What Does the Media Mean by ‘Sustainability’ or ‘Sustainable Development’? an Empirical Analysis of Sustainability Terminology in German Newspapers Over Two Decades

Daniel Fischer*, Franziska Haucke, Anna Sundermann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


There is broad agreement that the regulative idea of sustainability needs to be specified in public deliberation so that it can contribute to sustainable development policies and practices. The media plays a critical role in this endeavor. However, journalists commonly criticize the terminology of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ as blurred, fuzzy and ambiguous. The vibrant controversy over how journalists should engage with the sustainability terminology is however facing an apparent lack of research on how sustainability terminology actually has been embraced and used in the media. This study aims to close the aforementioned research gaps in providing a twofold account of the field in Germany. First, in a trend analysis, it sketches the usage of sustainability terminology in six major German newspapers from 1995 to 2015. Second, in an in-depth analysis for the three years 2001, 2007 and 2013, more than 16 000 usages of sustainability terminology have been coded according to their underpinning meaning. The findings show that sustainability terminology in major German newspapers is used in about twice as many articles in 2015 compared with 1995. What changes is not only the frequency, but also the meanings, with which sustainability terminology is used. There is an apparent tendency towards a ‘semantic consolidation’ of sustainability terminology in the post-2000 years. The meaning thereby moves away from a non-specific and replaceable fashion word towards a more sophisticated and elaborated reflection of the concept of sustainable development. Data analysis finds that political alignment of the newspaper plays a critical role in this.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)610-624
Number of pages15
JournalSustainable Development
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • journalism
  • media analysis
  • newspapers
  • sustainability
  • sustainable development
  • terminology


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