Peace Journalism - Does it Work?

by Lauren Gianni

It has often been said that conflicts drive media coverage and media coverage shapes conflicts.  The media is often criticized for the role it plays in heightening violence and war, with many broadcast news stations devoting much of their airtime to reporting on conflict.  In many instances, only one side of a story is reported on, whereas the other side’s voice is left out.  In opposition to the current way news is reported and the emphasis it places on violence, a new method of journalism has developed.  Peace journalists focus on uncovering additional layers of the ‘truth’ by capturing all sides of a conflict, as well as being more sensitive to a story’s consequences, especially during times of war.  There have been many accounts where a story has been reported on in the news and violence has erupted due to the language of the story and the underlying issues of complexity within the conflict.  Peace journalism is a relatively new concept and juxtaposes the current method of news reporting on violence and war.  It attempts to encourage and build peace by reporting on these events, rather than solely focusing on violence and war.  The idea is that if more concentration is placed on individuals or groups looking to build peace, not only is the media providing its audience with more balanced news coverage, but it promotes peace in conflict-laden areas as well.  But, in a world so addicted and mesmerized by war and violence, can peace journalism ever compete with conflict reporting?

Basics of Peace Journalism

Peace journalism is when editors and reporters make choices about what to report, and how to report it, that create opportunities for people to consider and to value non-violent responses to conflict.  Peace journalism focuses on peace and reconciliation efforts in times of war.  It is a method of quality reporting about conflicts, crises, and wars, which seeks to provide a more balanced view in the news media.  In conflict reporting, violence is typically presented as only its own cause, ignoring the complexity of the structural or psychological causes.  Since violence is assumed to have no cause or explanation, conflict reporting may leave viewers with the conclusion that the only reasonable response to violence is more violence.  Peace journalism aims to correct for these biases.  Its purpose is to allow opportunities for people to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict.  This includes reporting on non-violent parties in conflict-laden areas who want to build and encourage peace.  This form of journalism attempts to humanize all sides of the conflict and is willing to report on conflict and peace initiatives from all parties.  

Quality reporting means that journalism is founded in conflict sensitivity so that the journalist is conscientious of basic values, such as empathy, in order to be more aware of the consequences of a story and promote unbiasedness.  Peace journalists have to also be aware of conflict analyzers, in order to report more accurately on conflict in times of war and violence. Thus, peace journalists have to adhere to many of the quality standards that journalism promotes such as correctness, honesty, and being conscious about the language of a story, rather than thinking about what stories will sell.  Peace journalism also stresses the importance of including a variety of voices, not focusing solely on one conflict party, giving voice to several groups and individuals.  

Does Peace Journalism Sell?

It is accurate that in times of war and conflict, more people will tune in to watch the news than otherwise.  But, are people tuning in to the news to watch footage of violence or is it because people are seeking explanations?  In times of war and crisis, journalism sells because people are turning to the media for answers.  Even though various news outlets offer differences in explanations, there is no proof that media leaning towards more peaceful, less violent coverage wouldn't also sell and wouldn’t also be taken seriously.

One of the main arguments peace journalists have with current news reporting is its preference for ‘sensationalism,’ which creates an environment of anxiety and also blurs the truth.  For example, in Mona Elthaway’s article “Why do they hate us?” in the May/ June 2012 Foreign Policy magazine, she states that the Western world hates the Middle East and Islam because of their treatment towards women.  But, there are many underlying complexities of this argument, many of which she fails to address in the article.  The title of the article especially uses violent language such as ‘hate,’ which helps add more anxiety to the Western world’s views on the Middle East and Islam and gives the presumption that one group hates the other.  Although the article addresses some relevant and important issues, she fails to give voice to millions of young men and women in Middle Eastern countries, such as in Egypt, who fought and died to overthrow an oppressive regime in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, and also may not agree with the unfair treatment of women in their country.  She also generalizes a group of people, not taking into account the differing views between various countries in the Middle East and sects of the Islamic religion.   Lastly, the cover is presented with a dark, mysterious, naked woman covered in black paint, only her eyes visible.  It is clearly provocative, enticing more fear in an audience already confused about ‘the other,’using sex and sensationalism to sell more magazines.

Problems with Peace Journalism

Although peace journalism seeks to provide more balanced news media reporting, there are certain facets of peace journalism methods that contest the original values of quality news-reporting.  For example, in 2010, a young Egyptian boy, Khalid Said, was beaten to death by the police for unnecessary reasons.  He was simply enjoying a drink with a friend at an Internet cafe and was accosted by the police under the presumption he had drugs.  A post-mortem photograph of the boy, with the horrifying damage that his body had suffered at the hands of the police, was released by the media.  Peace journalists would argue that this photograph should not have been released because of the violence that took place soon afterwards throughout Egypt.  

Many people were enraged, particularly the young people, as they saw themselves in Khalid and had also probably been witness to police brutality in the past.  This incident was seen as one of the major catalysts for the Egyptian revolution - it was a clear indication and evidence of police brutality and incited many to rally and protest against the state.  Would young people in Egpyt have let the story go had the image not been released and invoked such a strong reaction?  The post-mortem photograph of Khalid Said was not only a catalyst to the Egyptian revolution but symbolized a growing frustration amongst the youth in Egypt with its government and police.  Although peace journalists would have made the decision not to publicize the photograph, there is no doubt that the photograph was undeniably ‘true’ and represented the victimized side of the story, the side of the story that was not the one inciting violence in the first place.   By not publicizing the picture, peace journalists would be obstructing a form of truth, which many war reporters believe they are helping to uncover.

Conclusion

In conclusion, advocates of peace journalism believe that the media can cover real news around the world and also help set new agendas.  Media reporting tends to focus on violence, such as military, body counts, and terrorism but by expanding coverage of the structures needed to build peaceful societies, media can help build lasting peace.  The media can help focus the world’s attention on what really matters - peace and reconciliation.  By doing so, media can help make the world more connected globally, more reflective of reality, enhancing its social value because looking at the social structures of peace has commercial value too. Furthermore, by doing so there is an opportunity for networks to differentiate themselves from other networks by focusing on these aspects.

But, in order to promote peace journalism, one step might be to drop the term ‘peace journalism’ because there are many journalists that don’t agree with the term because they think it might interfere with their belief and objectivity.  Perhaps if peace journalism was coined ‘conflict-sensitive journalism’ or ‘constructive conflict reporting,’ more journalists wouldn’t be so opposed to adhering to some of the same tactics of reporting.  The questions that peace journalism poses are definitely of importance today, particularly as news media keeps leaning more towards sensationalism.  But, keeping certain things from the public, such as violent images, is clearly obstructing truth.  If only both sides of the argument could take from one another and apply both methods of reporting to their stories, then there might be more balanced news coverage today.