Peace Journalism, Conflict Journalism - How we got here

Peace Journalism, Conflict Journalism 
- Why can't you just report the stuff that helps us build peace?

Wile our last mini series focused on lobby and advocacy as a powerful tool to strengthen your peacebuilding work, today’s post is the first in a series of articles looking at journalism and its role in conflict settings.



What Peacebuilding Practitioners Need To Know When Working With Journalists

Once we believed that wars were the turf of combatants, civilians were victims or occasionally were required as medics who fixed up those who suffered its violent impact. Peace workers were the people who tried to sort out the conflicts behind the wars. And journalists were the impartial chronics whose job was to document the facts as objectively and accurately as possible.


But then it all got muddled. Today we know the lines between combatants and civilians are often blurred. Peace workers find themselves in ethical dilemma about whose version of peace to facilitate and how much idealism to sacrifice for the sake of small progress. And the journalists? There has been a significant amount of research conducted into the role of journalists in conflict and the findings weren't pleasant: In conflict objective reporting is nearly impossible to achieve, instead, despite best efforts to the contrary, the media is often instrumental in escalating the situation and the way journalists report is adding fuel to fire. 


Journalists are often powerful players in conflicts, able to shift public opinion towards or away from individuals, groups or a particular agenda. That is why so many journalists are bribed, threatened or even killed. And it is also why journalists have become an increasingly interesting target group for peacebuilding programmes; as partners, PR and communication channel, or as target group for trainings on peace journalism or conflict sensitive journalism. 


There is nothing wrong with peacebuilding initiatives engaging with the media - provided of course a project or programme can handle publicity and doesn't require confidentiality. However, working with journalists - and especially training journalists - means having to accept a particular set of constraints that organizations don't face with other partners. Throughout this article I will explore the complicated relationship between journalism and peacebuilding with the aim to create better understanding of the matter and in the hope to facilitate a collaboration between journalists and peacebuilding practitioners that is true to their respective unique roles in society and doesn't require either to sacrifice their ethical and professional integrity.



Conflict Sensitive Journalism, Peace journalism And The Bandwagon Blur - Sorting Out The Alphabet Soup Of Journalism In Conflict

It was the peace researcher Johan Galtung, better known for his theory and framework on violence, who suggested that journalists, to avoid promoting war, have to make the choice to actively promote peace. This idea became known as Peace Journalism. 


While for a peace advocate this may sound like a good idea, for a journalist this demand was plain wrong as it contradicted the most fundamental principles and ethics of the journalism profession. Journalism is founded on the idea that the job of a journalist is to report the truth so that all members of society can make informed choices -  a role that places journalists at the heart of democracy. To be able to do their job journalists must not be biased. Instead they have to be objective and report the facts. They cannot promote any particular agenda since doing so would mean using their credibility and influence to shape public opinion and thereby limit peoples understanding and ultimately freedom of choice. 


With this in mind many journalists simply rejected the idea of peace journalism as another attempt of abusing their profession for advocacy and propaganda. Peace researchers and practitioners, however, raised a valid question: If journalists were objective, their reporting should not contribute to the escalation of conflict. Analysis of media reporting showed, however, that in countless conflicts media coverage had significant influence on the course of events - often fanning the flames. Therefore journalists needed to accept that they were not objective observers and choose which side they were on - the war promoting side or the side that promoted peace.


The question presented journalists with a dilemma: How to remain true to the nature of journalism while avoiding the negative impact of their coverage on conflict? Their attempt to reconcile the two ideas led to the birth of Conflict Sensitive Journalism.


In recent years the concepts of Conflict Sensitive Journalism and Peace Journalism have become more widely acknowledged and new terms have appeared such as Conflict Reporting, Peace Reporting, Peace and Conflict Reporting etc. What in practice hides behind the terms is sometimes hard to say, and many journalists, trainers, peacebuilding practitioners and their organisations wonder, how to distinguish all of these new “p’s” and “c’s” in the alphabet soup of journalism. Therefore, here is some guidance:


Peace journalism

As mentioned earlier, Peace Journalism had been first brought up by peace researcher Johan Galtung in a concept called “The Low Road and the High Road” of reporting conflict. Galtung suggested that the media significantly contributes to the escalation of conflict by the way journalists report. Instead of reporting in a way that promotes war, Galtung challenged the journalists to look into stories that highlighted peace-supporting forces and presented news that strengthened efforts for peace.


Galtung scholar Jake Lynch picked up his mentor’s concept. However, Lynch was not a peace researcher like Johan Galtung, but a practicing journalist. He realized that Galtung’s demand from journalists to promote peace would not match with the journalists’ ideal of objectivity and impartiality. So Jake Lynch developed the concept of Peace Journalism in an attempt to make Galtung’s “High Road” of reporting more applicable to journalism while he also challenged the ideal of objectivity, describing it as an unrealistic demand.


Peace Journalism per se didn’t urge journalists to become peace advocates. In one of his earlier publications Lynch explored how conflict analysis could be used by journalists to explore conflicts and therefore strengthen accuracy in reporting. However, the basic concept of reporting was still based on Galtung’s original table. It opened a dualism between war journalism and peace journalism. The first being the war promoting, propaganda prone practice widely used by journalists to report war and the latter the new and ‘better’ approach that 'promoted peace'. Although not explicitly naming it, Lynch seemed to argue that since objectivity is an illusion journalists can’t avoid being partial. However, they have the choice with which idea to align themselves. They should take the side of peace instead of promoting any respective party or worse promoting war itself.


Among media practitioners the idea of peace journalism was not welcomed easily. Although many journalists were struggling with providing high quality reporting of conflict, crisis and war, peace journalism seemed moralistic and felt like unnecessary additional ethical baggage. To most journalists peace journalism suspiciously looks like an attempt to make journalists peace advocates, an idea that neither fit the journalist’s culture nor their concept of themselves. And worse it did as stated earlier contradict the very foundations of journalism, the value of objectivity, and impartial and unbiased reporting. 


Peace Journalism seemed to argue, you can’t be impartial, you always engage with an advocacy. So better choose the good one, the one for peace, than becoming a force for war. 


This perception found itself reflected in research conducted under the banner of peace journalism. One paper presented in a panel on peace journalism at a researchers conference in fact asked, ‘How to train journalists as peace advocates’ (IPRA conference 2008, panel on Peace Journalism) – not a helpful move to make the concepts more interesting for mainstream journalists. And finally Jake Lynch, the main proponent of Peace Journalism accepted a position as head of conflict studies at the University of Sydney and thereby lost his alliance with the journalists who now saw him mainly as a peace researcher. 


And finally, there is another slightly quirky aspect that raised critical questions: One of the key tools of peace journalism describes the need for journalists to go beyond framing conflict as a tug-of-war, in which two parties compete for the win and outcomes are restricted to a zero-sum game in which a win-lose is the only option and all actors are forced to choose either side. Peace journalism, however, argued based on the very same dualism when contrasting war journalism (the ‘bad’ war promoting type) and peace journalism (the ‘good’ peace supporting type). 



Quality In Crisis And Conflict Reporting

Even though they did not take to peace journalism as a concept, many journalists were acutely aware of the limitations and difficulties of objectivity and the potential negative side effects of their conflict reporting. They decided to take a closer look at the peace journalism concepts to see if they could be reconciled with or adapted to the rules of journalism. One of them was Nadine Bilke, a German journalist. She used the framework of Galtung's peace journalism to develop a model for quality in conflict reporting, which she published in 2008 under the title “Quality in Crisis and Conflict Reporting” (Bilke, 2008).


I myself was one of those journalists willing to engage with the concept. After several years covering conflicts in the Middle East I had moved to the Philippines. There I began discussing the peace journalism idea and its limitations with fellow journalists. Critical about the perceived advocacy and one-sidedness of Peace Journalism but still intrigued with the underlying concepts we developed a training program and decided to name it “Peace and Conflict Journalism Trainings”, to signal to the journalists that reporting on conflict required journalists to look at the entire picture, involving the peace and conflict dynamics, not just the visible violence media often focuses on.


The work I did in cooperation with Ledrolen Manriquez and numerous journalists in the Philippines, Germany, Indonesia and later across Asia gave birth to PECOJON – The Peace and Conflict Journalism Network, today one of the driving forces behind mainstreaming Conflict Sensitive Journalism. 



Conflict Sensitive Journalism

Conflict Sensitive Journalism was brought up in research years before the term became commonly used amongst media practitioners but was never made prominent as a journalism concept until it was picked up by Ross Howard as an alternative to peace journalism. Ross Howard’s concept of conflict sensitive journalism builds also on the techniques of Lynch, drawn from Galtung, however, Howard adds a few additional points: He stresses that journalists should not be peace advocates but that good journalism can in itself become a contributing factor for peace. He highlights the role of journalists as educators, facilitators of dialog and communication and the media as a platform that provides an emotional outlet as well as room for reasoning and explanation.


PECOJON had picked up the term Conflict Sensitive Journalism from its German members and decided to change its terminology. Conflict Sensitive Journalism suggested that this concept was a refinement of journalism not a new journalism breed or a reporting that emphasized peace as topic or an advocacy.


However, the change from Peace Journalism to Conflict Sensitive Journalism included more than just a change of label. With more than ten trainings per year and increasing engagement with universities and media practitioners PECOJON had begun gathering a wealth of journalistic data and feedback related to the concepts of peace journalism according to Lynch and conflict sensitive journalism, the way PECOJON taught it which was quite different from Ross Howard’s suggestions. 


This data was used by myself and Len Manriquez to refine the concepts further and close gaps in its reasoning. Within PECOJON we developed several models that finally reconciled the concepts of conflict sensitive journalism with the fundamental values of journalism, among them the “Role of Journalism in Functional Democratic Society Model” that untangles the ultimate journalism dichotomy: High quality journalism can only contribute to peace when journalists avoid engaging in peace advocacy.


What truly distinguished PECOJON’s work from Lynch’s and Howard’s concepts and the work of other organization was, however, that PECOJON’s Conflict Sensitive Journalism did not come from the outside, from a peace perspective or an advocacy, trying to reshape the media reporting to reduce its negative impact on conflict. The new concept grew from within the journalists' community. 


PECOJON forced Conflict Sensitive Journalism to evolve from being an ethical demand to a toolbox, that was carefully designed to strengthen journalists’ analytical skills and provide reporters with supporting instruments instead of complicated additional ethical or moral baggage.


Being fundamentally journalistic CSJ became much more relevant and its origin in journalism made it credible and convincing for practicing journalists. And it gave journalists a framework through which to reach out to and constructively collaborate with peacebuilding practitioners and initiatives without violating their fundamental professional boundaries.



The Bandwagon Effect That Blurs All Clarity Again

When a concept or project becomes successful it usually gets copied.

The effort invested by all these actors into improving the conflict reporting of mainstream media - under the terms peace journalism, conflict sensitive journalism and peace and conflict journalism - was showing impact. The concept begun raising the interest of donor agencies. With funding becoming available more and more major media development agencies proposed projects on PJ and CSJ with trainers who often had little more but the book of Jake Lynch on Peace Journalism to work with. Trainers who fully understand the concepts are still the exception and the often well-intended half-knowledge that was presented in trainings undermined precise conceptual work. Consequently the concepts got blurred again. There were many more different terms created, not with the aim to distinguish between conceptual frameworks or approaches but to define turfs and differentiation between agencies keen to strengthen their fund raising prospects.


The result were trainings under the titles “Conflict reporting”, “peace reporting”, “Conflict Sensitive Reporting”, “Ethical Journalism”, “Analytical Journalism” and many more.


Many of these built conceptually on the book of Jake Lynch called “Peace Journalism”, published in 2006, which provides a guide to Peace Journalism and materials useful for trainings and /or build on Howard’s CSJ. However, a book doesn’t replace an experienced and well educated trainer. Several publications followed from various organizations, conferences and projects. Many of these fail to acknowledge the crucial distinction between conflict sensitive journalism, peace journalism and those initiatives that in fact attempt to make journalists instruments of propaganda. An assessment about which project does comply with the original concepts and holds up journalism standards instead of undermining them has become increasingly difficult.



Let's Sum This Up And Decide What To Do With It

To counter the muddle, let me sum up the key facts again:  

  • Peace Journalism and Conflict Sensitive Journalism root in the same conceptual frameworks and use largely the same techniques. The difference is that Peace Journalism has yet to overcome its built in advocacy to be relevant and credible to journalism, while CSJ already emphasises that journalists must not adapt any kind of advocacy, also not one for peace. Instead CSJ argues that high quality journalism in itself provides important services that strengthen the peace supporting forces in society. Furthermore, adapting an advocacy actually undermines the ability of journalism to fulfill its role in society and achieve its peace supporting quality.
  • Peace Journalism draws its guidance from analysis of impact of journalism reporting on conflicts and from the goal not to become a war promoting force. It points to journalism impact and resulting responsibility and presents itself as an ethical framework. Hence the concept has its rational rooted in the peace movement. 
  • Conflict Sensitive Journalism in the PECOJON framework draws its rationale directly from the role of journalism in a democratic society, a refined model of the journalistic task called the “discursive journalism model” and a refined concept of quality in crisis - and war reporting and is thereby genuinely journalistic.  
  • All this is a little theoretical but I believe it is important to understand if you or your organization contemplate engaging with the media beyond the occasional press release. It is essential for anyone working directly with journalists and has significant implications for the design and delivery of training programmes. 
  • In the next post I will leave the realm of abstract underlying theories and take a closer look at Conflict Sensitive Journalism in action. How does it work, what does it require and how to explain and train it.


Guest post by Antonia Koop.