Is there any merit in adopting a ‘peace journalism’ approach?

This was originally submitted to Roy Greenslade as part of my MA assessment in Journalism & Society (a module on media history, structure and ethics).

Jake Lynch believes that the media’s coverage of conflict fuels further violence and makes peaceful resolution harder to achieve. To that end he argues that journalists should adopt a “peace journalism” approach in order to overturn the current media bias in favour of war. 

What merit, if any, is there to his argument?

Jake Lynch writes ‘there is no need to wait for states, governments or gunmen to take the initiative before including the discourse of peace in news reports of the conflict’, but it is important to note that the most difficult aspect of conflict reportage is the ethical issues surrounding analysis and prediction of any conflict’s dynamics.

Alfredo Cramerotti asserts that ‘journalism is the interface we use to understand how things work and affect us’and that journalism exists in a constant dialogue.  To this end, media coverage of any situation can only develop as the conflict itself develops.  The search for an ultimate, or predicted account that is somehow ‘truer’ than any other is a myth; Cramerotti argues ‘except for a direct involvement in the events of life, only degrees of approximation are possible, those being more or less reliable according to the position of the author, prejudices and obligation towards employers’.  More succinctly, as John Lloyd puts it: ‘journalism can only illuminate what it knows’.

To this end, the argument that the media’s coverage of conflict fuels further violence appears erroneous.  However, to fully understand Lynch’s argument, it is easier to apply the rules of reporting in broadcast media.  For broadcast news reports, the non-negotiable need to produce pictures with a narrative forces editors and producers to often over-analyse with ‘experts’ – and rely on including historical footage archived from previous conflicts, when nothing else is available. The idea that journalism ‘offers a grasp on actuality relying on the viewer’s sensibility’means that there is a responsibility in helping to develop the skills to question informatively; the journalistic approach is geared more towards the ‘effect to be produced’ rather than the ‘fact to be understood’. Tim Weaver writes that the substitution of current facts (without accompanying footage) for similar archived as illustration may incur two distinct problems: ‘the notion that a substitute image can pass for a fair representation’and ‘any weakness [can] promote falsehoods’.

These two categories, although relatively straightforward, must also be framed in the mind of news editors who have covered previous wars, and indeed their readers or viewers with a sound knowledge of history.  Today’s wars are no longer ‘existential wars’: the common shape of conflict has changed and needs a new stringent checklist so it can be reported as accurately as possible.  As Jake Lynch states, war is not always a ‘zero-sum game of two parties contesting a single goal’.  This win-lose dichotomy, although simple for the intended audience to understand, may not do justice to the actual causes, aims and actions of conflict.

The coverage of alternative solutions (such as peace plans) raises the issue of how far journalists must actively pursue non-violent solutions and how this may influence their reportage.  For example, if a peaceful process is the most desired means to an end, should a journalist have a moral obligation to promote that outcome rather than give attention to violence?  The extent to how far a journalist can utilise the media coverage at their disposal to reach their own definition of an optimum resolution hangs in the balance of reporting and analysis.  Tim Weaver writes ‘Once a journalist has set himself the goal of stopping or influencing wars, it is a short step to accepting that any means to achieve that end are justified.’ Majid Tehranian advocates a ‘peace journalism’ hinged on the premise that ‘a media system [must] promote peace rather than war’, but the idea that these two positions are the only journalistic methods available must be disputed.

We have come a long way from the pre-Civil War reporting in American newspapers, whose stories found their value in qualities they illustrated – charity, loyalty, honesty and courage.  Without charting a history of news journalism, it is important to note that the rise of accounts of human suffering in journalism has raised questions about the method in which it was reported.  Investigative journalism often takes the form of reportage: a term which signifies a ‘witness’ genre of journalism, researched and observed first hand: the rise of trauma narratives follow genocide and war, allowing emotion to convey the most visceral opposition to the afflictions of conflict.

Journalistic accounts of isolated family stories in a wider suffering context is thought to give ‘colour‘ to pieces, but the commercial angle cannot be ignored – in fact, this may simply be a by-word for an emotional hook to encourage reading of the publication as a whole, or forcing loyalty to a channel. The rise of modern narrative journalism, allowing reporters access to subjects outside the standard sphere of ‘conflict, scandal, crime and the abnormal’broadens the appeal of news through compelling presentation – no longer is there simply factual commentary of troop numbers and manoeuvres.  The repackaging of stories with a ‘human interest’ angle serves as a key framing device to enhance the value of a story which, although possesses less timely information, places more reliance on the way in which it is told than the facts which it relays.

In writing an ‘Ethical Code’ for journalists reporting conflict, Sergio Tripi notes the media must ‘pursue the aim of disseminating information on every aspect of the reality in which we live’.  Tripi appears convinced that the media’s responsibility in reporting conflict involves a sort of omnipresent omniscience, protected by the objectivity of recounting every available outcome. Yet Tom Koch states that all reports of events are ‘presented through a series of cultural filters which include values of the reporting and reading culture’, and it is these cultural filters which make the news primarily accessible.  Otherwise, the noise of transmitting all possible realities of the battlefield (or indeed peaceful political processes) makes the transparency of journalism redundant.

Truth in reporting exists only by first being able to define what truth is being sought, and then accepting the narrative limitations around that method.  In seeking for ‘peace journalism’, more narrative limitations may be placed on a reporting method that is already restricted. Cramerotti summarises: ‘the main issue is…the effort to tell one truth, the only possible truth from an individual point of view’.  The journalist is therefore inevitably a witness of history, but as John Simpson admits, ‘itcan often be mistaken, and it is easily deceived’.

Conflict is the news value most people associate with media, and is often seen as the most important news value in today’s coverage. Lynch’s proposals champion coverage of multiple angles, yet the merit of his argument hinges on the definition of objective reporting.  It must be accepted that the stronger the contrast between points of view, the greater any form of conflict, but that does not mean that contrast in conflict always involves a bias towards violence.  Conflict is also present in news that ‘afflicts the comfortable’by making them anxious or guilty.  Lynette Sheridan Burns talks of conflict being intrinsic to the tabloid dictum to ‘anchor every story to its emotional base’ – this cannot be mistaken as a media bias in favour of war.

The forefront of all journalism remains with the key issues in framing reportage: where Lynch recommends the priority of reporting to approach ‘peace journalism’, it should not be assumed that the pursuit of this goal results in any more objectivity.  Lynch suggests that there is a ‘postmodern consciousness in which the currents of appearance and reality mingle’,  his work examining ‘peace journalism’, therefore, can be taken to be his own concession that the pursuit of neutrality has failed. Nevertheless, the idea that his proposals are a more ideal form of journalism cannot replace the principles of news reporting to which all journalists must adhere.  As Tehranian concludes: ‘We are the stories that we are told.  Modern democratic societies differ from their predecessors in that they are reflexive.  Their resiliency stems from this reflexivity’ – the ability to reflect on our own reporting is crucial, yet any perception of bias must be combatted with a reversion to core values rather than any attempts to discriminate in reverse.