ABOUT THIS COLUMN: PART TWO

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 instalments – last week, here and also next week – he explains the rationale behind it, some of its underpinning ideas and the range of its coverage. An invitation to browse the TMS archives!

Peace Journalism

The inspiration is Peace Journalism, a set of distinctions in reporting, a new toolkit for journalists and their editors and a campaigning cause for media reformers and peace activists alike. This column has attempted to show what peace journalism looks like, when applied to the news agenda week by week, and by commentating on the conceptual issues raised along the way. So, what is peace journalism? A definition:

Peace journalism is when editors and reporters make choices – about what to report, and how to report it – that create opportunities for society at large to consider and to value non-violent responses to conflict.

If ‘society’ still decides it prefers war to peace, there’s nothing more journalism can do about it, and stay journalism. On the other hand, there’s no matching commitment to ensuring a fair hearing for violent responses, if only because they seldom struggle for a place on the news agenda.

Why so? To report is to choose. ‘We just report the facts’, journalists say, but ‘the facts’ is a category of practically infinite size. Even in these days of media profusion, it has to be shrunk, or filtered, to fit into the news. The journalist is a ‘gatekeeper’, allowing some aspects of reality through, to emerge, blinking, into the public eye; and keeping the rest in the dark.

Neither is this a random process. The bits left out are always, or usually, the same bits, or the same sorts of bits, as Johan Galtung was the first to show, back in 1965, in his landmark essay (with Mari Holmboe Ruge), The Structure of Foreign News. News generally prefers:

·    Official sources to anyone from the ‘grassroots’;

·    Event to process;

·    To present every conflict as a two-sided battle for supremacy.

These preferences, or biases, hardened into industry conventions as journalism began to be sold as a mass-produced commodity in consumer societies, and faced pressure to present itself as all-things-to-all-people, capable of being marketed to potential readers, listeners and viewers of all mainstream political views and none. In the process, of course, the ‘mainstream’ hardens like concrete, paving over insights and perspectives from elsewhere.

Quoting officials – a category topped by the political leader of one’s own country – is a choice and a preference, but one with a built-in alibi. It was not our ‘fault’ that this person became head of government: s/he just ‘is’. ‘Indexing’, or the familiar journalistic habit of restricting the extent of debate to differences between government and official opposition – ‘elite discord’ – has the same effect, of camouflaging choices as facts.

What about event over process? News that dwells on, say, the details of death and destruction wrought by a bomb, avoids controversy. The device has, indisputably, gone off. There are well-attested casualty figures, from trustworthy sources such as hospitals and the police. What is automatically more controversial is to probe why the bombers did it, what was the process leading up to it, what were their grievances and motivations.

As to dualism, well, when I was a reporter at the BBC, we all realised that a successful career could be based on the formula: ‘on the one hand… on the other hand… in the end, only time will tell’. To have ‘balance’, to ‘hear both sides’, is a reliable way to insulate oneself against objections of one-sidedness, or bias. As soon as you hear from multiple perspectives, you expose yourself to further complaint.

There are deep-seated reasons, then, why these are the dominant conventions in journalism, but, taken together, they mean that its framing of public debates over conflict issues is generally on the side of violent responses. It merits the description, ‘war journalism’.

How come? Take the three conventions in reverse order – dualism first. If you start to think about a conflict as a tug-of-war between two great adversaries, then any change in their relationship – any movement – can only take place along a single axis. Just as, in tug-of-war, one side gaining a metre means the other side losing a metre, so any new development, in a conflict thus conceived, immediately begs to be assessed in a zero-sum game. Anything which is not, unequivocally, winning, risks being reported as losing. It brings a readymade incentive to step up efforts for victory, or escalate. People involved in conflict ‘talk tough’ – and often ‘act tough’ – as they play to a gallery the media create.

Remove events – such as acts of political violence – from context and you leave only further violence as a possible response. This is why there is so little news about peace initiatives. If no underlying causes are visible, there is nothing to ‘fix’. Only in this form of reporting does it appear to make sense to view ‘terrorism’ as something on which it is possible or sensible to wage ‘war’.

And if you wait, to report on either underlying causes or peace initiatives, until it suits political leaders to discuss or engage with them, you might wait a long time. Stirrings of peace nearly always begin at lower levels. There is, furthermore, a lever in the hands of governments that no-one else has – the ‘legitimate’ use of military force. For these reasons, the primacy of official sources, coupled with the enduring national orientation of most media, is bound to skew the representation of conflicts, making them receptive to arguments in favour of violence.

Hence, peace journalism, as a way to compensate for these biases, and give peace a chance. Peace journalism:

·    Explores the backgrounds and contexts of conflict formation, presenting causes and options on every side (not just ‘both sides’);

·    Gives voice to the views of all rival parties, from all levels;

·    Offers creative ideas for conflict resolution, development, peacemaking and peacekeeping;

·    Exposes lies, cover-up attempts and culprits on all sides, and reveals excesses committed by, and suffering inflicted on, peoples of all parties;

·    Pays attention to peace stories and post-war developments .

Next week: how ‘realistic’ is peace journalism? How does it fit in with latter-day concepts of representation and how we make meanings?

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Jake Lynch is Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

 

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 TWO, is included. Thank you.

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