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