The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

With digital development and greater ease of transport, human stories are increasingly intertwined today. Yet the connection between the broader narrative and local circumstances is often lost, whether for climate change, the global refugee crisis, or the ongoing nuclear weapons disaster. Three things must change for global reporting to weave stories unfolding across the planet in a more comprehensive and powerful way. We need platforms and institutions where work can be shared and fast translations made. We need new models of collaboration, including cross-border agencies where reporting is gathered, circulated and refashioned into global reports. And finally, we need financial support for those platforms and for cross-border investigative projects.

There have always been shared human stories that unite the globe. Among the earliest are the handed-down narratives of the world’s religions, some of which have helped diasporas around the world to share an important element of their culture globally, in spite of very different day-to-day experiences. Other global stories brought together dispersed groups in a connected set of events: usually these had to do with war or trade, as in the hideous global story of African slavery that connected so many parts of the world. But most often, there were simply similar human stories happening separately, in many places: stories of cruel dictatorships in Indonesia and Paraguay, say, or broken families in France and Nepal, or poverty in so many places around the world.

With greater ease of transport, infinitely faster dispersal of images and words, and a stunning pace of development in so many populous corners, shared human stories today are increasingly intertwined. Yet reporting on those new global stories proves to be one of the hardest tasks for journalists, and the subjects of those stories often fail to see the connection between the broader narrative and their daily lives.

Thus: climate change, a planetary catastrophe we all must deal with, or fail to deal with at our peril. Thus: environmental disasters and the rapid disappearance of species. Thus: the world’s refugee crisis that involves so many nations in a chain of misery and dilemma. Thus: the ongoing nuclear weapons disaster, affecting all humankind. 

Fragmentation sucks the true force and meaning out of global narratives, and allows the interests that fuel these crises to continue on unimpeded.

One of the gravest problems in dealing with these issues on a global scale – where they need to be dealt with – is that the stories often remain unconnected. So that a drought in Africa that causes a massive exodus around the Mediterranean, say, is not clearly seen to be a result of climate change; or a series of terrible floods in South Asia are not seen to be a result of climate change and also the cause of increased human trafficking from the region – in both cases, because different journalists operating in different spaces are in charge of each thread, but no one is explicitly responsible for weaving them together.

The climate change narrative is a particularly hard one to globalize because it happens on so many levels, in so many ways, all the time. The structure of the world’s most prominent media outlets is not normally a cooperative one. Every news outlet wants as much market share as it can get, and all see themselves as in competition with one another. In addition, it’s entirely possible that a Montreal newspaper, an American television station, and a Mexican radio journalist might be working on the same regional climate change story at the same time, and publishing or airing at the same time, yet never connect with one another. Both language barriers and competitive traditions are obstacles to global narrative sharing.

But there are some hopeful signs. When language is shared, stories can travel speedily around the globe and narratives can be connected. One such story was the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, in which 1,134 people were killed and another 2,500 injured. This story was quickly globalized because – as a consequence of colonialism – English is a language shared between the reporters who covered the collapse and those writing about garment workers in the Anglophone world. Pretty quickly, the world was made to understand the relationship between the building’s pancaking to the ground, the cynical, money-grubbing, depredations of unscrupulous middlemen, and the blind-eyed behavior of fast-fashion mega-chains, and then, finally, the complicity of the Western consumer in the deadly system. This global narrative changed some business practices.

The Syrian war has also raised the global community’s awareness of our most serious shared problems. The mutual destruction of so many factions, the utter victimization and eventual displacement of large chunks of the Syrian population, and their subsequent arrival on foreign shores, has shown us just how global the narrative of a civil war can become; and the media has treated it as such.

In both cases, it was possible to weave the global narrative because the story was dramatic and photogenic, and touched nerves in many nations. Climate change stories have been more gradual and often less visible – they’re hard to capture in a snapshot – and need to be taken up as global narratives more consciously and efficiently to have this impact and reach. 

Three things must change for global reporting to become more than a pot-shot possibility. 

We need platforms and institutions where work can be shared and fast translations made, not just from Spanish or English to French or Arabic, but from hundreds of prevailing languages throughout all continents. Including important local narratives in the global conversation would add a sense of urgency for influence wielders and policy makers. Agricultural workers in California’s Central Valley walking miles to fetch water might be interested to hear about African villagers suffering under the same burden for some of the same reasons.

We need better models of journalistic collaboration. They cannot all be wikis. Direction and management – what are known as “gatekeepers” – are necessary for such platforms to be successful: a crowd-sourced website will not be adequate, although it could function as a part of the mix. We need to develop continent-wide news agencies where professional and citizen reporting is gathered, circulated and refashioned into global reports. Those would connect us and pull together the threads of the common narrative.

Finally, we need financial support for those platforms and for cross-border investigative projects. Many news organizations have cut back their foreign coverage in the turbulent wake of the Internet onslaught, but this coverage needs to be restored. Public financing, charitable corporate underwriting, and lots of creative thinking needs to be called upon to establish such institutions. If we fail to achieve this, we will only continue with narratives of climate change, refugees, and the dangers of nuclear armaments fragmented into their constituent parts. This fragmentation sucks the true force and meaning out of these global narratives, and allows the interests that fuel these crises to continue on unimpeded.

Amy Wilentz

Amy Wilentz is an American journalist, writer, and professor at the University of California, Irvine, where she teaches in the Literary Journalism program. She was Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, and is the author of a number of books, including Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti (2013), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a contributing editor at The Nation, and her work has also appeared in a broad range of publications, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Harper’s, Vogue, San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, The London Review of Books, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Democracy, and Politico. She has received the Whiting Writers Award, the PEN Martha Albrand Non-Fiction Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award.