Why Journalists Shouldn’t Be Peace Advocates And Peace Advocates Shouldn’t Train Journalists
In our short series on Conflict Sensitive Journalism we first looked at the origins of new journalistic models for covering conflict and compared their approaches and reasoning. In the second and third article we took a closer look at the practical implementation of these ideas and the tools Conflict Sensitive Journalism proposes to journalists covering conflict. Now in this final article I will take a step back again and look at journalism through the lens of democracy and peacebuilding, focusing on a question that I feel needs a lot more discussion: Who is responsible for improving the quality of conflict coverage in the media, who should get involved in this process and how?
Some thoughts On training journalists
As explored previously, growing awareness of the negative impact of media reporting on conflicts has sparked discussion among media practitioners and civil society actors about the role and responsibilities of journalists when covering conflict. This discussion has led to the development of the concepts of Peace Journalism and Conflict Sensitive Journalism. Both today are offered, with an increasing number of trainings, to journalists who cover conflict and war.
Some of the organizations offering trainings are media organizations but many are not. They range include from civil society players and governmental organizations, mainly from the sector of development cooperation, church based organizations, peace organizations, or other NGOs.
While one could argue that it doesn’t matter where improvement comes from as long as it addresses the problems, in the case of media reform the situation is more complicated. Journalism has to maintain certain boundaries which non-media organizations need to understand and respect if they seek to collaborate with or train journalists.
Journalism Is A Pillar Of Democracy
In the past journalism has been defined in various ways. As a mirror, only reporting the facts, or as information service. Journalists themselves describe their task as informing, educating, a ‘watchdog’ that keeps government and other actors in society accountable (PECOJON Trainings 2004-2012).
To understand what role journalists fulfill one has to first understand the systems and functions of democratic societies. Democracy is a political system that is built on the fundamental assumption that all members of a society should be allowed to participate in political debate and decision making. It’s this idea of political participation that democracy tries to implement through the party system and democratic, free and anonymous elections.
A democracy, however, is only functional to the extent to which its citizens are democratic. To implement political participation in democracy a democratic country requires its citizens to understand three fundamental aspects: first their role in democracy, second the current situation, and third the possible and likely consequences of their choices. Simply put, people have to understand what is happening around them and how they themselves interact with it.
It is the task of a country’s educational system to make its citizens understand their role in democracy.
The task of journalism in a democratic country is to provide citizens with the day to day information and understanding of relevant matters affecting society. Journalism thereby contributes to peoples’ understanding of the current situation. By providing factual information journalism equips all members of society with the understanding needed to make an informed decision. Furthermore, journalism provides all members of society a space to express their opinion. It is this ability to join into the discussion that changes peoples’ roles from being passive observers to being active participants in political debate.
Broska captured this task in his ‘Discursive Journalism” Model (2006). This model suggests that journalism provides a communication channel for all members of society, hereby providing access to information but also serving as a platform for public discourse.
Conflict Sensitive Journalism has adopted the ‘Discursive Journalism’ Model as one of the key features of professional journalism. Understanding journalism as a communication channel provides important guidance for practicing journalists. It helps journalists to better understand their role in society and to recognize where reporters and editors fail to perform to professional standards.
To serve the role of communication channel in society, journalists need to be impartial and accurate in their reporting. Every agenda added to the reporting affects the flow of communication and blurs information, much like water that is flowing through a dirty pipe. That is why journalism can only fulfill its task when free of any agenda, advocacy or other external influence (I am well aware that is an ideal that hardly exists in reality, nevertheless it is important to work towards!).
The problem with any advocacy is that as soon as a journalist adopts an advocacy approach and uses his writing to push this advocacy’s agenda, none of his writing can be seen as unbiased anymore. Without proper guidance the reader of news can’t distinguish whether an article or other journalistic product is accurate and fact based, represents the writer’s opinion or is product of an advocacy. The guidance he or she needs to be able to rely on is the (written/broadcasted) word of the journalist, that information presented is true and factual.
Every intention that exceeds the providing of unbiased information for the sole sake of informing the public has to be considered propaganda. And propaganda that pretends to be impartial and accurate reporting undermines the credibility of the journalist and hence the journalism profession at large - and by depriving the public of a free choice, undermines democracy as such.
Fake News Aren't White Lies
With the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, the Brexit 'debate' and referendum in the UK and the rise of right-wing nationalism the term 'fake news' has infested any debate around media and journalism. 'Fake News' is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of propagandists. But what are 'Fake News'?
Technically there are two kinds of 'Fake News': First there is propaganda that pretends to be factual and independent journalism. This concept is all but new; every war effort starts with stories of atrocities, one-sided reporting, demonizing and the creation of an 'us versus them' logic. An essential element of this propaganda process are so called 'Dead-Baby Stories'; stories that report of human tragedy and atrocities against the most vulnerable, often children, and are designed to urge the public into permitting action - and accepting a military intervention.
These stories can be the truth that, represented without context, serves its purpose of stirring anger. But more often they are lies. Either way they are presented to manipulate public opinion and remove inhibitions towards force and violence as a suggested solution to conflict.
The second type of 'Fake News' is the opposite: These are stories that represent truths that those in power find uncomfortable and so seek to suppress. By discrediting well researched, verified media reports as 'Fake News' autocratic leaders, dictators and manipulators do even more damage than by spreading lies. They undermine the credibility of the only source of independent information, journalism, and therefore remove access to free public discourse. In a world of 'Fake News' nothing can be believed anymore. The tragedy is that where there is no remaining reference point for truth everything is up for grabs - the loudest voice wins the argument and all nuances go down the drain, taking with them the rights of minorities, the voice of reason, free and open discourse, individual choice and ultimately democracy.
The Role Of Journalists In Democratic Society vis-à-vis Peace Advocacy
When you are one of those brave people passionate about defending the rights of minorities, democracy and peace, you probably feel that all of this is a very good reason for journalists to step out of their detached objectivity and take a stand, use their profession to spread the word and defend social values and human rights. Now this is where it gets rather tricky...
When journalists choose to advocate peace of course they do it because they want to do something good and meaningful in service of humanity and for a better world. There is no doubt that well designed and implemented initiatives for peace are immensely valuable, courageous and urgently needed.
However, for journalists the situation is more complicated. Regardless how good the intentions behind adopting an advocacy, it remains an advocacy and therefore fundamentally contradicts the journalists’ role in society. Pursuing an advocacy through journalism contradicts one of the most fundamental rules and values in journalism: Journalists have to be impartial and present the truth without bias.
One could argue that supporting peace is more important than journalism values. That is, no doubt, a valid argument. But let’s have a closer look at the reasons behind the journalistic rule. Why shouldn’t journalists adopt any advocacy?
First of all, not all that has ‘peace’ on its label in fact supports peace. Propagandists of all kind use the term ‘peace’ to market a variety of agendas - including war. If we believed politicians and their spin doctors, wars today are waged for the reason of ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the oppressed’ (see Iraq), and ‘to defend our own freedom and our peace’ (see the so called ‘war on terror’). If that truly is the case or if a hidden agenda uses this spin to convince us that war is necessary shall be the topic of another CSJ pamphlet.
The second reason why journalists should not adopt peace advocacy (or any other) is a bit more complicated. Journalism is a profession that doesn't have its purpose in itself but serves a higher purpose. As explained earlier, by providing factual and non-biased information journalists give all members of society a chance to make an informed decision. This is a prerequisite for political participation and democracy. Without unbiased information choices would be limited to those most propagated, often controlled by a limited number of individuals. Freedom and participation in decision making would be an illusion.
Choice is not only an aspect of democracy. It is also an essential aspect of peace. Peace can be defined as the absence of direct, cultural and structural violence or, to use the concept of Galtung; a condition in which all members of a society can unfold their full human potential. To unfold full potential requires the absence of hindering factors such as discrimination, limitation of access to education etc. But it also requires the freedom of choice. In peace choice represents the element of freedom and journalism is critical to creating choice by presenting the options.
Furthermore journalism serves the human rights. The catalog of human rights specifies that every person has the right to information and education and has the right to express their opinion freely. In the Discursive Journalism Model journalists see themselves as instruments of both: The source of information but also a channel for communication across society; i.e. a platform for discourse.
When looking at the three elements that comprise the normative framework for journalism practice we see that journalism in fact serves democracy, human rights and peace by its nature. However, journalism could fulfill none of these functions if it gave up its seeking for truth and striving for unbiased information.
Adopting an advocacy means limiting people’s choices, shaping information to highlight a specific agenda and thereby shaping public discourse. Hence it actually limits freedom and choice and consequently undermines peace.
Paradoxically journalism can only serve peace when it accepts that war remains an option people might choose.
Who Is Responsible For Change?
Within this context we are facing a bit of a dilemma: To protect journalism from advocacy means strictly speaking, that the training and education of journalists need to remain the sole responsibility of the media. Reality is, however, that many media organizations are owned by individuals or groups who have a political or economic agenda. Their decisions where to invest and focus their efforts is not necessarily in line with the role journalists need to fulfill in society. This is where publicly funded media is incredibly valuable - provided it doesn't follow the trend of a commercial prerogative or a political agenda. (That is another big discussion and a rant I will not expand on here and now though).
With privately owned media being driven by a private equity agenda, the struggle for high quality journalism falls back to two groups: The journalists and editors themselves who have to fend for their profession even against their own organizations, and those of us who care about the values our society is built on. Where governments or NGOs have a chance to educate journalists in Conflict Sensitive Journalism that opportunity shouldn't be squandered. However, any training needs to be built on and respect the role of journalism, its responsibilities and boundaries - and has to be run by qualified journalists, not advocates.
So let's wrap this up: Journalism serves democracy, human rights and peace by providing impartial, unbiased and factual information. This information allows all members of society to develop an opinion and make an informed decision which is the essence of freedom. Every limitation to the impartiality of journalism limits choices and therefore undermines freedom, participation and ultimately democracy and peace.
Advocacy uses communication to shape peoples opinion and influence their choices. This contradicts the core of the journalistic role in society and makes journalists lose their credibility. Since journalism is the only function in society that has the sole task of providing unbiased information people would not have any reliable fundament for decision making anymore and consequently no basis for making a free and informed choice.
Let me be very clear: I am by no means criticizing advocacy work here. There is a lot of good and incredibly important advocacy work undertaken which is worth supporting. Also journalists can engage in peace work, environmental protection or advocacy - as individuals. However, they need to be very careful to clearly distinguish between their role as journalists and their personal advocacy. This is why media organizations very clearly name pieces that are opinion and not fact and label sponsorships, advertisements etc. that do not represent independent, factual information.
You might think now, all of this sounds quite idealistic. You are right. Our journalism is far from living up to its role in society. The reasons are many. The consequences are drastic and obvious. Our freedom of choice is as much an illusion as the impartiality of our journalism. But doesn’t that mean it is even more important that we urge journalists and their media organizations to do better?
A note at the end for the peace advocates among us concerned about journalism offering all choices: I do believe that despite our many faults human beings aren’t stupid. There will only be very few individuals who actively choose war if they truly understand its ugly consequences and are aware that there is always an alternative.
Guest post by Antonia Koop.