Monday, September 27, 2004

Joe Cynic

The characteristic elements of reporting have long been taught to young people who feel the urge to follow when an ambulance goes past and have decided that journalism is the safest way to harness this thrillseeking.

Mainstream reporting for TV or newspapers is a fairly formulaic process. Violence makes the news if it is in a reasonably familiar country populated mainly by white people such as America, Israel or Russia. Viewers have only a 30 second attention span so background information must be kept to a minimum. Quotes to explain the violence should come from the most powerful person you can talk to and, to provide balance, you then go and talk to the most powerful person you can find on the other side. A simple quote from both sides blaming the other side will normally give the balance you need.

If the other side is a terrorist then you don’t need to worry about talking to them, for they are evil and shouldn’t be given a voice. In this case the power on your side will normally refer to the terrorists as ‘these people’ with a disbelieving shake of the head – Blair and Bush both have this slightly stunned expression well honed. Ordinary people caught up in violence are given exposure according to their proximity to what the viewer can relate to his own life. Therefore the hostage from Liverpool ranks above the hostage from Italy.

1000 American deaths should be given more exposure than 10,000 Iraqi civilians, unless it is an election year, when both should be ignored.

Note: I'm finally writing up my new learning on peace journalism for an article. The above will probably be excised from the final piece, so let it live here

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The unspeakable pursuing the inedible

Well - the Daily Mail have confirmed it - we're in a CIVIL WAR. Some of you around the world might think that's a bit silly: you might be living in a conflict zone, you might have fled an oppressive regime or hurricane. You might be facing an election which will probably influence the fate of the entire world. But no, according to those In The Know what is most concerning you right now is the pictures being beamed around the world of the finest and oldest democracy being turned into a mockery.

Yes, it is civil war. And in case you missed those all-important pictures (perhaps your country was showing something, well, important) it's all about hunting. The country is split between those who think pest control must be done on a Sunday morning, wearing red hats and blowing horns and those who would rather leave the creatures alone and watch the sport of MPs being hunted down in their chamber and pointed at in a slightly threatening way. You can see why MPs sympathise with foxes: for them life is one long stretch of paranoia, assuming as they do that people care so much about what they get up to that their lives are in constant, imminent danger. It must be exhausting: you're just trying to make a living, voting through the laws and wars as directed by the Whips and all you've got to protect you is a bunch of men in tights against the marauding mob. Poor sods. It's no wonder that a Labour MP, speaking on the Today programme, declared 'it's one step from protest to terrorism'.

Except that this protest was nothing like terrorism and that was a stupid thing to say. For a start, the idea that the men that stormed the Commons could have been armed or wearing explosives is just silly as anyone who has been through the metal detectors and body searching at the public entrance will testify. You might get flour in there, but not a lot else*. Secondly, they were white and nicely spoken which means that they would have been judged 'not to be a threat' by all the policemen that they would have passed on their way. Woe betide you if you're not white and nicely spoken these days if you're trying to have a protest or even just go to work in Canary Wharf. But that's beside the point.

The incident demonstrated that MPs may be at risk, but they are still ultimately far better protected from the effects of their own war on terror than the rest of us. Their hysteria and money-spending every time an incident like this happens - and indeed the excuse it gives them to remove themselves further away from the public and sneak in a few draconian laws - is just what we've come to expect from a mob who've grown adept at casually dishing out decisions which have dire consequences on the rest of us.

Except for the foxes - huzah!

* Update: OK, so the Sun reporter got a bomb in - there's always one, isn't there.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Could journalists actually do dialogue?

There's an interesting theory about language and knowledge that suggests that if you don't know a word for something, you can't know it exists. It was most recently brought up in the case of a tribe who couldn't count beyond three because they only had the vocabulary for 'one, 'two' and 'many'. I think about this theory reasonably often, especially when I come across a new term that makes me feel pretty darn stupid for not having thought of it myself.

There's me, complaining day after day for what seems like years about the very industry I've been trying to crack. Increasingly disillusioned by the fog of pointlessness reported in our daily papers (see most posts, below). The frequent feeling of rising irritation involved in witnessing London hacks earning much more than I do for their daily outpourings of prejudiced, half-baked 'analysis'.

So finally I didn't bother buying a newspaper last Friday on the journey from hell to the North. I picked up the excellent 'Transcend and Transform: an introduction to conflict work' by Johan Galtung which landed in our office a couple of weeks ago. A very clever and funny book. And suddenly, there pops up something brand new in the middle of a list of ways to sort out Columbia. Page 89: 'Introduce peace journalism into the media, focusing more on root conflicts and possible outcomes and processes, and less on the violent meta-conflicts and who is winning: focusing more on people and less on elites'. Peace journalism, thought Clare, a little stunned. Is that *even* a discipline? (yes, Clare thinks with stars for emphasis).

Well, on further investigation: it is. There are websites and links, which I will helpfully add soon (but see Transcend and Reporting the World on the 'recently visited pages' for a start). There are academic courses in it. For those of us who missed out on the expensive post-grad course in journalism, there are very strict ways to write a news story. Always get the other side, they say. Which is why our news stories so often feed the debating-club style of our politics and our wars: take your stance, present the facts in the way that is simple and easily understood by the simple viewer and throw in 'the other side' at the end. The simple concept 'tell the truth as you see it' is all too often lost in a vicious war of words between sides where prominence tends to be given to those that can provide the best quotes. Is it then surprising that we watch the news with a sense of hopelessness at the ever-spiraling violence across the world?

Peace journalism then, provides another option for reporters. Talk to as many people as possible, give a spectrum of opinion, try to find out from people where they see a conflict going rather than asking them how much they hate the other side which of course is then read by the other side who think the other side is going to kill them etc etc etc. Make reports a contribution to a dialogue, instead of a debate. There's no way it's going to replace the journalism we know and love, but the idea has got me excited about reporting again. Incidentally, one of the first things I picked out in literature was a suggestion not to call it peace journalism - so I won't. Constructive journalism, instead of destructive. Producing reports that facilitate dialogue, prompt creative ideas and solutions, highlight human suffering on both sides instead of dehumanising 'the enemy'. It's not just blind 'balance' but it's giving a voice to all sides which genuinely reflect what people think, instead of only focusing on the extremes. And trying to fit it into a short space.

As John Snow would say: intriguing stuff.