WOMEN’S BUSINESS?

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 18 April 2009

by Jake Lynch

Both of our peace journalism films, News from the Holy Land and Peace Journalism in the Philippines, open with two versions of the same story. In the former, it’s a suicide bombing on a bus in Jerusalem, which killed seven children and 16 adults; the latter relates the deaths of eleven commuters in bomb attacks on the financial district of Manila, and two cities on the southern island of Mindanao.

The first report in each case is compiled as a classic example of war journalism, and I present it myself. In the second, elements of peace journalism are added, notably by giving context to the bare facts as rehearsed above, and the reporter is my partner, Annabel McGoldrick. The aim is to show what a realistic alternative would look like and – as importantly – sound like.

Annabel subsequently played the two versions of the Jerusalem story to interview subjects in a groundbreaking psychological study to gauge differential audience responses to war journalism and peace journalism respectively:

“The war journalism version was generally found:

1. Harder to listen to;

2. Liable to lead to a sense of disconnection or ‘switching off’;

3. Generative of strong feelings of sadness and hopelessness; and

4. Lacking in context and balance.

Whereas the peace journalism version was:

1. Easier to listen to;

2. Replete with opportunities to ‘connect’ with the story, even learn something new;

3. Refreshing and more hopeful; and

4. In a word used by nine out of the 11 interviewees – balanced” (1).

The findings confirm informal feedback from many students and workshop participants who’ve had the same experience of watching both versions. Much of the content is the same in each: shots of the damage wrought by the explosions; responses from officialdom; pictures and – in the Philippines case – interview clips of survivors. Each peace journalism version contains one or two other short original sequences, but the films compare and contrast what are still recognizably different takes on the same story. The words are different, of course, and so is the tone in which they are delivered.

Annabel is found, by almost everyone who watches the films, to be easier to listen to. We both have well-developed broadcasting voices, the product of long experience, but Annabel’s is stylistically very different, emphasizing empathy and understanding, both qualities suitable for peace journalism. Is it, therefore, a ‘woman’s voice’, and is peace journalism better carried out by women than men?

In a forthcoming book, Johan Galtung and I consider this possibility:

“Under the sway of patriarchy male tastes would prevail, and women would feel more alienated by the newscasts: ‘so much bad news’. This sounds plausible, and fits with anecdotal evidence, but calls for empirical explorations to dislodge it from the realms of essentialism…

And then, for women to be more interested in peace news than in war news tallies well with the experience, borne out by research findings, that women are often more effective as peace workers and peace carriers. If women more than men believe in and rely on horizontal networking for the care of other humans then that is more similar to modern peace work by people, NGOs etc. than to the traditional male faith in vertical organizations like states for the glory of princes, their successors and some principles” (2).

The passage carries a clue to a question that some women media activists view as more interesting and important than the issue of whether women make better peace journalists. The larger point is, to what extent can efforts to extend peace journalism, and campaigns for women’s media rights, be seen as the same struggle?

Structuralism and after

Peace journalism is based ultimately on Galtung’s landmark essay (with Mari Holmboe Ruge), The Structure of Foreign News (3), now over 40 years old (in fact it’s the same age as me!) It took the familiar propositions of ‘gatekeeper theory’, that journalism entails making choices about what to include and what to leave out, and added to it the further crucial insight that the process of selection is not random, but patterned, or structured. The bits that get in – and those left out – are usually the same bits, on each side.

Accepting this is the key to a successful career in the vertical form of organization typical of the news industry. There is a sense in which women, in order to survive and thrive in this environment, often (still) face pressures to show they can reproduce the set of precepts and assumptions inscribed in the notion of ‘news values’ – the conventions mapped by Galtung and Ruge.

A few years ago, we conducted a worldwide survey of journalists, asking what, if anything, prevented them from carrying out their public service role of enabling debate in democracy. Several cited a “macho culture” as one of the main impediments. One – a high-profile BBC television presenter – said women are just as much to blame for going along with this culture, which, in wartime, expresses itself as a fascination with hi-tech weaponry: “The problem is that once troops start moving on the ground the electronic media get infected with enthusiasm for the whizzbangery. This is usually characterised by strident feminists as a male thing. In fact, some of the most revolting examples are women” (4).

In our book, Peace Journalism, Annabel and I try to unravel the riddle in all of this, pondering how educated people enter journalism and, apparently, check in ‘at the door’, as it were, everything they have learned about critical thinking. (Many, after all, come from humanities or social science degrees at good universities). The war journalism versions of the two bombing stories typify the notion that news tells us ‘the way it is’, at the expense of any real consideration of how it came to be that way. The continuing dominance of this form of media representation of conflicts may be connected, we suggest, to larger themes, notably the discursive hierarchies that underpin myriad cultural and political assumptions in western traditions of thought.

If the Galtung-Ruge essay belongs to the enormously influential first wave of structuralism, then these observations take us into the era of post-structuralism, and the concept of ‘logocentrism’. Jacques Derrida noticed the binary oppositions that seem to be “always already” there whenever we write, speak or even think in the traditions we inhabit. One was the privileging of speech over writing – ‘presence’, or the dynamics of the way things are and the way they appear, over ‘absence’: what is supposed to have gone before, or could potentially come after. Another was of men over women.

These binaries are held in place, according to Derrida, by the habit in western thought systems of remitting judgements to a final ‘court of appeal’, a central organising concept or “transcendental signifier”, which is accorded ontological status. Even apparently antagonistic strands of thought are linked, in this respect, as part of the same tradition. For classical political economy, this might be ‘the market’; for Marxist political economy, ‘class’. And so on.

Later writers, notably French feminists such as Helene Cixous, took up and elaborated on Derrida’s ideas to suggest that patriarchy – male domination of power, including representational and definitional power – also sustains, and is sustained by, this pattern: hence his neologism, ‘Phallogocentrism’, to refer to the privileging of the masculine (phallus) in the construction of meaning. The logical structure of our discourse, Cixous says, protects those who occupy the privileged position in dichotomous terms by making hierarchical positions seem natural.

In other words, the very act of switching off one’s critical thinking faculties, the better to internalise a logocentric system of thought arranged around a sacrosanct concept such as ‘news values’, is tantamount to sustaining inequality and subjugation. The sense is captured neatly in two snippets of testimony gathered by researchers from the Swedish-based international women’s rights group, Kvinna till Kvinna, part of a study showing the extent of marginalization of women’s voices in conflict reporting by Sweden’s media. The quotes come from responses the group gathered, to evidence built up through detailed content analysis. One male editor, Karl Viktor Olsson, foreign affairs editor at the Swedish central news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT), told them:

“We have to speak to the people who make the decisions, and they are usually men. It is not the journalist’s job to change society, and the fact that the inequality of our world is reflected in our reporting doesn’t bother me”.
       
One of the Kvinna till Kvinna researchers, Agneta Soderberg Jacobsen, argues (5) that – far from being ‘neutral’ – this makes media complicit in perpetuating power gradients which keep women from being properly represented and from fulfilling their potential, a sense captured in a second response, from Inna Michaeli, of the Women’s Coalition for Peace in Israel:

“You choose sides – you choose the side of power, which marginalises us. You say there are no women in key positions – but if you talk to us we will become important.”

Double-think

None of this is to say that many journalists – certainly including many women journalists – are unaware of the ‘double-think’ involved in adopting the first of these positions, after the work of Galtung and Ruge, Derrida, Cixous and so many others has exposed it. Another senior BBC on-air journalist, UN Correspondent (former Political Correspondent) Laura Trevelyan, contributed an article a few years ago to a careers website, titled, How to be a Network Political TV Reporter. She gave the following advice:  

“First, and foremost, don’t do a three-year journalism degree!

The industry’s perception of these courses, whether fair or unfair, is that you spend a lot of time on what’s loosely termed as ‘media studies’, covering topics such as bias in the media and attitudes – none of which are [sic] at all useful if you’re going to be a reporter.

You may also come out of university with rather preconceived notions about how the media business is structured, and that’s not going to help you”.

It may be, as a journalist-turned-academic, Barbie Zelizer, argues, that this is merely the static produced by two very different “interpretive communities” rubbing up against each other. The really interesting question, implicit in peace journalism, is the extent to which interpenetration can take place between them. The cause of peace has often been seen as overlapping with the struggle against patriarchy, itself a form of structural and cultural violence and progenitor of direct violence in many forms. These are struggles that should be seen as overlapping in the media domain as well. Their success will be measured in the switching-on of critical thinking about journalism, as so many points of light in the media firmament.

References:

(1) McGoldrick, Annabel 2008: ‘Psychological effects of war journalism and peace journalism’, Peace and Policy edition 13.

(2) In Lynch, Jake and Galtung, Johan, 2009: Reporting Conflict: New Directions in Peace Journalism, Brisbane: Queensland University Press (forthcoming).

(3) Galtung, Johan and Ruge, Mari H., 1965/1980: ‘The Structure of Foreign News’, Essays in Peace Research, Ejlers: Copenhagen, Vol. IV, pp 118-51.

(4) Quoted in Galtung, Johan, Lynch, Jake and McGoldrick, Annabel, 2006: Reporteando Conflictos, Mexico City: Editions Fernando Montiel.

(5) In a presentation to the Peace Journalism Commission of the International Peace Research Association biennial conference, Leuven, Belgium, July 2008.

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