of Young Media Partners Network based in Geneva, Switzerland.

For more information on the Young Media Network, please contact: