FEMINISE THE REPORTING OF AFGHANISTAN
TMS PEACE JOURNALISM, 17 Mar 2010
For much of the last decade, the war in Afghanistan was obscured, in the media of troop-contributing countries, by news from Iraq, to the extent that it became, once again, “the forgotten war”. Those assessments came on the basis of reporting in 2006, since when Afghanistan has grown in salience, but the vast majority of reports, in those same media, deal with the lives and deaths of the occupying soldiery, and/or statements from senior politicians about why they are determined to “stay the course”.
This record testifies to the enduring predominance of war journalism. Media researchers Robert Hackett and Birgitta Schroeder analysed the content of 522 articles in the Canadian, Israeli and US press as well as Al Jazeera Online, covering the war in Afghanistan and the simultaneous war in Lebanon, in 2006. Ten specific war journalism criteria, derived from the Galtung model, were found to be present in 51.9% of the articles on average, whereas the equivalent score for peace journalism criteria was just 31.6%. War journalism was more dominant in stories filed from Afghanistan itself than any other one of ten locales, and “elite orientation” was the second most frequently occurring war journalism criterion in the whole study, after “focus on the here-and-now”.
It suggests the human cost of the war in Afghanistan is being systematically downplayed, according with impressions, from countless stories in western corporate media over the years, that the voices of Afghan people themselves are nearly always excluded. Here in Australia, for instance, every time there is news of a further troop deployment or diplomatic development, the sourcing, in the vast majority of local news coverage, is confined to military and/or political leaders. Opinion polls consistently suggest Australians would rather see their troops called home, but there is little or no political traction to that idea since the front benches of both major parties take the opposite view; and it almost never surfaces in the media. So there is little or no perception of urgency, to promote what William Crano called the “salience” of the issue.
Because there is no familiar human face to the suffering caused by the war – and perhaps inscribed in the population figures – publics in the belligerent countries may – to lend a metaphor to Crano’s concept – feel it as an itch, requiring an occasional scratch, but not such an irritant that a salve has to be applied in the form of a change in policy.
This pattern has allowed political leaders and policy-makers in the age of Obama – a period preceding his actual inauguration and probably dating from his successful campaign for the Democratic nomination – to portray Afghanistan as the “good war”, even if Iraq was the “bad war”. From before the first night of “shock and awe” over Baghdad, in 2003, numerous correspondents in the city were sending reports to influential western media, in which ‘humanising the enemy’ – telling the stories of ordinary Iraqi citizens – was a keynote. One prominent exponent was Suzanne Goldenberg, star reporter of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, whose editor, Alan Rusbridger, told a high-ranking London conference, organised by Reporting the World:
“In every war you try and depersonalise the enemy and dehumanise them but I think having someone like Suzanne Goldenberg’s quality inside Baghdad talking to ordinary Iraqis and making them terribly human I think is a new element in war, and you can see why politicians don’t like it but it also makes it extremely difficult to go to war on a nation when you are getting that kind of image and I think the humanity of her reporting and Lindsey’s (Hilsum, Channel Four News) was just of a different calibre and texture from the reporting we’d seen before and I think that will in some way made fundamental changes in how war is seen”.
War reporting and gender
Is it coincidental that the two reporters Rusbridger picked out were women? Before 1970, only six percent of foreign correspondents were women. Today, the Brookings Institution estimates that more than one third are female and they are, according to Sheila Gibbons, having an increasing influence on the content and tone of war coverage. “As the number of women war correspondents approaches critical mass, they appear to be focusing more clearly on the toll that today’s wars take on the civilian population – the women and children – who have little or no say in the decisions that lead to mass killing and wounding”.
Coverage of the war in Afghanistan has remained largely, up to now, ‘unfeminised’, at least in western corporate media. The deployment of such reporters as Goldenberg and Hilsum to Baghdad has not been emulated, for a variety of reasons. There is not one identifiable ‘centre’ of direct violence, and for western-employed correspondents, setting out to talk to ‘ordinary Afghans’ has been fraught with dangers and difficulties. Gibbons’ comment about traditional, male-dominated war reporting rings true: “dominated by tactical questions, political infighting and policy disputes, [it] can obscure the trauma experienced by women who live in areas targeted for attacks”, especially since, according to international estimates, women, along with children under 15, between them comprise 70% of Afghanistan’s population.
Observing that peace journalism may be a more ‘feminised’ mode of reporting need not essentialise gender characteristics. A useful perspective can be read across from sociolinguistics, in which the focus is “not on biological sex, nor even on the culturally constructed category of gender, but rather on the diverse realizations of the dynamic dimensions of masculinity and femininity”. Janet Holmes finds that “stylistic variability is often greater in women’s speech than men’s”, and relates that to “the ways in which women are often required to use language to construct a much wider range of social identities and express a wider range of social roles than men”. A peace journalist will have to give voice to people far outside the narrow circle of ‘official sources’: a task that may therefore come more readily, in general, to women than men.
It echoes debates about gender in the context of political discourses and styles, notably over the notion of ‘soft power’. Indra Adnan, Director of the Soft Power Network, explains: “hard power is the use of force whereas soft power is the use of attraction – two ways to get results in any field of endeavour”. Peace journalism “is both a tool and a vehicle for soft power”, she adds, “as it enables and models those more open, reciprocal relationships between countries or actors of any kind”.
Joseph Nye, who has popularised the term, sees “female skills” of empathising, mediating and seeing the bigger picture as vital to its effectiveness. Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge, calls these characteristics biological and neurological, whereas Susan Pinker, a psychologist who writes about social science issues in newspapers, prefers to see them as cultural, arising from the different roles that women traditionally and still occupy in order to bring up children within a community of support.
The now longstanding ‘disconnect’ between public and political opinion on the war in Afghanistan is attributable to “the brute unresponsiveness of institutional frameworks”(1). Media have often presented the same blandly indifferent face, both to the suffering of the Afghan people and to calls, in belligerent countries, for troops to be pulled out. A bit more peace journalism, and a bit more feminisation, is long overdue.
(1) Jake Lynch, ‘What is the Point of Peace?’, Uni News, University of Sydney, March 2009.
This is Part Two of a column that originally appeared in Media Development 2010/1, ‘Rethinking Media and Gender Justice’. Part One appeared on TMS last week. For more details about Media Development, and to subscribe, see here: http://www.waccglobal.org/en/resources/media-development.html
Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. He and Annabel McGoldrick are researching A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict, a Linkage Project sponsored by the Australian Research Council, with partnership from the International Federation of Journalists and the aid agency, Act for Peace.
Indra Adnan is Director of the Soft Power Network and The Downing Street Project, and a regular contributor to the Guardian and the Huffington Post.
The three produced the first Peace Journalism Summer School, in 1997, with Johan Galtung, that launched the worldwide movement for peace journalism among journalists, civil society activists and academic researchers.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Mar 2010.
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