Peace journalism needs also pragmatics

This fragment is part of my MA dissertation, which is currently under review.

A great number of critics have been focusing on the irresponsibility of the commercial media in general towards conflict situations, stressing their influence on spirals of violence or the importance they could have – and sometimes do – in promoting peace. Professor Johan Galtung is one of the precursors on the field of peace journalism advocacy, if we can call it that. He argues that a low road way of looking at conflicts, dominant in media coverage, ‘sees conflicts as a battle, as a sports arena or a gladiator circus.’ He explains:

       The parties, usually reduced to two, are combatants struggling to impose             their goals. The reporting model is that of a military command: who   advances, who capitulates short of their goals; losses are counted in    terms of killed or wounded and material damage. The zero-sum perspective draws upon sports reporting where “winning is not everything, is the only thing.”[i]

Peace journalism, on the other hand, builds its course over a high road, which focuses on conflict transformation. As many other conflict analysts, Galtung stresses the opportunities that conflicts could bring to human progress, ‘using the conflict to find new ways, transforming the conflict creatively so that the opportunities take the upper hand – without violence.’[ii] Directing suggestions to what Galtung calls peace correspondents – as opposed to war correspondents – journalists should then depart from the following questions, if they are to understand and transmit real and truthful information about conflicts:

1)      What is the conflict about? Who are the parties and what are their real goals, including the parties beyond the immediate arena of violence?
2)      What are the deeper roots of the conflict, structural, cultural, including the history of both?
3)      What visions exist about outcomes other than one party imposing itself on the other – what particularly creative, new ideas? Can such ideas be sufficiently powerful to prevent violence?
4)      If violence occurs, what about invisible effects such as trauma and hatred, and the desires for revenge and more glory?
5)      Who is working to prevent violence, what are their visions of conflict outcomes, their methods and how can they be supported?
6)      Who is initiating genuine reconstruction, reconciliation and resolution and who is only reaping benefits, like reconstruction contracts?[iii]

Furthermore, Galtung consolidates his view stating that peace journalism is a ‘journalism of attachment to all actual and potential victims; war journalism attaches only to “our” side.’[iv] On the other hand, he continues with the remark that the task of peace journalism ‘is serious, professional reporting, making these processes more transparent. The task of peace advocacy is better left to peace workers.’[v] On the coverage of peace proposals, for example, he advances the following questions

1)      What was the method behind the plan? Dialogue with the parties and, in that case, with all the parties? Trial negotiation? Analogy with other conflicts? Intuition?
2)      To what extent is the plan acceptable to all parties? If not, what can be done about it?
3)      To what extent is the plan, if realized, self-sustainable? If not, what can be done about it?
4)      Is the plan based on autonomous action by the conflict parties, or does it depend on outsiders?
5)      To what extent is there process in the plan, about who shall do what, how, when and where, or is it only outcome?
6)      To what extent is the plan based on what only elites can do, what only people can do or what both can do?
7)      Does the plan foresee an ongoing conflict-resolution process or a single-shot agreement?
8)      Is peace/conflict transformation education for people, for elites or for both built into the plan?
9)      If there has been violence, to what extent does the plan contain elements of reconciliation?
10)  If there has been violence, to what extent does the plan contain elements of rehabilitation/reconstruction?
11)  If the plan doesn’t work, is the plan reversible?
12)  Even if the plan does work for this conflict, does it create new conflicts or problems? Is it a good deal?[vi]

Graham Spencer, also working on peace journalism, departs from the suggestions made by Galtung when saying that the mainstream news media currently ‘rely on the exaggeration of conflict by focusing on two antagonistic forces and contributing to a zero-sum game.’[vii] On a peace-oriented mode of report, on the other hand, Spencer reiterates the need for a shift ‘from the exclusive paradigm provided by news, to an inclusive paradigm where contestations over a single line of communication give way to collective contestations and a multi-layered dynamic of communication.’[viii] This is where diversity, according to Spencer, should be emphasized as a key for facilitating peace.

Connecting the perspective of a peace-oriented news production to the theories of conflict resolution, Spencer recalls ideas set by Galtung and other authors on the need to identify problem-solving alternatives, options that the parties have not considered yet, looking beyond stated positions toward the interests and needs of the parties and focusing on the possibilities of conflict escalation, de-escalation, or settlement. He continues to argue for a paradigmatic approach outside the journalistic field, so it can bring change:

As journalism is protective of the conventions it adopts and a change to            conflict prevention interferes with existing ideas of professionalism, so             the responsibilities of the profession must be brought outside of the     industry into the public domain if change is to occur.[ix]

Spencer also recognizes the important work that a great number of journalists have already begun, participating and disseminating this debate, involving other fields of research and organizing observatories, seminars, conferences and a variety of other initiatives directed at the discussion of the craft, at the construction or establishment of other values of production, stating their responsibility towards peace. Under the umbrella of the debate over the CNN effect, for example, journalists employed by this same network are participating on the questioning over the once-absolute notion – probably never practiced – of impartiality and objectivity, as principles of the craft of journalism.

Participating in Investigating Power – a project produced by Professor Charles Lewis, of the American University School of Communication in Washington, DC ­– along with around thirty other journalists, Christiane Amanpour talks about objectivity in war. In her interview, part of a series in which the project is based, Amanpour talks about her experience in the Gulf War, comparing it to the Balkans, where she stayed from 1991 to even after 1995, when the Dayton Accords were signed. She was surprised when getting to know the reality on the field: it was not as simplistic as European leaders were saying. It was not ‘just about ancient ethnic hatred, it was genocide,’ she says, ‘and we found it on our backyard, on our watch, in Europe.’[x] Amanpour was shocked by the criticism she got for ‘taking sides’, reporting from the field and naming as genocidewhat was happening. That is when, she says, she had to think about what objectivity does actually mean.[xi]

In this same direction, Amira Hass – until recently the only Israeli Jew journalist who lives in the Palestinian Occupied Territories – says she does not look for objectivity; she looks for justice when writing her news stories and opinions, published on the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. She is also constantly criticized for ‘lacking objectivity’, mostly by other newspapers and by the Israeli Government itself; to Hass, however, the notion of objectivity is cynical and hypocritical.[xii] The fact that the conflict is portrayed in its entirety, giving space to all parties both for their wrongdoings and for their accomplishments, should not be in the way when identifying who is the victim and who is the perpetrator, especially in such an asymmetric conflict. It is a matter of ‘doing justice’, or of equilibrating power.[xiii] The same goes to Gideon Levy, from Ha’aretz, and Robert Fisk, working in the British newspaper The Independent, well known journalists equally dedicated to this task.

It is never too much to have in mind that diversity could and should be a good tool when preventing a polarization between demonization and humanization in war journalism – or better saying, for peace journalism, helping to humanize all sides and providing citizens with critical information. To create a diverse account of the conflict and of the possible solutions may propitiate participation by a better informed society. Political leaders would have to be transparent about their interests, their positions and the negotiation process. Peace journalism would help by, according to Spencer, requiring  a ‘relocation of emphasis where the political sphere interacts in dialogue with the public sphere and vice versa, and as such seeks to empower non-elite groups and agencies,’ enabling diversity of perspectives and, therefore, solutions.[xiv]

Spencer, among many others, argues for the equalization of power between the parties in a conflict, having in mind the reactions it may cause on the stronger party, who could feel threatened and could spark an escalation of violence. Journalistic responsibility, in that sense, should work for balancing conditions of communication.


[i] Galtung, ‘High road, Low road’, 2.

[vii] Graham Spencer, The Media and Peace: From Vietnam to the ‘war on terror’ (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 168.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid, 173.

[x] Chirstiane Amanpour, interviewed by Chris Lewis, for Investigating Power. (New York, January 9, 2008).

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] See, for example: Amira Hass, Crónicas de Ramallah (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenber, 2005).

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Spencer, The Media and Peace, 175.

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