DEBATES IN JOURNALISM TRAINING

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 11 Dec 2008

Jake Lynch

Amman, Jordan, 1999, and my first experience of peace journalism training. Reporters, and one or two editors, from Israel, Palestine and Egypt came to join their Jordanian counterparts for the second instalment of a program titled ‘Telling About The Other’, funded by the official Danish aid agency, DANIDA and run by an NGO, also from Denmark, called Severin.

There was a near-constant air of impending shambles – albeit generally amiable – about this activity. Our host was the son of a local newspaper owner who had got into hot water by inviting Israelis to take part without getting the necessary permissions. We hung around the hotel for a day and a half before being allowed to begin – secret police goons keeping an eye on us in case we started any surreptitious discussions about journalistic ethics, or such subversive topics.

To cooperate with Israelis was tantamount to ‘normalisation’, apparently. But there was an air of restrained optimism, at least, over political developments within Israel. The Labour leader, Ehud Barak had just defeated the hardline right-winger, Binyamin Netanyahu, at the polls, and was in the process of forming a cabinet. There was no inkling of just what an unmitigated disaster the Barak ministry would turn out to be, for the prospects of peace with the Palestinians.

When we finally got going, there was a tendency to split into national blocs, each accusing the others of not doing enough to challenge their respective governments over shortcomings in political progress towards peace. This was mitigated by the formation of some useful relationships, especially when participants were challenged by Johan Galtung, who was leading the session, to imagine the future Middle East they wanted to see, and start to think aloud, in cross-national groups, about how they might play a part in bringing it about.

Months later, the same journalists reconvened in the more relaxed surroundings of Cyprus, where these relationships blossomed into plans to form a continuing network. The evening events were as convivial as the sessions themselves were constructive. The good humour even survived breakfast, when a local café attempted to serve bacon to both Arabs and Jews… On the final day, as I went to sleep off a hangover, having facilitated the last of my workshops, participants then gathered for the last item on their agenda, which had remained, until then, shrouded in mystery.

To their bewilderment, it turned out to involve splitting, once again, into national groups, and being closeted away with facilitators from an Israeli therapy centre who – I was told – wanted them to unburden themselves of their deep feelings of hatred toward ‘the other’. The journalists, having spent so many hours together transcending these boundaries, both within and between themselves, were aghast. They wanted me to intervene, and indeed I made representations to the organiser, but it was too late – the damage had been done, and an opportunity to send them away in high morale had been squandered. So – an object lesson in how not to organise a training program (albeit, some pleasurable and valuable relationships were formed, and endured).

How should it be done, then? To digress – these were also the early days of 24-hour television news. To CNN, which had sprung to global attention in the 1991 Gulf War, was now added a steadily growing number of home-grown channels, in countries as far apart as India, Indonesia, Brazil, China and, of course, the UK. Sky News, which got going in the mid-nineties, joined BBC World in showcasing British television journalism – my own field – to audiences, notably including journalists, in other countries. I arrived in Amman having just enjoyed my own share of the limelight, stationed at Nato HQ in Brussels for Operation Allied Force, the bombing of Yugoslavia, and some of the participants remembered seeing me in the daily news conferences, carried live on all news channels.

In any workshop, there is the unavoidable proposition that the facilitators, often billed as ‘visiting experts’ or ‘trainers’, know how to do something, which they are there to impart to the participants. The latter could now readily see for themselves, however, the methods, assumptions and indeed shortcomings of the trainers’ own work. An era had dawned in which no self-respecting, at least relatively well-resourced newsroom was complete without a television set tuned permanently to CNN, another to the BBC and sometimes – in parts of the world within the satellite footprint – a third to Sky. Latterly, of course, Al Jazeera has joined the mix, offering a comparison which often serves to sharpen awareness of what is missing from the others.

This lends a certain queasiness to the symptoms of ‘rampaging liberal syndrome’ – the well-meaning quest to spread ‘our values’ to benighted countries in need of, in this case, a good strong dose of western-style objective journalism. One senior figure in the media development field once suggested to me, in apparent seriousness, that an international ‘flying squad’ should be established and kept on standby, comprising superannuated hacks from western media. They would then land in trouble spots and set up, from on board their aeroplane, an ‘objective’ radio news service, to beam reports into the conflict zone and win over the locals.

As Annabel McGoldrick and I began to be invited to run journalist training workshops in countries as diverse as Armenia, Nepal and Indonesia, we needed a more inclusive proposition, and one based on accepting that we, too, had problems of representation to address and overcome, especially around the reporting of conflict and its apparent receptiveness to war propaganda – in Iraq, Kosovo and many other cases. Being peace journalism advocates positioned us as both exponents and critics of ‘our own’ media, helpful in dispelling the ‘west is best’ message extended ad absurdum in the runway reporting scheme but – as I argue in Chapter 3 – inscribed in a great deal of actual practice in the journalist training field.

Peace journalism lends itself, I suggest, to an approach typical of critical pedagogy, with Ira Shor’s definition particularly resonant in this context:

“Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse”.

Critiques of existing journalistic practice are falling off the shelves of university libraries around the world. For journalist training, it was important to imagine, together, what an improved journalistic practice would look like – not just exposing the constructedness of surface narratives such as official pronouncements and propaganda but also devising practical ways to convey deep meanings, root causes and social contexts. Hence the ‘two versions’ idea, discussed, with an example, in Chapter 2 and suggested, originally, by Mark Pedelty’s fascinating War Stories (1995), an ethnographic study of correspondents in the field in El Salvador.

He divides his subjects into two groups – the ‘A team’ – assigned to the story as staffers by mainstream US media – and the ‘B team’, who scratch around for freelance ‘strings’ and commissions. One of their number reports the same story for a north American newspaper and an unnamed European one, with both versions reproduced in Pedelty’s text. The latter is much more peace-journalistic, with a well-developed portrayal of background and context, whereas the former confines itself to a flat narrative of a violent incident with supporting official pronouncements.

By the time of our first university teaching of peace journalism, on Sydney University’s new Masters program in Peace and Conflict Studies, in 2000, Barak’s bumbling, and the one-sided approach of the Clinton Administration (along with an unprecedented expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land) had scuppered the Oslo peace process and the Al-Aqsa Intifada had just broken out.

I had been commissioned by the Caen Peace Museum, in France, to write two versions – one as war journalism, the other peace journalism – of a newspaper report about an incident in Ramallah in which two Israeli police officers were killed. It proved a useful teaching tool, and a prompt to students and workshop participants alike to take examples of war journalism and re-conceive, re-source and re-write them as another version of the same story; the essential test and skill of peace journalism as a feasible alternative reporting strategy.

Directly after teaching in Sydney, we set off for Indonesia, equipped with our first peace journalism manual, never published in English but enthusiastically translated, bound and distributed by a media NGO, LSPP (Institute for the Study of the Press and Development), with funding from the British Council in Jakarta. As I outline in Chapters 4 and 5, Indonesia proved to be both a challenging and a fertile testing ground for peace journalism, and we remain profoundly grateful and honoured to have been given the chance to work there. To Nick Mawdsley of the British Council, who commissioned us, and the freelance conflict analyst, Dr Judith Large, who introduced us, special thanks are due.
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This week’s contribution from Jake Lynch is from his book, Debates in Peace Journalism, published by Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press, the Preamble to the section on pedagogical debates. The book can be purchased from the following link:

http://fmx01.ucc.usyd.edu.au/jspcart/jsp/cart/Product.jsp?nID=337&nCategoryID=1

(Jake’s regular column returns on Monday January 12th)

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Dec 2008.

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