Conflict Sensitive Journalism - A Toolbox for High Quality Conflict and Crisis Reporting
The first part of our Conflict Sensitive Journalism (CSJ) Toolbox focused on practical and technical elements that distinguish CSJ from traditional conflict reporting. This second part will look at those elements that represent principles behind those tools. All tools are no use as long as journalists don't review the fundamental assumptions that drive their reporting. Let's look at the next set of principles through this lens and go back to some very basic questions: for whom do we make news and what do they really need to know?
Principle 9: Do We Report for Passive 'Stupid' Audiences or Are Our Readers Active 'Smart' Users of Journalism?
How journalists see their readers and audience defines how they see their role as journalists and guides their choice of reporting.
Many journalists and especially media management tend to see their readers and audience as passive recipients at the end of the news production chain.
This perspective is rooted in the idea that journalism is a business. It justifies an entertainment focused reporting style, since this is cheaper and faster to produce and requires less investment in terms of financial and human resources. The significantly higher investment required to produce high quality information - think of the cost associated with maintaining a network of reporters around the globe - seems not justifiable under such a perspective since the information is not used by the passive reader but just consumed.
While indeed a lot of readers consume news like entertainment this of course is a view that fails to acknowledge the critical importance of factual and accurate information to enable democratic processes in society - and also just simple day-to-day decision making.
Journalists who adhere to Conflict Sensitive Journalism principles see their readers as active members of society who use the information provided by the media to make relevant decisions for their own lives.
The readers don’t only have the right to information they also have a significant information need and journalists are the once responding to this need by providing the necessary access to high
quality, impartial and truth oriented information. Fake News are not just a glitch in the system, they are a fundamental violation of peoples rights to information.
Principle 10: Empowerment or Disempowerment
The Human Rights catalog integrates the right to information as well as the right to free expression into the list of Human Rights.
Both, the right to information as well as the right to free expression require independent, non-biased journalism to provide it a channel and platform. Journalism is defined as a function in democratic society which aims to inform and educate the people about relevant issues in society so they can participate in political processes.
Informing and educating can only be successfully done if journalists are independent and reports allow the readers to fully understand the issues of concern. Only full comprehension of problems and their causes and effects allows the reader to develop an opinion and make well informed choices.
Too often media reports present conflict stories without contextualizing events and information and the reader is left with a puzzle with missing pieces. Consequently they are not able to fully comprehend the situation and become receptive to the manipulation of propagandists who provide simple, understandable messages - that are often wrong but serve their interest.
Traditionally the focus of reporting lies primarily on elite sources and news makers. This, combined with the lack of context, suggests to the reader that he or she is not able to comprehend what is happening and therefore has to leave it to the leaders to handle the problem.
Reports that do not provide explanations for direct violence leave the reader with the perception that dangerous and insane individuals are trying to destroy peace and security for insane reasons. Violence is seen as mad and therefore manageable only by the use of counter violence - a task for the military with civilians being limited to passive observers.
All of this leaves the readers with a feeling of helplessness and the impression that they have no role in the situation except from being spectators waiting in fear, hoping to be rescued by the leaders.
This kind of reporting is disempowering and, as said earlier, makes the people receptive to propaganda messages and manipulation.
High quality journalism allows the reader to gain deeper understanding of conflict situations, their root causes and the roles, needs and motivations of all actors involved in the situation.
Understanding conflict and its root causes and being able to identify structural and cultural violence as fundament for direct violence allows the reader to assess a variety of possible solutions and responses to conflict.
Such reports integrate not only elite perspectives but also peoples perspectives which signals the reader that not only political and military leaders have the capacities to engage and influence the situation.
Understanding of the situation and the awareness of the involvement of non elite actors, empowers the people and builds the confidence to engage, e.g. to keep elite actors accountable for their
actions instead of surrendering to their decision making. It further encourages the reader to take an active position into shaping reality according to their own needs and desires.
Principle 11: Propaganda - And How Journalism Either Feeds or Fights the Manipulation of Public Opinion
A direct consequence of the availability (or lack of availability) of independent information and the presentation of conflict in the news media is the degree to which people are receptive to propaganda.
The aim of propaganda is to influence peoples’ decision making by creating or suppression a specific opinion. Therefore propaganda directly contradicts good journalism which aims to allow people to make their own choices based on factual information. Journalists have to avoid being used for propaganda regardless whether propaganda serves a “good” purpose (e.g. peace advocacy) or a negative one (e.g. war propaganda).
In a 2 party geometry there is no neutral position, also not for the journalist. Being forced to take sides, journalists tend to uncover propaganda of the other side but overlook propaganda on “their” side. Focusing on direct violence, blame and the simplification of complex conflicts make journalists prone to swallowing the bait provided by propagandists.
Framing a conflict as a round table allows also the journalist to have an independent unique position in which the journalist and ultimately the readers become much more resilient to propaganda.
From this point of view the journalist can identify all actors concerns and all actors propaganda. Exploring a conflicts complexity, underlying issues and structural and cultural violence build
deeper understanding and help reporters to identify propaganda and avoid the bait provided by propagandists.
Principle 12: Just War vs. the Cost of War
When conflicts escalate propaganda efforts are at their peak, often aiming to prepare people to engage in war. News are the battleground of public opinion.
When conflict is presented as an exchange of direct violence between two parties of which one is “good” and one is demonized as “evil” and therefore to be blamed we see the creation of a war narrative. This reasoning becomes the justification for conflict management through force (in extreme: war), which is presented as the only means available to defeat the evil 'other'.
Propaganda utilizes and feeds media reports to create a justification for war based on the “Just war principles” laid out by philosopher Thomas Aquinas.
Conflict Sensitive Journalism does not accept the just war narrative. Instead of discussing why war might be justified, journalists need to focus on the cost of war; they reveal the true face of war by showing its impact on all stakeholders.
This includes the perspectives of combatants as well as non-combatants. Elite perspectives and sources such as generals and politicians are considered as valuable as the perspectives of other sectors such as business, health, education and the voices of the people.
Journalists try to account the cost of war in terms of:
- Monetary expenses
- Human lives
- The destruction to physical and social structure
- and the long term effects of war on the population.
Showing the cost of war does not mean presenting a sterile set of numbers as body count. Good reporting aims to allow the reader to understand conflict. If conflict has escalated into war, it is the task of journalists to make the reader aware of the Who, What, Where, When, How and Why of this war, providing a truthful and unbeautified picture.
While propagandists attempt to show only those aspects of war which serve their parties interests, journalists have to show the cost of war so that people can decide if that cost is truly worth
paying and if they therefore choose to support or reject war as a means to handle conflict.
Principle 13: The Lens of Blame Hides That Conflict is Always a Shared Challenge
Whenever journalists become trapped within a propagandistic perspective, their reporting becomes filled with blame. The question that leads articles and investigation is “Whose fault is it?”
The question of blame is emphasized through 2-party geometry and event based reporting, with focus on direct violence. As a result one party is demonized. Which party depends on hidden biases of the reporter. Such reporting fuels negative emotions between stakeholders and veils a central truth: that conflict is always a shared challenge.
Instead of searching for someone to blame with the consequence of endless mutual accusations, Conflict Sensitive Journalism proposes a different set of lead questions when reporting conflict and violence:
- ”What is really happening and WHY?
- ”How does the conflict affect all groups and individuals involved?”
- What do the stakeholders really want?
- How can all actors’ interests be addressed?”
Reports need to explore the underlying problems, stakeholders interests and the effect the conflict has on all parties involved. Identifying the structural and cultural violence as trigger for direct violence allows to distinguish between the problem and the parties involved and prevents demonizing of individuals and conflict party.
Event focused reports, which emphasize direct violence do not provide explanations for why violence happens. Especially when the conflict is framed as 2-party geometry the reader is urged to
blame one side. Exploring the root causes of conflict by analyzing its context allows the reader to understand that conflict is a shared problem of all stakeholders.
Principle 14: Journalism Should be Provocative - But Against the Right 'Villain'
When Conflict Sensitive Journalism raises the concern of reporters centering their stories around blame, journalists tend to become very defensive. They dismiss conflict sensitive reporting as a soft, toothless approach, as 'throwing cotton balls', and claim that journalism needs to be provocative to create change. I agree that a soft, non-confrontational approach to reporting as often promoted by peace journalism trainers, is inappropriate for the journalistic profession and inadequate when it comes to tackling social injustice or violence. Journalism needs to be provocative - but in a constructive way.
Journalists who try to provoke often direct blame towards individuals and their actions. The result might be at best the removal of certain individuals from roles of influence but more often leads to hardened resistance, libel cases, and in conflict ridden environments not seldom to the death of the journalist.
Conflict Sensitive Journalism provides an alternative approach. It provokes by criticising the system that enables misconduct, not focusing primarily on blaming individuals. It points out problems, explores structural violence and underlying conditions.
Journalism can be very provocative, however that provocation can lead to one-sidedness and biases when simply directed against individuals. When raising questions and questioning established systems that are dysfunctional it can be educational and constructive and challenge authorities to address systemic problems, which has much wider impact than the removal of an individual scapegoat, however misbehaved that individual might have been.
The discussion very much reflects the argument around non-violent social action. While refusing to use violence to pursue their goals non-violent activists are neither soft nor toothless and
their actions can have powerful impact if they can provoke the desired response.
Principle 15: Language is the Conduit of Communication - and the Word Shapes the Thought
Since we are talking about propaganda and provocation in journalism we need to take a look at the language journalists use. There is a lot to explore when it comes to the traps and faults of language, a task that exceeds what I can cover in this article, hence I'll just give you a few examples:
Amongst conflict journalists there is a tendency to use language that is shaped by the conflict parties, their justifications and hurts and is therefore loaded with stereotypes, generalization and labeling.
Journalists tend to label groups according to the “us and them-scheme”. E.g. “terrorist” vs. “freedom-fighter”.
American journalists frequently used terms such as “our guys” in commentary and reports on the US troops in Iraq, which shows how strong “us and them” thinking had become engrained in their reading of the situation.
Furthermore, language used in conflict reports is often generalizing and unspecific leaving endless room for biased interpretation or non-factual conclusions.
Conflict Sensitive Journalists try to find neutral terms, or where this is difficult, use the terms groups use to describe themselves with a specific explanation (e.g. “a group which calls itself “Gods Armee”) and aim to be very specific, avoiding as much as possible misinterpretation of the content of reporting.
Language poses a major challenge for journalists not just because of its complexity; it dynamically evolves with the conflict and therefore needs to be adapted and reflected upon continuously
(e.g. “Black” was once acceptable to be used for an African American but is today also seen as problematic.)
Principle 16: Journalism Provokes Powerful Emotional Responses from the Readers
Often journalism is the only provider of information about conflicts, crisis and war - aside from rumors and propaganda. With limited options to verify news stories, media reports greatly influence the way a conflict situation is perceived by the population. The readers’ response is based on their understanding of the situation as well as their emotional reaction. It is the responsibility of journalists to provide a picture that is as accurate as possible and avoid unnecessarily stirring anger and aggression by sensationalizing the news.
Traditional reports follow certain journalistic habits; the focus on sensational elements of the story, the fascination with the extreme, blood and graphic violence. Although often perceived as 'catchy', such reporting triggers specific emotions in the reader, particularly
- shock and resentment
- pity for the victims
By limiting and compressing the conflict parties into two and then demonizing one party, these negative emotions turn public opinion further against the demonized party. Propaganda utilizes the readers’ negative feelings to justify the use of force against this group to the extreme of engaging into war.
Conflict Sensitive reports concentrate on overcoming these habits and instead aim to implement the fundamental values of journalism: creating true understanding of the situation, its background and all actors without limiting the readers choices.
Readers of conflict sensitive news stories develop very different emotional responses: they develop empathy and gain a deeper understanding. Understanding creates compassion and often leads to a
desire for changing unpleasant conditions to the benefit of all affected by the conflict.
Principle 17: How to report on Victims?
Negative emotional responses are also directly linked to the reporter focusing on blame as central question in a report. This, however, is a point where many journalists feel the need to push back. A common argument is that where there is conflict, there are victims. Not naming the perpetrators of violence is a shortcoming and is unfair for the victims, undermining the delivery of justice.
How to report on victims is a very sensitive question in Conflict Sensitive Journalism, therefore here some important considerations:
When journalists report on 'victims', they usually focus on VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE. This means the emphasis of the article or story is on direct violence. Victims are presented as passive recipients of direct violence. They become interesting because of the cruelty they experience, which is described in the report - often in painful detail. The detailed and graphic descriptions of atrocities rarely contribute to greater understanding and are primarily driven by Sensationalism - which caters to nothing but human voyeurism.
In conflict victims are not only affected by direct violence, they are VICTIMS OF CONFLICT. This includes victims of structural and cultural violence, and the victims of misguided ideologies or their own blind folds.
Conflict Sensitive Journalism urges reporters generally avoid the term “victim”, since it disempowers those affected by violence and creates another 2-part-geometry between victims and
perpetrators. In conflict it is important to acknowledge that a perpetrator is also a victim and not seldom victims have been perpetrators before or can be associated with a group that acted as
Principle 18: Creating Balance
All in all Conflict Sensitive Journalism is a way of presenting facts and information that resembles a delicate balancing act. Balance, the carefully weighted presentation of views, is a value anchored deeply in journalism and is part of every journalistic code of conduct. However, again it is the interpretation of that ideal that distinguishes between high quality reporting and pseudo-journalistic fodder for war propaganda.
A dominant view is that balance in news reports is created by providing equal time to both sides, choosing equally elite sources (e.g. the spokespersons of two governments in conflict both are given 5 minutes interview time and 15 seconds airtime in the final report.) Sources are chosen based on the hierarchy of sources in which high ranking officials and so called authorities are preferred.
The problem is that quantitative balance cannot guarantee qualitative balance.
To create true balance, relevant stakeholders have to have equal chance to explain their perspectives and needs. Balance is not created by “same time, same position” but based on the quality of the comments made. (e.g. one source is a government spokespers but another group is represented by a doctor. Politicians are not automatically considered to be representatives of the people, unusual sources complete the story with unusual perspectives).
For an adequate representation of all actors journalists have to balance their perspectives based on relevance for the content of the story and the actors’ involvement and not based on
Conclusion - Reporting Conflict Is Not A Job, It Is A Matter of Life and Death
There is a lot more to explain and explore when it comes to applying these 18 principles of Conflict Sensitive Journalism to everyday reporting. The conflict reporting habits of the news media have become deeply embedded in news room attitudes and mindsets and are not easy to challenge and overcome. And society has an often negative image of journalists as 'vultures' who thrive on other people tragedy and misery.
Of course journalism has it's 'black sheep' like any other profession. However, there are a number of things crucial to understand for everyone who chooses to engage and work with conflict and war journalists: many journalists have seen more tragedy, violence and horror than nearly any other profession. They work along the cliff edge where civilized human behaviour ends and something raw and brutal takes over ripping apart the fabric of society. This experience makes many conflict journalists cynical, skeptical and dismissive. Journalists have, however, chosen this job for a reason - the chance to experience history, be part of something greater, give a voice to the voiceless, be a watchdog to power and build a society and community in which people can thrive.
Journalists - however cynical they seem - are idealists by heart. And Conflict Sensitive Journalism provide us with the tools and the ability to rediscover this idealism and revive the meaning of
a profession that is vital to the survival of human rights and democracy.
Guest post by Antonia Koop.