Non-fiction review – Reporting Conflict

Reporting Conflict: new directions in peace journalism
Johan Galtung and Jake Lynch

'reporting conflict' coverMost of us are familiar with media treatments of wars with a focus on violence, and winners and losers. Jake Lynch and Johan Galtung call this the ‘low road’ of war journalism. They contrast it with the ‘high road’ of peace journalism that looks at the conflict and all the parties who have an interest in the outcome of the conflict. The authors detail their arguments supporting peace journalism and its role in telling the whole story to see how conflict can be transformed into an opportunity for human progress. The book explores various theoretical ideas and how they link to the practice of peace journalism. The chapter on objectivity, balance, truth and ethics dispels various prevalent myths and offers useful approaches to good journalism. This book is worth every minute of reading time for those reporting conflict or interested in how conflict is reported.

The authors stress that the high road of peace journalism must be truthful and report all violence but it looks at why events happen, asks what is the context of this conflict and seeks out causes.

In a context where the Manichean notion of good and evil is expressed in terms of ‘us and them’ or ‘you are with us or against us’, journalists are less likely to recognise that there are many parties with goals and history that shapes their interest in how a conflict is resolved.
If war journalism reports the violence using the good and evil metaphor then the usual result is that one side needs to be crushed and one side is the winner. Those of us following the reports will not know the story before the violence occurred and the story after the violence finishes and we will therefore have limited understanding of the conflict.

To quote the authors:

The Anglo-American war in Iraq can’t be seen in terms of two parties, ‘the world against Saddam Hussein’ … clearly, Kurds, Sunnis and Shias have different goals, like ‘independence’, ‘rule Iraq from Baghdad,’ ‘Islamic Republic’. The US has a host of goals, some geo-economic like control over access to oil supplies, oil prices and dollar over euro; some geo political like bases for Gulf, Middle East and Central Asia control; some geo-cultural like Judeo-Christianity and its derivatives like electoral democracy and human rights. The six neighbouring countries also have different goals, and so do the ‘allies’.

The authors note what I believe is a profoundly important aspect of peace journalism, namely the notion of attachment to all actual and potential victims rather than war journalism’s attachment to ‘our side’.

This point is made through a discussion of news filters where factors such as elite people from elite countries with personal and negative stories rate highly as newsworthy. In contrast, non-elite people from a non-elite country with a positive story about a structural issue, say a political or economic issue, often go unreported.

In their words:

So a first world celebrity with even minor negative gossip is deemed more newsworthy than a third world social disaster affecting many people.

To counter news filters and the ‘hierarchy of death’ it is important to consider what peace journalism looks like in practice. Tips on peace journalism are scattered throughout the book but there is a reminder of the importance of questions such as, how is the violence explained? Does the description include the structural and cultural violence on the lives of all the people involved?

It is even suggested that journalists report monthly on something that was resolved peacefully and why. It seems to me that a move from war journalism to peace journalism will require consumers of media to regularly demand news from a peace journalism framework.

Importantly, the authors remind us that since the end of the Cold War, the number of ‘hot wars’ around the world has declined yet total global military spending over the same time has risen in real terms. They note that there is a large amount of horrific conflict but there has been undue emphasis on ‘threats’ to justify massive spending on war equipment.

The book has detailed analysis of 9/11 and 10/07 (initiation of the western air war in Afghanistan) concluding that the reaction to both attacks was reactive and moralistic rather than well informed or solution orientated.

The authors want the solution seeking aspect of conflict reporting to go beyond ‘dialogue’ and ‘reduce poverty’. To my mind both these aims are worthwhile from a peace journalism perspective but I agree they are not solutions but merely part of the larger story.

At this point in the book I tried to recall who did peace journalism and broke out of the restrictive prisms that often shape our understanding of world events. The authors answered with:

Very few have details at their command like a Robert Fisk, with his deep knowledge and extensive investigative journalism. To that should be added his rare ability to see a conflict from more angles than one and to convey to readers actions, words and thoughts pointing to exits from fundamentalism and retaliation.

The chapter on media monitoring provides some hope for a shift to peace journalism with the reminder that the New York Times and the Washington Post ran front page apologies over their failings in reporting issues in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. This chapter outlines how a global standard in news about conflict could be like the Michelin stars, rating editors and reporters rather than chefs and waiters.

Among the many features of peace journalism outlined in Reporting Conflict, the vital elements include the value of reporting causes and context, giving voice to all rival parties, offering creative ideas for conflict resolution, exposing lies and cover-ups and reporting peace stories.

The authors claim, without further discussion, that their framework applies to violence between non-state groups, to rape, domestic violence, race and class conflict among other examples. I suggest that this a complex discussion worthy of several detailed chapters perhaps in another book.

Reporting Conflict does however successfully look behind the headlines of war journalism and expose the need for new ideas and language when reporting violence.

In the same way that progressive workers advocating with and on behalf of the poorest and most dispossessed in our communities shift the discourse from the deserving poor to the rights and entitlements of those facing great hardships, peace journalism shifts the focus from violence to the stories around conflict thereby opening the door to creative responses. By doing so it gives peace a chance.

Sharon Callaghan

Sharon Callaghan writes pieces for the Illawarra Mercury that reflect social and political issues within the community. She has written in different publications on the rights of asylum seekers, democracy, nonviolence, racism, public space, community unionism, human rights and feminism.

More by Sharon Callaghan ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Thanks Sharon – an inspiring review! I particularly like your point: “It seems to me that a move from war journalism to peace journalism will require consumers of media to regularly demand news from a peace journalism framework.” We, as consumers, have more power than we know and should demand an ethical ‘product’. I’ve long thought that the presentation of the ‘news’ is one of the murkiest propaganda tools – the whole idea of an ‘objective’ and ‘official’ view from print journalism is, often, laughable. Television news is particularly disturbing – coming as an entertainment ‘package’, as it does. I applaud those courageous enough to practice peace journalism: I’m all for anything that gives peace a chance.

  2. Thanks Clare. Despite the media news filters pointing to the low road of war journalism as somehow being more ‘newsworthy’ there is hope when you think of some of the most admired people who work or worked for peace, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Ghandi. Many people want to hear the stories of these and ordinary people who work for peace as they reveal all kinds of lessons on how peaceful approaches can overcome violence. I am with you applauding those who report the conflict away from the staged press conference, who refuse to dehumanise the other side and will expose the horrific, hidden details that show how degrading war is for everyone involved. I hope that reporting conflict using peace journalism becomes a key part of journalism schools.

  3. Referring to the three well known peace activists discussed in Reporting Conflict, (sorry for typo it should be Gandhi), I think of others who have adopted peaceful approaches and inspired many like Rosa Parks and Rigoberta Menchu.

  4. But what do they say about wars in which there is a clear moral distinction? In the American Civil War, for instance, a peace that left the Confederate regime intact would have been completely reactionary. In that context, I think I’d be quite happy to see one side crushed and the other victorious.
    I get the point that should always be sensitive to human suffering, no matter the cause — I’ve never had much sympathy for that macho toughness that sometimes manifests on the Left. At the same time, I feel a little uneasy about an approach that uncritically advocates peace, irrespective of the context. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood.

  5. Sharon, thanks for this post/review on a very interesting topic – which could probably generate several blogs in response I think. I read Galtung years ago as part of a degree in Indigenous education, and your post has reminded me of a lot of his arguments.
    In regard to Jeff’s comments: the problem with wars where there is a ‘clear moral distinction’ is that the moral distinctions tend to get lost in the warring, as soon as the first child is killed for example. If I’m happy to see one side crushed and another victorious, that looks like a bit of a simplistic politic to me. Wars have many many causes, and as a solution to any problem haven’t really shown they cut the mustard. I’m not sure there’s just a war vs peace choice to be made. Peace isn’t a kind of monolithic entity that eschews conflict. We could all happily have conflict without war, which is almost never based on a kind of genuine moral virtue but on racism, power, and so forth. Our ways of enabling conflict are very sophisticated I think – both internationally and interpersonally – and our ways of enabling peace, a kind of co-existence that seeks to address structural issues of injustice and so on without mass killing are very unsophisticated. I have almost no knowledge of the US civil war, but a solution to the barbarity of slavery that involves mass slaughter and wholesale destruction doesn’t look like a great solution to me.

  6. Hmm … I don’t know about that, Stephen. I mean, in the great slave rebellions in Haiti and elsewhere, the slaves often did end up committing barbarities themselves. Now, that’s bad, of course, but are we really going to argue that we’d prefer a peace between the slaves and their masters to a victory for the former?
    That’s why I’m not a pacifist, I guess: it’s just never seemed a very moral position to me.

    1. Dear Jeff, I find your position somehow terribly heartrending. Going for the ‘lesser evil’ isn’t really peace; supporting slavery isn’t really pacifism, according to me. Sorry, perhaps that should be: according to Me. (haha) The unfortunate thing about us humans is that we internalise abuse, into our very cells, and then (often) we perpetuate it. But in every scenario (I believe)are people on every ‘side’ doing the best they can with whatever they have and you really can’t . *sigh*

  7. From my reading Jeff the authors frame the discussion around how entrenched conflict continues, often over decades, so the history of all involved is essential to understanding how to find solutions. Yet the history and context is rarely examined. They look at various conflicts and assess that some strategies that worked in one context could be opportunities for peaceful progress in another. However when the focus is using war as the means to a peace then that dominates and eliminates other possible strategies. In the Gulf wars so many people were not for any side and didn’t want war at all but they were ignored.
    Their idea about looking at the goals of all the parties makes sense to me as there are often many aims and goals and therefore many possible ways to move forward. I agree with Stephen on this that war seems so simplistic a response to a complex problem.
    In my limited experience in Guatemala, decades of civil war, death squads, repression and violence left generations deeply traumatised and peaceful solutions were decades late in coming. When war and hostility dominate a culture over a long time, crime and violence can flourish in the aftermath for years or decades later. Importantly, many of the unionists, clergy, leftists that were persecuted and victims of war called for peaceful solutions and ways to rebuild their communities. Retaliation would only continue the cycle and block opportunities for structural change.
    Jeff, without a doubt some of history’s peaceful solutions have been unjust but it shouldn’t be beyond us to find fair and peaceful solutions.

  8. I suspect that no-one is a pacifist in the sense that you’re thinking of it Jeff. Any atrocities committed in the slave rebellions or any other morally justifiable rebellion are not a justification for those atrocities in any sense. If anything they emphasise my point that rebellions or any other dramatic and necessary act of justice do not necessarily have to involve indiscriminate bloodshed. The action of the rebellion and the act of the atrocities are not mutually dependent.I can still welcome rebellious acts (ie the Intifada) without suggesting that firing rockets into Israel is a good idea. Even if the Intifida brought autonomy for Gaza, I can support that without supporting the deaths of anyone. Rebellion or Intifida good/Murder wrong is a very viable position.
    As Sharon points out,the voices of many of those who have suffered extreme violence calling for non-violent solutions should give us pause.
    Context is everything. Pacificism, as Galtung tries to explain it is an attempt to understand causes and conditions and contexts and structures of violence.

    1. The dear Macquarie tells me that pacifism is 1. the opposition to war or violence of any kind and 2. the principle or policy of establishing and maintaining universal peace. As an overarching value and aspiration, I’m willing to give it a whirl. I don’t think it means aiding and abetting slavery et al, or permitting violence/oppression without resisting/objecting. I think Tank Man is a pacifist.

  9. Hi Sharon,
    I take the point about the effect of entrenched conflict. There’s an anecdote about how if you come late to any fist fight, it’s almost impossible to know which combatant is the aggressor since the fight itself forces both pugilists to use the same tactics. And, obviously, I haven’t read the book: I’m just responding to the issues raised in your interesting review.
    Obviously, violence is abhorrent. There’s a reason why it’s invariably the Left engaging in peaceful protests and the Right engaging in wars: namely, there’s a dialectic between means and ends, and violence (particularly individual violence) tends to be incompatible with collective and democratic outcomes.
    That being said, I’m still not sure I understand your argument, Stephen. The act of the rebellion and the act of the atrocities might not be necessarily connected (in that it’s possible to imagine a hypothetical slave rebellion taking place without atrocities) but, actually, most slave rebellions have resulted in terrible violence (for fairly obvious historical reasons). And given that, if you welcome the rebellion, well, you have to be prepared to defend the violence. For me, while I don’t want to see (say) slave owners burned alive, I wouldn’t use that as the basis of saying to the slaves that they should make peace with their owners.

    1. But that’s just my point Jeff….I can welcome the rebellion and not be prepared to defend it’s brutality. The two are not necessarily interdependent. There’s a very clear distinction to be made there, a very critical one. It’s because there are historical reasons behind violent acts that pacifism wants to look at causes and conditions of violence and in understanding them, find a way to effect change without necklacing people.Pacifism doesn’t have to mean slaves making peace with slaveowners and just accepting the status quo. That would be ludicrous, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard any pacifist arguments that propose that as a general strategy. As Clare points the Tank man at Tianamen was a pacifist.

      1. But the man in front of that tank individually didn’t change anything, though it was great imagery for Western media.

        Why are we embracing the idea that an individual separate from a movement changes anything, another great capitalist media fantasy? There was a real movement behind his stand so what would we say to that resistance: that they only have a certain list of approved actions? Wait until enough students are crushed and another country invades?

        We know nothing of that individual’s fate or what happened after that photo. In that instance, whom did pacifism work for? China still imprisons and executes political prisoners, among other atrocities.

        Capitalism is a violent system. If morality is constructed, the only right course of action is the one that takes the struggle forward.

        And so I return to my first point: individual actions change nothing and do not take movements forward, whether it’s terrorism or writing a letter to your local MP.

        1. And We Know the Flag of Love is from Above
          And We Can Force You to Be Free
          And We Can Force You to Believe

          And I close my eyes and tighten up my brain
          For I once read a book in which the lovers were slain
          For they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain
          It said

          I believe in the Power of Good
          I Believe in the State of Love
          I Will Fight For the Right to be Right
          I Will Kill for the Good of the Fight for the Right to be Right

          And I open my eyes to look around
          And I see a child laid slain on the ground
          As a love machine lumbers through desolation rows
          Ploughing down man, woman, listening to its command
          But not hearing anymore
          Not hearing anymore
          Just the shrieks from the old rich

          And I Want to Believe
          In the madness that calls now
          And I want to Believe
          That a light’s shining through

          I want to join an armed resistance myself, when I read and see pictures of what is happening in Gaza, what I saw in Johannesburg … what streams into us from (it seems) all parts of the earth. I still think that peace journalism can only support a better understanding – and I got from the review that peace journalism is about writing a well-rounded and informed perspective: though this doesn’t mean that a peace-journalist couldn’t settle on a ‘side’ if the evidence made such a choice inevitable – such as an examination of Israel and Palestine, for example.

          Jacinda, what can I say – I’m an old hippie. I just want everybody to be nice to one another as well has have enough food to eat, air to breathe, space to be, wear what they want, sing what they want, pray what they want in a kind of harmonious chaos of celebration.

        2. Jack, individual actions change everything.They don’t have to
          be opposed to actions that constitute a movement. Everyone
          has moral agency and moral agency matters.
          Individuals make a movement and movements create
          individuals. To say that individual actions change nothing
          seems unduly nihilist to me and seems to me to be an arguement in capture to despair of some kind. The tank man was not separate
          from the movement and wouldn’t have made as much sense
          without the movement. He embodied the movement in some
          sense. There isn’t any way that a student uprising
          could upend the Chinese military, even if they’d all been armed with rocket-launchers and Uzis. Resistance is essential, and how that is constructed needs to be talked about and thought about every day we live. I can’t wait for a movement – whatever a movement is – to act and think.
          I agree that capitalism is a violent system. But I have not idea what you mean by “If morality is constructed, the only right course of action is the one that takes the struggle forward.”

          1. Hey Stephen

            I disagree. Not everyone does have agency, and where does this moral framework even come from?

            Obviously movements consist of a mass of individuals. But the ideas and actions of those individuals are influenced by and in response to the world (and movements) around them.

            I think there are many, many individuals sitting at home thinking there are many, many things wrong in the world. But wherein lies the catalyst between anguished thought and concrete action? There are quantifiable differences between writing a letter to an editor or an MP about those feelings and joining a picket line.

            We could all write letters to a paper about Australia’s treatment of refugees – as we do – but the government rarely opens the paper. If we could close down ports and stop production, on the other hand – collectively – the government would have no choice but to hear that movement.

            When I say, ‘If morality is constructed, the only right course of action is the one that takes the struggle forward’, I mean:

            Morality is a value system imposed by those in power to maintain the status quo, thus the title of Trotsky’s essay – Their morals and ours. It’s up to movements to act collectively to create change, not based on some kind of illusion of moral perfection, but based on genuine liberation for the oppressed. The actions that take a struggle forward for the oppressed are the right actions, morally or otherwise.

            And I think it’s untrue to suggest that rocket launchers and uzis wouldn’t have changed anything. To begin with, it would have meant the student resistance had backing and material support.

            Malcolm X once said: ‘Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery’. I’m not saying I agree with this, but then again, I’ve never found myself in that situation.

  10. Yes this is so powerful Clare. A fellow with his shopping bags probably just wanting to go home but trying to block the tanks did so much to show the madness of the war juggernaut versus the precious fragility of human life.
    An anonymous bloke with his shopping reminded so many around the world that if we could build peaceful resistance into our culture, maybe the tanks would have no where to go, ever.
    Great anecdote Jeff. Yes I think your comment about means and ends and the Left having an investment in collective and democratic outcomes is to some extent explored in the book. They talk about how a country and its peoples and their conflict had a time before violence and there will be a time after violence and war is oblivious to this continuum so unless fair peaceful solutions are used that understand the full conflict, then it is harder to arrive at democratic outcomes. It will remain at war and punishment and not see what a democratic peaceful future could look like.
    I see peaceful resistance, civil disobedience and creative peaceful actions as powerful rebellious acts that are underreported but have successfully played a part for activists under repressive regimes or in the face of violence. I think what the issue is, is that when resistance or rebellion is accompanied with violence it generally fails.
    I draw inspiration from Brian Martin’s Backfire model where the actions by perpetrators of injustice backfire to create broad condemnation. I am thinking of the Gaza Peace Flotilla and many other examples.

    1. Sharon, I thought this was a great review. But I strongly disagree with your comments on the Gaza flotilla. It’s often people who don’t have an investment or anything to lose (but everything to gain) who control the violence discourse.

      And it is only people in power who use the rhetoric of violence, which we should separate from a violent ‘action’.

      Regardless of what you consider to be peaceful protest, in any climate, can be reframed to be seen as an act of violence – from raising your voice, to picketing, to property destruction. Indeed, to self-defence when the police attack you, to self-defence when commandos board your ship in international waters and to self-defence when you start to soak up their bullets – regardless of whether your people are being starved, your houses are being bombed and your children are being shot.

      I don’t think this is a debate about violence. When we’re looking at resistance, as separate from conflicts (though corporate interests play a gargantuan role in war), there is a political imperative to support the oppressed.

      This is also the difficulty when discussing ‘morality’, because the moral framework is constructed by those who control society.

      As a friend of mine once said: ‘Free samples of moral perfection for those desirous are furnished by all the interested editorial offices’.

      And I leave you with a very recent comment on the flotilla and violence by a young Melbourne comedian:

      1. “Regardless of what you consider to be peaceful protest, in any climate, can be reframed to be seen as an act of violence – from raising your voice, to picketing, to property destruction.”

        Sadly, so absolutely true.

        This, for example: ‘”I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture. It had been a peaceful march, the children were told to disperse, they started singing Nkosi Sikelele. The police were ordered to shoot.”

        These are the words of Sam Nzima, recalling the events of 16 June 1976 when over 500 people were killed as they protested over the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in township schools.

        On 16 June, students from three schools – Belle Higher Primary, Phefeni Junior Secondary and Morris Isaacson High – planned to march from their schools to the Orlando Stadium, about a kilometre from the museum, to hold a meeting. But before they got to where the museum stands today the police met them, in Moema Street.

        There are conflicting accounts of who gave the first command to shoot, but soon children were turning and running in all directions, leaving some children lying wounded on the road – among them Hector Pieterson and Hastings Ndlovu.’

        In 2009, a friend of mine was led on a tour through Soweto by Mandy Mankazana who was a ten-year-old student at the time of this protest – and was shot, twice, but survived. Many years later Mandy mediated a meeting between one of the culpable policemen ‘ordered’ to shoot, and the family of the child he killed, so the policeman (a very young man at the time and now middle aged), could apologise. According to Mandy, the family forgave him.

        I wonder, having written this: does a policeman’s guilt make him worthy of forgiveness? Then I think – it doesn’t matter. It’s not about him.

        I should just be quiet now…

  11. Jacinda my point about the Peace flotilla is well made by the young Melbourne comedian, showing the injustice of the Israeli actions against those bringing aid cannot be justified and therefore backfires. People all around the world condemned the violence and are demanding change.
    I agree that peaceful protest can be reframed as violence and the powerful and well resourced can block signals to prevent true images being broadcast allowing the perpetrators of violence to try to manipulate public perceptions.
    Bad journalism will define a group of unionists as a thuggish mob when they protest or picket and another group they usually support as aggrieved constituents when they do the same.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.