Peace Journalism and why it doesn’t work
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
During my journalism MA, I was very lucky to have Roy Greenslade as one of my professors. His classes touched upon many a varied subject, from war reporting to celebrity obsessions, European politics to so-called moral panics (that lecture was titled “Drugs, sex and satan” and it was an entertaining one). One of the most fascinating subjects Greenslade reviewed was peace journalism. He wrote the preface to Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick’s book Peace Journalism and is a supporter of this journalistic philosophy. But, with all due respect to my eminent professor, I disagree with the concept of peace journalism and its feasibility in traditional broadcast and print media.
News stories, whether big or small, violent or peaceful, are multi-faceted. There is always more to war than destruction and this is what peace journalism aspires to uncover. It aims to look beyond the violence in order to focus on the non-combative elements of a conflict.
The methodologies prescribed by peace journalism are ideal, but also idealistic. Its recommendation that journalists have greater self-awareness should be commended and taken on board. Similarly, it is true that violence doesn’t happen without context and this context should be looked into and explained. However, despite the fact that non-violent responses to conflict do exist, looking into these is not always possible for a journalist. By asking journalists to “create opportunities for society at large to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict” (Lynch and McGoldrick 2005, p.5), peace journalism starts to advocate for activism over impartial reporting. Peace journalism is an inspired concept, with a focus on doing work for the greater good, but, for the reasons outlined below, it is not a realistic option for a journalist covering a war on behalf of a news organisation.
One of the fundamental limitations of peace journalism is the time and effort required to look into the more grassroots aspects of a conflict. Lynch and McGoldrick outline that instead of just focusing on human rights abuses, a journalist should “name all the wrongdoers and treat allegations made by all parties in a conflict equally seriously” (Lynch and McGoldrick 2005, p.30). For the average reporter covering a war, this kind of work requires extensive research, the establishment of important local connections and resources that are simply not allocated to a news reporter. Moreover, this type of effort would be deserving of more than a mere 2-minute package on television. Documentaries, for instance, would be more suited to bringing to life the philosophy of peace journalism, as the format is ideal for taking the time to “explore conflict formations and the true causes of violence in much greater detail” (Hanitzsch, 2007).
Output format aside, it is vital to acknowledge the limitations of journalists on the field and the pressures they may be under by their employers. As journalists work for a company, they will inevitably follow guidelines and philosophies set out by those companies. It is unlikely they would be able to deviate from those standards without repercussions: “journalists consistently work under conditions of heavy time pressure, limited resources and tight competition” (Hanitzsch, 2007). A freelancer may be in a more flexible position in terms of what stance they want to take when covering a story. However, freelancers are usually self-funded so they have to make strategic decisions regarding the type of content they want to gather and produce.
The status journalists have enjoyed in the past as neutral observers has been lost and, consequently, covering conflicts has become increasingly dangerous. Journalists are now targets like anyone else. A total of 80 journalists have been killed (Cpj.org, 2015) since the start of the Syrian civil war. Syria has become so dangerous in the last 12-24 months that journalists are opting to report from Lebanon or Jordan. Personal safety has to be considered when adopting a reporting philosophy. Whereas one might want to explore the various theatres of war and speak to ordinary civilians caught up in the fighting, this may prove too much of a risk.
When a conflict zone is too dangerous or inaccessible, sometimes the only option is to be embedded with the military. The coverage in this case is often one-sided and controlled: “the enmeshing […] of journalists within the military can lead to problems in the integrity of the information supplied” (Allan and Zelizer 2004, p.203). Although embedding is not ideal, it may be the only way that a journalist can safely access a war front. The infamous reputation of embedding stems from World War I, when six journalists were embedded with the army on the Western Front and relayed extremely biased reports, but “were still knighted for their services ” (Allan and Zelizer 2004, p.50). The Falklands War is another prime example of a tightly controlled war where “there was simply no escaping the military’s embrace” (Allan and Zelizer 2004, p.192). Whereas embedding is not ideal, some may think that it is better to be on the ground than not at all, however others believe that “the relationship between media and military […] undermines reporters’ ability to speak independently” (Freedman, 2003).
In recent years, there has been a heavy reliance on local or citizen journalists when a conflict zone is inaccessible. In this case, peace journalism can hardly be applied, as issues of objectivity are inevitable. No matter a journalist’s commitment to his or her craft, human nature dictates that emotions will overtake any other instinct. A local journalist would probably be unable to given an objective view on a situation: “in these cases, it is difficult to remain impartial and to deliver a balanced and comprehensive account of the conflict” (Hanitzsch, 2007). Coincidentally, it is a local journalist who would have more useful contacts and better access than a foreign journalist.
The reasons outlined for requiring peace journalism imply that it is necessary because the public only see and hear one side of a story, or at least receive information gathered by imperfect means. There is no denying that this has been the case in the past, however in recent years there has been a massive shift in the way people receive news. Not only do more and more people access news online – in the last seven years, the amount of adults using the internet to access the news has tripled (Ons.gov.uk, 2015) – the internet is a platform where all news, from all outlets, is accessible. The internet has opened a new mode of communication for those non-violent grassroots movements that peace journalism wants to unearth.
The power of this medium is that “it provides users with unprecedented independence” (Seib 2004, p.48). As much as groups like ISIS, and their sympathisers, have used Twitter and Facebook to spread violence, these platforms enable people starting peaceful movements in war-torn countries to have a voice and be heard. For instance, mainstream coverage of Iranian politics might be limited to unoriginal interactions between politicians and mentions of nuclear weapons, but online we can follow My Stealthy Freedom, a group where Iranian women defy the strict rules imposed on them by uploading photos of themselves not wearing a veil. The group has, as of August 2015, over 870,000 followers. When Saudi Arabian Manal al-Sharif decided to drive a car on July 4 2013, defying the ban on women driving, nobody would have heard about it had it not been for the internet. She has 273,000 followers on Twitter. According to Lynch, “impartiality lies in diversity” (Lynch, 2003) and where better place to find that diversity than on the World Wide Web.
A peaceful future, if we want it
Technology is changing the journalistic landscape and in many ways it will be able to fill the gap in reporting methods which are not in line with the philosophy of peace journalism: “in the long run, [the internet] will alter global society even more than television has because people use it not just to receive information but to send it and connect with others” (Seib 2004, p.87). Peace journalism is not feasible for the traditional journalist sent off on assignment by a news outlet, however there are other avenues where a journalism of peace can exist. The internet is a very viable channel for the reporting and dissemination of non-combative, non-violent, grassroots stories. If there is to be peace journalism, it will thrive online.
__ Sources Allan, S. and Zelizer, B. (2004). Reporting war. London: Routledge. Cpj.org, (2015). Journalists Killed in Syria - Committee to Protect Journalists. [online] Available at: https://cpj.org/killed/mideast/syria/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2015]. Freedman, D. (2003). Witnessing whose truth? [online] openDemocracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/media-journalismwar/article_1007.jsp [Accessed 23 Apr. 2015]. Hanitzsch, T. (2007). Situating peace journalism in journalism studies: A Critical Approach. Conflict & Communication Online, [online] 6(2). Available at: http://www.cco.regener-online.de/2007_2/pdf/hanitzsch.pdf [Accessed 6 Apr. 2015]. Lynch, J. (2003). Journalists need to think: a reply to David Loyn [online] openDemocracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/media-journalismwar/article_1037.jsp[Accessed 23 Apr. 2015]. Lynch, J. and McGoldrick, A. (2005). Peace journalism. Stroud [England]: Hawthorn Press. Ons.gov.uk, (2015). Internet Access – Households and Individuals 2014 - ONS. [online] Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/rdit2/internet-access---households-and-individuals/2014/stb-ia-2014.html [Accessed 21 Apr. 2015]. Seib, P. (2004). Beyond the front lines. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.