ABOUT THIS COLUMN: PART THREE

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 22 Dec 2009

Jake Lynch

Jake Lynch began writing this regular column for TMS in November 2008. Since then it has gained many new followers around the world, some of whom are kind enough to send appreciative messages! In three weekly instalments, culminating in this one, he has been explaining the rationale behind it, some of its underpinning ideas and the range of its coverage. An invitation to browse the TMS archives! ‘Normal service’ resumes next week.

Reality and representation

Peace journalism is more realistic, in the sense of fidelity to a reality that already exists, independently of our knowledge or representation of it. To report violence without background or context is to misrepresent it, since any conflict is, at root, a relationship, of parties setting and pursuing incompatible goals. To omit any discussion of them is a distortion.

At the same time, it acknowledges that there is no one, correct version of this reality that everyone will agree with. We understand the world around us by taking messages and images – including those served up by the news – and slotting them into codes we develop through our lives and carry in our heads. Meaning is not created solely at the point of production, or encoding; no act of representation is complete until it has been received, or decoded: an insight first offered, in that form, by the ‘guru’ of Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall .

Decoding is something we often do automatically, since so much of what we read, hear and see is familiar. This is what propaganda relies on. Establish Saddam Hussein as a ‘bad man’, or ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as a ‘threat’, and it forms a prism, through which all the reality, both subsequent and previous, tends to be viewed. Meaning is effectively fixed.

Journalism is often easy prey for propaganda because it does not generally encourage us to reflect on the choices it is making, for reasons discussed above. The famous US ‘anchor-man’, the late Walter Cronkite, signed off CBS Evening News every night with the catchphrase, “that’s the way it is”. How it came to be that way would be an interesting conversation, but it is not one in which news is generally keen to engage. In Gaye Tuchman’s words, from a pioneering study of newsroom procedures: “the acceptance of representational conventions as facticity makes reality vulnerable to manipulation” .

So peace journalism is in favour of truth, as any must be. Of course reporters should report, as truthfully as they can, the facts they encounter; only ask, as well, how they have come to meet these particular facts, and how the facts have come to meet them. If it’s always the same facts, or the same sorts of facts, adopt a policy of seeking out important stories, and important bits of stories, which would otherwise slip out of the news, and devise ways to put them back in. And try to let the rest of us in on the process, by discussing and exposing how partisan accounts have been put together. Peace journalism is that which abounds in cues and clues to prompt and equip us to ‘negotiate’ our own readings, to open up multiple meanings, to inspect propaganda and other self-serving representations on the outside.

Can journalists actually play this role, and do they? Latterly, researchers have set out to gauge the amount of peace journalism that is going on. There is probably no one piece of reporting that exhibits all five of the characteristics listed above, whilst also avoiding demonizing language, labeling and so forth. But distinctions do exist, and they have been measured.

Reporting in The Philippines, especially by the country’s main newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, is interesting in providing an effective counter to attempts by the country’s government to import the ‘war on terrorism’ ideology and apply it to a long-running insurgency . The paper I used to work for, the Independent of London, does a lot of peace journalism, notably in its famous front covers, juxtaposing official versions of events with inconvenient facts and questions. My own awareness of the outside world and the way it works took shape around vivid documentaries by the likes of John Pilger, Danny Schechter and Adam Curtis. There are countless other examples.

Then of course there are proliferating independent media, now building, through web-based platforms, on traditions long nurtured by alternative newspapers and community radio stations. There is some peace journalism, so there could be more.

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Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney
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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Dec 2009.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: ABOUT THIS COLUMN: PART THREE, is included. Thank you.

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