Reporting the World and peace journalism

IssueDecember 2003 - February 2004
Feature by Jake Lynch

Many journalists enter their profession motivated by some idea, however vaguely defined, of doing some good in the world. Speaking truth to power; uncovering wrongdoing; bringing us the information we need to reach our own opinions, and make choices in a democracy.
Readers may find that idealism difficult to square with the journalism they meet in daily life. Various factors intercede between aspiration and reality - editors and reporters in different parts of the world are constrained by government restrictions, market conditions, owner interference and journalistic conventions, along with many other factors.

Concentrating on conflict

It's too easy, however, just to blame “the job” for obvious shortcomings in the coverage reaching readers and audiences. Reporting the World (RtW) is a series of discussions, publications and a website - The Observer called it “the nearest thing... to a journalism think-tank” - offering journalists a space for critical self-reflection, concentrating on the reporting of conflicts.

By focussing on practical questions of how stories are chosen and reported, juxtaposed and contextualised - who to interview, what to ask them, what is a newsworthy development - we can help journalists take on the responsibility of identifying precisely what could be done differently, to improve the service on offer.

It's also a response to the growing global dialogue about peace journalism. What's peace journalism? Well, its key insights are drawn from the field of peace research; one of the most basic is that “conflict” is not the same as “violence” - even though the two are used interchangeably by many journalists. Conflict simply means two or more parties with incompatible goals - individuals, communities and nations can respond to conflicts with a variety of means, by no means all of them involving violence.

Testing arguments & assumptions

Senior journalists who gathered for RtW discussions about the reporting of Iraq were urged to seek out voices raising ideas for nonviolent ways of bringing about “regime change” - learning from the successful experience of transition in eastern Europe.

To do so would have been to help deliver on those journalistic ideals of public service. According to the BBC Producer Guidelines, for example, the job of its news programmes covering the debate about the war was to ensure that “the arguments are heard and tested”.

Consider the five main arguments put forward by proponents of the war:
1. The crisis - later, the war - is really “about” WMD
2. These pose an authentic threat to regional and world security
3. The only way to rid the world of this threat is regime change
4. Regime change is the only way to alleviate the grim humanitarian situation in Iraq
5. The only way to bring about regime change is war

Of these, only the third was really tested before the invasion got underway, courtesy of the French government, which led calls at the UN for weapons inspectors to be given more time, instead. Since the fall of Baghdad, of course, the second has been opened up to ever closer scrutiny. In mainstream news coverage here in Britain, the rest are seldom seriously questioned; rarely tested by being counterpoised with any real alternative.

Why should this be? It's a pattern that arises, in part, from journalists' best intentions. In order to avoid appearing biased or tendentious, most news coverage tends to stick pretty closely to the agenda set by “official sources”. Something the prime minister says can be covered because he's the prime minister - it does not have to follow that the newspaper or programme agrees with what he is saying. The snag is that anything those official sources do not care to discuss simply drops off the edge of the news agenda.

Ideas for regime change without war would be one example. Consideration of the well-documented US agenda, to install and maintain compliant governments in the world's leading oil-producing region, would be another - even though it is an obvious counterpoint to the first of the five key arguments given here; indispensable, one would have thought, in putting it to the test.

Patterns of omission & distortion

This is why critical self-reflection, of the kind offered by Reporting the World, is a necessary first step for journalists determined to deliver on their promises. The inbuilt conventions of news, if left unexamined, can cause cumulative patterns of omission and distortion to prevail by default.

Why peace journalism? Because these patterns mean that peace does not get, so to speak, a “fair crack of the whip”. Concentrating on the words and deeds of the leaders of states and governments means undervaluing responses to conflict based on international cooperation and/or civil society initiatives.

The imperatives of “balanced” reporting lead to conflicts being framed as bipolar - how often does a news story reach us in the form “on the one hand... on the other”? Peace research tells us that this, too, makes violence more likely, since it sets up a zero-sum game in which an inch gained by one side must mean an inch lost by the other. Faced with two stark alternatives - victory or defeat - each escalates its efforts to win.

Equally, demands for drama and a gripping headline mean that “if it bleeds, it leads” but can cause a concentration on event at the expense of process. That, in turn, can lead us to look to “smart weapons” rather than “smart development assistance”, as Euro Commissioner Chris Patten put it, as the remedy for terrorism.

Peace journalism is people-oriented,calling for a focus on peace initiatives, whoever proposes them; process-oriented, investigating how conflict is affecting the conditions of everyday life for those affected; and it seeks ways to construct a conflict as consisting of many parties, pursuing many goals.

These insights have been discussed by hundreds of senior editors and reporters in London, through Reporting the World; they are also being taken up by countless journalists, activists, media trainers and educators across the globe. To go “Googling”, if you have internet access, enter the term, “peace journalism” and browse over some of the references there is to immerse oneself in a distinctive discourse of media responsibility and reform - truly, an idea whose time has come.

Topics: Media, War and peace