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.

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