Saturday, November 20, 2004

Constructive journalism - an introduction

This was published in The Friend a long time ago now, but I did promise to post up some reflections on 'peace' journalism here and this is what I came up with. I'm still very excited by the idea

What do you expect from the news? Everything that's happened in the last day, hour or minute in a particular region or across the road? Some hope. The news we see appears through a prism, whether for reasons of time, commercial interest or because that's how news has always been done.

Journalists, peace workers and academics are working together to identify problems in conventional journalism, in particular war journalism. Using ideas from the sphere of conflict resolution, they aim to acknowledge journalism's place as a player rather than just an observer.

In the book Transcend and transform: an introduction to conflict work (Pluto Press), peace professor Johan Galtung outlines the theory that has been used by Transcend's conflict workshops all over the world. The accepted idea that conflicts can only end in stalemate, compromise or victory is challenged: he shows that creative solutions are possible if dialogue can be maintained and the other side's position valued. He sees a central role for the media in supporting dialogue and peace. Journalists Annabel McGoldrick and Jake Lynch have led the field in developing Galtung's ideas of 'peace journalism' as an antidote to war reporting.

The war in Iraq provides just one illustration of the scale of media manipulation by all sides in war, from the events leading to the Hutton inquiry to the televised ordeal of Kenneth Bigley. It is being left to political bodies, NGOs and even amateur writers on the internet to expose the truth hidden behind a wall of meaningless quotes put out by sophisticated governments. But as the mainstream media fail to truly reflect the complexities of the world, these exposures are lost in an increasingly polarised public domain.

While peace journalism gives no easy answers, it offers reporters alternative tools to cover conflict. One of the central messages from the sphere of conflict work is that the causes of violence are rarely simple. The standard 'cause and effect' narrative which often relies on authority figures implies short term causes for violence with the other side to blame. This can mislead the public:there is evidence it has in the case of Israel/Palestine.

Another lesson is that news should not just reflect two extremes in a conflict. There are always organisations, community leaders and ordinary people from the two sides working for peace whose voices, if heard, could suggest solutions. Giving voices to ordinary people also limits demonisation of 'the other side'. A nation seen from afar can look simple but we know that all Britons do not agree with Blair's war policy, so why should we assume all Israelis agree with Sharon? Portraying extremes in conflicts may give drama, but can have terrible consequences when each side forgets that the other is human.

McGoldrick and Lynch call for journalists to 'give name to all evil-doers', whether or not they are on 'your' side. They warn journalists not to rush into reporting horror stories without investigation, recognising that in the modern world the powerless, too, have learnt to manipulate the media:reports of massacres often turn out to be fabrications. Balance won't just come from saying that your side is as bad as their side, it comes from fairly presenting many truths and adding your picture to a spectrum of other pictures that show the world in its true complex state.

Peace journalism relies just as much on news selection as better reporting. McGoldrick and Lynch hope people can gain a 'literacy of peace' if conflict transformation ideas can be given space in the media. Peace does not come from treaties but from the willingness of ordinary people to engage in long processes and our media can help with that process if, in the words of Johan Galtung, they 'let a thousand dialogues blossom'.

More information at Reporting the world by Annabel McGoldrick and Jake Lynch is available from Pluto Press.

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