Problem and initial situation
Climate and the environment are the most important and urgent issues of our time and are the focus of media coverage, especially through climate movements such as Fridays for Future. Climate change and climate policy are not directly perceptible to many people and reach them accordingly through the media. In this context, online media and third-party platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Co. are playing an increasingly important role: the 14 to 29 age group consumes content predominantly non-linearly, with an upward trend (see Beisch/Koch 2021). Instagram is the most frequently used social media application in this age group: 55 percent use the app daily (see Beisch/Koch 2021: 498). Parallel to this development in media usage behavior and according to current scientific studies, the environment, climate and sustainability are also the most relevant topics among young adults (see Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit 2020; see Sinus Markt- und Sozialforschung 2019, see Marks et al. 2021).
The climate crisis is moving into the focus of personal concern and environmental protection plays an important role (see Shell Youth Study 2019). The current Digital News Report sees this trend continuing: Young people are also using social media for entertainment, but also to engage with issues that move them: including climate change (see Newman et al. 2021: 55).
This poses challenges for journalism in general and, at this point, for environmental journalism in particular. The process of media convergence leads to a changed and fast-moving usage behavior of the target group. The development process of innovative online formats needs time, space and personnel. These resources in particular are often limited in media companies or first have to be created. So how can environmental newsrooms best reach the 14 to 29 year olds with their journalistic content?
The tendency of the young target group to inform themselves predominantly online is the object of research of this Master’s thesis. With regard to environmental journalism, as a growing subject area and field of interest among young users, the following research questions can be derived:
RQ1: How do selected editorial teams present environmental journalism on social media for the young target group aged 14 to 29?
RQ2: What social media strategy are these and other selected editorial offices pursuing, and what have their experiences been so far?
RQ3: What challenges do these environmental newsrooms face in getting their content out on social media, and what future potential do they see for environmental journalism on social media?
A mix of methods is used in the study, consisting of a content analysis and guided interviews. The focus of the work is on German editorial offices: For this reason, a content analysis is first conducted on the basis of two German media offerings, namely OZON by funk and klima.taz by taz, die tageszeitung. In the content-analytical investigation, both quantitative and qualitative elements such as linguistic features are taken into account. These methods are intended to find empirically proven answers to the periodicity, topic selection as well as the preparation of the content and journalistic quality criteria so that it meets the needs of the young target group.
In subsequent interviews, further experts will be included. Selected editorial offices were contacted that had been dealing with the display of their environmental journalistic topics on social media for a long time. In addition, three scientists, an influencer and an activist were interviewed.
Previous experience of the editorial offices
Instagram is the most important platform for the majority of the editorial teams examined. Facebook, on the contrary, tends to be neglected by the editorial teams, as this platform is not primarily used by the target group, but rather by multipliers such as parents. Twitter is also little used because, according to the editors, it is more likely to reach a specialist audience than interested laypeople. Video formats in particular, such as reels or stories, are frequently used by the editorial teams. However, due to the brevity of these formats, it is difficult to convey complex climate science contexts, as this can lead to biases in content.
Despite the fast pace of social media, fixed publication rhythms meet with a positive response from users. Concrete dates on which the next post will be published provide users with fixed anchor points, even though the use of social media is independent of time and space. It is also important for article conception and storytelling to have a common thread. Here, the editors noticed a feedback loop: Posts in the Instagram feed and in Stories reinforce each other.
In terms of content, posts with a particular emphasis on opinion achieve a high level of interaction. These often concluded with a discussion question for the community. The use of fixed moderators also has a positive effect on the channel, as they are the faces of the channel and have identification potential for users. With regard to the forms of presentation, infographics in particular have proven their worth, as they can convey data and facts visually.
Challenges in implementing the social media strategy
One of the biggest challenges for editorial departments is the lack of financial and human resources. This means that only a limited number of channels can be used, leaving less room for experimentation. In addition, this is also reflected in a lack of community management: In the period under review, a lively exchange between the editorial team and its users on social media was only registered in a few cases. However, editorial teams are aware of this gap and want to counteract it in the future.
Some respondents also still find it difficult to define the target group: Each editorial department has its own understanding of a young target group, which ranges from 14 to 50 years old. This range makes it difficult to produce content precisely for a young target group, since many different realities of life, needs and levels of knowledge collide here.
The editorial teams see another major challenge in the algorithm. The way it works is not transparent and not necessarily congruent with journalistic quality criteria and news factors. According to the subjective assessments of the respondents, it is suspected that particularly short and rather low-threshold content is more likely to be displayed than more complex and longer articles. A conflict can be noted here, since socially relevant topics may receive less visibility even though they are of public interest.
In terms of content, the brevity of formats is perceived as a difficulty in conveying scientific contexts in them. Editors see a risk in content bias. Given that TikTok is becoming increasingly important as a platform, a trend toward longer and more in-depth contributions is not yet observable.
Prospects for the future
TikTok is becoming increasingly important as a social media platform for editorial teams, if they want to reach the target group of 14 to 29-year-olds. This is accompanied by a trend toward more video and audio formats. For example, editorial departments want to offer more content in the moving image area and also develop new podcasts.
In addition, some editorial departments hope to cooperate with other editorial departments, climate communicators or even ministries of education as multipliers. The resulting synergies should lead to an improvement of the format, but also to more coverage.
Basically, the editorial teams hope that their social media strategy will provide a feedback loop to the linear product – if there is one. In the best case, the link between the linear and the digital should lead to users consuming the linear offering more actively and remaining loyal to it in the long term.
Recommendations for action for journalistic practice and the development of social media strategies can be derived from the results of the master’s thesis. These can be illustrated in the figure above. First, the market should be analyzed and it should be checked which climate journalistic formats already exist. Once one’s own niche has been found, it is essential to define the target group as narrowly as possible. The wider the age range, the more life realities and needs collide. Inevitably, topics will then turn out to be too complex for some and too shallow for others.
Next, resources must be examined: How much staff is needed? What expertise do the editors need to have? Is there sufficient budget available? A first draft of the social media strategy is then outlined, which serves as a guide for the final implementation. The format is evaluated at regular intervals: This is done along defined qualitative and quantitative metrics that are established beforehand. On this basis and with the inclusion of the target group as well as the constant monitoring of market changes, the format is iteratively further developed.
This master thesis does not claim to be representative. Rather, it is intended to represent the starting point for further research and discussion.
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