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Reporting conflict: a war or peace approach?

Peace_journalismWar journalism and peace journalism are two different ways of reporting the same set of events. Where does this leave objectivity, balance, truth and ethics? Johan Galtung and Jake Lynch offer some observations.

Objectivity, balance and truth are like motherhood and apple pie. We will not argue against them, but try to understand them better, starting with the catch in Kinsley’s throat that implies what many journalists, in practice, come to accept – that while efforts to reach ‘perfect’

objectivity are almost certainly doomed to failure, the objectivity ethic will serve as a guiding light on the path of editorial rectitude. 

Some journalists object to peace journalism as, in effect, a contradiction in terms. Proscribe the minimum range of unacceptable content – the libellous, the racist, the gratuitous gory detail – but do not prescribe, pleads David Loyn, the BBC correspondent and a fierce critic of these ideas. 

This is a variant on familiar arguments for the ‘free flow of information’, and it neglects the sheer conventionality of news, the action of the filters. Journalism left, as it were, to its own devices will produce war journalism, with all its observable biases. 

Then there is the misconception, mentioned earlier, that peace journalism entails advocacy for peace. Thomas Hanitzsch, another critic, usefully points out that journalism can be distinguished from other forms of public communication in being actuated chiefly by ‘internal goals’ – that is, journalists are concerned with producing what they consider to be good journalism, not with what effect it has. 

As opposed to, say, the political communications consultant, who is attempting solely to sway people’s votes, often with the inelegant but effective slogan or advertisement. Lynch and McGoldrick define peace journalism as taking place when “Editors and reporters make choices – of what to report, and how to report it – which create opportunities for society at large to consider and to value non-violent responses to conflict”. 

Peace journalism comes with no matching commitment to ensuring that violent responses get a fair hearing: as discussed, the action of the news filters ensures they seldom struggle for a place on the news agenda. 

On the other hand, if society is afforded opportunities to consider non-violent responses, and decides that it dislikes them, then there is nothing more that journalism can do about it, while remaining journalism. 

The point is, war journalism and peace journalism are two different ways of reporting the same set of events. They are two angles, two discourses, with underlying cognitive and normative assumptions. 

Both are based on reporting facts. It is simply not the case that one is realistic and descriptive and the other is moralistic, idealistic and normative. They are both descriptive of reality. The difference is that peace journalism tries to take in more of reality. They both report. 

War journalism does not dispense military advice, and peace journalism should also refrain from giving advice. Their task is to clarify, unveil, reveal reality to enable others to draw normative conclusions. 

Both war and peace journalism may accuse each other of being idealistic, not realistic. There are two meanings to ‘idealistic’: someone who promotes a world of ‘ought’, detached from the world of ‘is’, and someone who has such a narrow idea of reality that it becomes a caricature. 

Peace journalists should not promote; leave that to peace activists. But war journalists who restrict their vision of reality to the battlefield are simply bad journalists. Leave that to sports journalists, cricket fields, soccer games. 

Objectivity refers to the factual basis of reporting. What is reported is action: who did what to whom, why, where, when and how. That event is then reflected in a sentence with subject, predicate, object, complement, context, or SPOCC. By objectivity we mean intersubjectively communicable and reproducible, that other journalists would have reported the same. No private fantasy. 

At this point it should be noted that the sentence ‘A presented a peace plan for the Middle East’ has the same form as the sentence ‘B fired a gun in the mosque/discotheque’. Both refer to factual events, one a verbal act, one a physical act. Both are acts of communication. 

That one communicates peace and the other violence does not make one more or less objective than the other. Objectivity is not the issue. Selection is the issue, the criteria applied and the codes and contexts in which the event is placed and interpreted. 

The same applies to a practice of peace in general, in the midst of violence, in the past or elsewhere. We are dealing with facts in all these cases. 

But media people are, of course, right in saying that not all facts can be reported, and not everything reported can pass the remaining filters. Thus, how about the incomplete SPOCC? Obviously a bomb explosion should be reported even if only victims and context, not the perpetrators, are known. 

Not to report the Iran–Contra scandal because ‘the subject’ was unknown was simply to put a premium on skilfully performed covert action. 

In peace action, who said or did it, and what, are clear. But to whom? Is anybody listening? Well, that depends also on whether it is reported by the media. To report or not report a shot fired in anger or a word spoken with love is not a problem of factual objectivity but of criteria objectivity, of having explicit criteria that are also communicable and reproducible. 

A shot may be more consequential than a word. But that is an empirical hypothesis that can be tested by reporting the word. Any selectivity against peace smells of bias. We can and should demand explicitness: on what basis we select, and discuss the criteria. 

Ethical reporting 

Let us start by clarifying what kind of ethics we are talking about. We are concerned with the ethics of consequence rather than the ethics of intention, that is, with the factual  consequences of the style of reporting, not with what might have been intended.   

And we are concerned with the ethics of action rather than the ethics of conviction.

Intention and conviction are interesting, but not the yardsticks by which the media should be measured. The concern is with what the media in fact do, and the effect that has on people and how they act. 

What media report and what people do are related, and hypotheses may be tested empirically. 

The effects can be enormous. If ‘their’ (the perpetrators’) action is reported as not only violent but motivated by nothing but their evil character, with no sane goals, only doing evil and expanding their evil empire, two reactions come easily: 

• from the victim side: revenge, making the evildoers also suffer, identifying and incapacitating them (individual prevention); 

• from third parties of all kinds: helping to punish the evildoers by bringing them to justice (general prevention). 

The task of the media would be to check that justice is done. On the other hand, if ‘their’ action is seen as motivated by goals that have some justification, goals that are at least partly legitimate, while at the same time highlighting peaceful ways of bridging their and our legitimate goals without compromising other legitimate goals, then the reactions could be different. 

• from the victim side: this time, to stop cycles of retaliation; bring the perpetrators to justice for their violence, but look harder for the reasons why they acted as they did; and

• from third parties of all kinds: again, to stop cycles of retaliation, and start searching for acceptable and sustainable outcomes. 

The task of the media would be to check that peace is served. As mentioned under ‘objectivity’: to report or not report a shot fired in anger or a word spoken with love is not a problem of factual objectivity but of criteria objectivity. 

We are dealing with two styles of reporting. War journalism would report the shot, and consider the peace word as irrelevant, non-consequential (a word like ‘Fire!’ would be reported, though). Peace journalism would report both, and the effect of both the shot and the word, including their effect on the bereaved. 

Which style to choose is an ethical question, to be decided in terms of action consequences and how they are evaluated. If the effect wanted is revenge, incapacitation, punishment, then choose war journalism, and call it patriotism. If the effect wanted is to stop cycles of retaliation and start searching for solutions to the conflict, then choose peace journalism. 

We have explored the ethical implications of the styles of journalism through the impact on readers and audiences. How about the impact on the actors, the event-makers, themselves? The hypothesis is that most people may want to become newsmakers beyond the daily routine of producing small events at most noticed by families, friends, colleagues. 

To become news, particularly headline, front page, prime-time news, is to become an instant celebrity. To become a celebrity is positive feedback, a reward, indeed – even if that celebrity is non-sustainable – ‘for fifteen minutes’, in Andy Warhol’s influential formula. 

War journalism is that positive feedback for violence, and becomes a crime against peace and against humanity by rewarding the suicide bomber/killer pilot by bestowing celebrity attention, while also silencing messengers and messages of peace. 

Violence journalism for domestic conflict works in the same direction. The negative feedback by giving deep attention to the bereaved is missing, so is the exploration of non-violent alternatives. Peace journalism tries to correct such flaws through primary attention to conflict transformation, and to negative effects of violence. 

The media have a heavy responsibility as the feedback loop giving or withholding celebrity, though it is one many seem disinclined to address in any meaningful way. The protest ‘just’ in the journalist’s dictum, ‘we just report the facts’, conceals the residue, or imprint, of the reporting of today, irretrievably written into the facts of tomorrow, even before they occur. 

Media prepare, consciously or not, premises for the dramatic choice between more violence and more peace, and the choice is loaded in favour of violence. Of course, there are conflicts where one party is totally illegitimate, such as between slave-owners and slaves, colonial powers and colonies, governments killing their own people. 

But then there are also non-violent ways out, as exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian struggle for self-determination, by Martin Luther King Jr in the US Civil Rights Movement and by the mass movements that brought down the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989. 

But the media are not cognisant of the non-violent options. They do not see them even when they unfold right before their eyes, like the heroic struggles in Leipzig, in the former German Democratic Republic, culminating on 9 October 1989. 

The demonstrations were reported. But whereas military action was reported as strategy and tactics, the deeper meaning of non-violent action went unreported for lack of knowledge. Media could have reinforced this peaceful struggle by giving prominence to leaders and rank-and-file. They did not. 

The conclusion? There is work to be done, some of it uphill. But the present situation, reinforcing violence by giving more celebrity to the violent than to the peaceful, is simply unethical.  

Reporting-ConflictThis is an edited extract from Reporting Conflict: New Directions in Peace Journalism by Johan Galtung and Jake Lynch.  Published by University of Queensland Press. 

Johan Galtung is one of the founders of Peace and Conflict Studies. 

Jake Lynch enjoyed a 17-year career in British media (most recently as a presenter for BBC World News and including a stint as Sydney correspondent for The Independent), covering conflicts in the Middle East, South-East Asia and at diplomatic and political summit meetings.

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