Making a Difference: 20 Years of Conflict-Resolving Media
“Tidak bisa! Tidak bisa!” The journalist – taking part in a workshop Annabel McGoldrick and I were running in the Indonesian city of Surabaya – shook his head in agitation. The words, in Bahasa Indonesia, mean “cannot be done”. The Peace Journalism precepts being presented were not, he clearly felt, compatible with the expectations on him and his colleagues in a professional milieu. Later, when some participants from the training came with us on a field trip to another urban centre, Manado, we set up a “Ruang Redaksi Jurnalisme Damai” (Peace Journalism newsroom) with the slogan, “Tidak ada, yang tidak bisa” – “There is nothing that cannot be done!”
But the words stayed with us, and indeed the feasibility of Peace Journalism in practice was one of the weak spots unerringly identified by a top media researcher, Thomas Hanitzsch, when our ideas first began to be exposed beneath the unforgiving lens of critical scholarship. It relies on “an overly individualistic and voluntaristic approach”, he wrote, in a specialist journal, Conflict and Communication – ignoring the overbearing influence on news content from the structures and systems in which it is produced.
So I have always wanted to follow through, with participants from our teaching and training courses, to find out whether, how and how far they can implement Peace Journalism after learning about it. And now, findings from a research pilot project indicate that, broadly speaking, they can, and they do. Participants had all studied Conflict-resolving Media, a course we recently ran at the University of Sydney for the 20th time, and have also offered, now and then, at JOMEC (Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies) and London’s Frontline Club, as well.
I conducted Skype text discussions with 12 alumni – six who had gone on to take up journalistic careers and the other six in professional communication roles. In response to the first question, whether the ideas they met on the course influenced them in their work, they were unequivocal. Dilnaz Boga, who studied with us in 2004 and went on to win an international award from Agence France Presse for her reporting from Kashmir – and who offered permission to name her in accounts of the research – said:
“What struck me most were certain elements like I should be looking at processes over events, foregrounding people’s views… It changed the way I approached stories”.
Another Indian journalist, who took the course at Cardiff University in 2003 and was (at the time of the interview) just about to go to Kashmir to cover the constitutional crisis there for a television news channel, told me:
“In my reportage, taking from the course, I always stay focused on stating facts, the truth and let the voice of the people dominate the narrative as opposed to political parties or ‘elite sources’ as you call them. These sources tend to have vested interests that I avoid. I focus on people’s stories, the human-interest ones. Solutions are not what I intentionally work towards, but they can be inevitable outcome of any such endeavour and I hope for that”.
For a London-based Senior Producer with an international television news channel, who took the course at the Frontline Club in 2014:
“It’s definitely encouraged me to think differently when I’m actually putting stories together, and to think creatively about different angles. Also not to assume that ‘it won’t get past the editor’ or that no-one wants to hear it”.
An experienced documentary-maker, who studied in Sydney in 2018 and is now based in Spain, commented:
“The course made me re-evaluate how I’d work in a conflict zone in the future. I’d worked mainly on instinct in Nigeria and Afghanistan, for my two most recent projects, but thankfully I had used PJ techniques in my approach. It can be tempting to just go for the most visual and dramatic shocking material when you’re out in the field. But that’s not the full story and won’t contribute to the peace building process. For the edit of the Nigeria film I’m keeping much of the material we discussed in mind”.
Those whose career in media took them into professional PR roles also testified as to the influence of Peace Journalism in their work. One graduate who now fulfils the lead communication brief in a major global aid agency, reflected:
“A lot of what I do is crafting communications to sell products and ideas that then convert to fundraising opportunities. Conflict Resolving Media made me pause about what agenda I had in terms of communicating issues of crisis, conflict and poverty, and whether there was scope to tell those stories with more of a peacebuilding focus, rather than dramatising violence, and still raise much-needed funds and project the same influence”.
In the interviews, I reminded former students that we presented the four main ‘orientations’ of Peace Journalism, from Johan Galtung’s original model, as being towards conflict and peace, rather than violence; people rather than elites; truth rather than propaganda (which can be interpreted as prompting and equipping readers and audiences to think critically), and solutions rather than victory. Which of these could be implemented most readily?
Finding opportunities to tell ‘people’ stories was, several respondents said, relatively easy – forming a “sense of justice/voice/representation/progress and also align[ing] in softer ways with journalists’ basic concepts of what they need to cover” – according to a participant who had studied at Cardiff in 2003 and gone on to work in a range of media in both south and north America.
“Peace as opposed to violence is the one that gets the most push-back”, this same person said. “In fact, it is outright rejected by most, sarcastically entertained by some, [greeted with] genuine interest by a very small group, and quite vehemently attacked by the profession as a whole. Always in a state of flux, and things change slowly, but there is a guard that doesn’t want the word peace introduced at all and will bar you for it”.
These observations chimed with other answers where respondents were asked to specify the strongest constraints in professional journalism, making the Peace Journalism orientations most difficult to implement. A widely-cited academic work, by US researchers Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese, sees the influences on news content arranged in a “hierarchy” of levels: the level of the individual; of media routines; media organisation; as well as the extra-media level and the ideological level. It is, if anything, the last of these that most obviously limits the potential for journalists to implement Peace Journalism, and – as Dilnaz Boga testified – political pressure is often at its most intense on a local level, where media themselves have internalised it:
“The editors all over the world were happy with my work. Some of them were even concerned about my safety. But in India, the story was completely different… My stories about Kashmir were received with hostility… The Indian editors used to delete the historical background I had provided in the story. They would say things like this is an anti-national story, if you don’t like India, why don’t you go back to Iran (because I’m a Zoroastrian). In 2013, when I was working for a national newspaper, this national editor asked me if I was a covert Muslim!!! The thing is they couldn’t understand why stories were around people and not what the army was saying”.
Findings from the study were due, at time of writing, to be presented in full at two academic conferences: the Conflict Research Society in Brighton, and the Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff, both in September 2019. In the latter, I was to co-present with my colleague who is conducting the research with me, Dr Giuliana Tiripelli of De Montfort University, author of Media and Peace in the Middle East, a book published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.
Drawn from semi-structured interviews with just 12 participants, any emerging themes, let alone conclusions, must be regarded as tentative, and indeed the research is probably best seen as a pilot project, and preparation to seek funds for a larger study. But the project does provide at least some justification for commissioning and conducting Peace Journalism training, in a university setting or otherwise. Those who undergo such training can and do alter the content of their media work accordingly, often in the face of political and other pressures that make it more difficult.
Jake Lynch is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Coventry University for 2019-20, after which he will return to the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone: An Oxford Detective Story of the 17th Century, is published by Unbound Books. Jake has spent 20 years developing and researching Peace Journalism, in theory and practice. He is the author of seven books and over 50 refereed articles and book chapters. His work in this field was recognised with the award of the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, by the Schengen Peace Foundation. He served for two years as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, having organised its biennial global conference in Sydney, in 2010. Before taking up an academic post, Jake enjoyed a 17-year career in journalism, with spells as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, for Sky News, and the Sydney Correspondent for the Independent newspaper, culminating in a role as an on-screen presenter for BBC World Television News. Lynch is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and Debates in Peace Journalism, Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick, Reporting Conflict: An Introduction to Peace Journalism, which TMS editor Antonio C. S. Rosa translated to Portuguese. His most recent book of scholarly research is A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict (Taylor & Francis, 2014).
Originally posted on The Peace Journalist magazine, published by the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University (Parkville, MO USA). For back issues of the magazine, see: https://www.park.edu/academics/explore-majors-programs/peace-studies-minor/center-global-peace-journalism-2/peace-journalist/ .
Tags: Conflict Resolution, Peace Journalism, Solutions
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 17 Feb 2020.
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