Photo credit: Jon Tyson
This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Kempf, W. (2017). Towards a theory of (better) practice of peace journalism. Conflict and Communication Online, 16(2).
- Peace journalism must adapt coverage to the stages of conflict in order to be relevant.
- Peace journalism can have long-term effects through consistent peace framing.
- Peace journalists need to avoid discrediting themselves by being drawn into the conflict, taking positions, or propagating conflict strategies.
Peace journalism is becoming increasingly known as a form of journalism where the bias towards violence in reporting is eliminated and nonviolent responses to transforming conflict are emphasized. Peace researchers and peace journalists alike are in an ongoing quest for improving the theories and practices of this approach. Peace journalism, at this point, is mostly sidelined from the mainstream media. The author of this article suggests that peace journalism can be best furthered by a gradual development, paying particular attention to the context within which stories are being developed. Contextual factors to consider include the stages of conflict escalation (see figure), the mainstream media coverage, and the overall societal climate.
With the goal of making peace journalism more relevant, the author builds a constructive critique of the existing understanding of peace journalism. The author’s main concern is the conflation of journalism and activism or the desire to propose/impose solutions—both of which are situations where journalists become parties to the conflict. Instead of giving peace journalists prescriptive “how-to” guidelines, the author recommends a subtler yet conscious approach. In peace journalism, editors and reporters are aware of how their choices and type of reporting contribute to how people’s realities are shaped, and they share a responsibility to give peace a chance. The latter can be achieved by adding a layer of complexity to news media without sacrificing audience interest. To gain an audience, any form of public communication, like peace journalism, needs to be geared toward public attention.
A further interesting approach to better peace journalism practice is to adapt coverage depending on the levels of conflict escalation (see figure). In other words, to be relevant peace journalists must not remain stuck on the far end of a war journalism-peace journalism continuum, but add coverage that is not radically different from the context. Just like conflicts go through stages in a process, the journalistic responses need to be attuned to those stages.
Audiences of peace journalism do not receive information as passive recipients, but as individuals who already have developed attitudes and understandings of conflicts. Based on numerous experiments, the author found that different attitudes on conflict (between Israel and Palestine) depend on the interaction between news selection, media frames (pro-escalation Israel; pro-escalation Palestine, or de-escalation), individual preconception of the conflict, interaction with mainstream media coverage, and the overall societal climate. Considering the multiple contributing factors, the author argues that peace journalism should not be overestimated with regard to its impact on audiences.
In conclusion, the author recommends peace journalists should not assume that individual news stories will significantly change individuals’ attitudes. However, he sees long-term effects of peace journalism taking place through consistent peace framing. Over time, this can gradually transform attitudes and understandings of conflict. Moreover, peace journalists have to be realistic in their expectations of what kind of audiences they can reach. Hardliners who are committed to a war-frame will not only be unreceptive to peace journalism, they will even consider it being in favor of “the other”. Then, the integrity of peace journalism will be questioned and/or the practice will be denounced as hostile propaganda. Therefore, peace journalists need to be extra careful and avoid discrediting themselves by being drawn into the conflict, taking positions or propagating conflict strategies.
At this point, peace journalism is part of the alternative media. It has the best chances of succeeding during conflicts that still have not reached stages of violence. During wartime—and the immediate buildup—positions are hardened, and populations feel threatened. Therefore, peace journalism needs to become part of the peacetime media system in order to have an effect, even during wartime.
“Fake News” has turned into a battle cry term to label any news that is inconvenient or undesirable. Discrediting the media, a tactic out of the “dictator’s playbook”, remains present in conflict zones around the world and is becoming increasingly used in what are considered stable democracies, including the United States. In this context, research contributions like this one are important to fine-tune and even question journalistic approaches that are aimed at peaceful conflict transformation. By recognizing limitations to changing the minds of people who don’t want to be changed and for advocating approaches that are too disconnected from the conflict context, peace journalists (and advocates) need to find the right balance to address the current context, be balanced, be in it for the long-haul, and consider their contributions gradual, not drastic. Radical change for a more just and peaceful world is desired and necessary. Following the logic of this study, however, peace journalists might not be the carriers of that message.
Some key advice from this article is equally helpful to peace journalists as it is to peace advocates in terms of framing their issues in a polarized societal environment. The first thread is about an individuals’ preconception of a conflict. Simply stated, the author found in his experiments that we must reach people where they are. If we try to convince them about something far outside of their existing mental framework (i.e. political views), they will shut us out at best, and discredit or perceive us as hostile at worst. John Paul Lederach uses the “continuum of social relations” to describe a similar phenomenon. If we consider the “nonviolent peace frame” on one end, and the “violent war frame” on the other end, we must accept that those whose perceptions occupy both ends of the continuum are hardened and unlikely to change. Trying to reach and change those on the far ends of the continuum is strategically unwise. Instead, the so-called “contested grey area” making up the center of the continuum is the area that should be focused on. To advance the peace frame, it is strategically more useful to try to reach those who are already closer on the continuum. These are the subtle approaches that the author suggests.
In a violent conflict, where positions inevitably are hardened, a call for complete peace, justice and reconciliation might be a valid aspiration, but is inadequate if we recognize the various stages of conflict and opportunities for de-escalation. Instead, coverage that provides a complex picture of the conflict, including steps of de-escalation, can bring in more moderate audiences and begin to shift the understanding of the conflict. Once again, we see subtler approaches that are conscious of the context while giving peace a chance.
The advice given by the author is most useful for those who are trying to reach audiences that are not hardened in their positions, and who can adopt peace journalism perspectives into their mental preconceptions of conflict over time. The sharper, traditional, peace journalistic frame criticized by the author can still be very useful in communicating with likeminded groups to activate them or to help them view conflicts in the polarizing war/peace frames. It can also help those advocates and activists who nonviolently want to pose sharp contradictions between war and peace.
The Peace Journalist – http://www.park.edu/center-for-peace-journalism/peace-journalist.html
Peace Journalism. An Introduction By Center for Global Peace Journalism. 2017. http://www.park.edu/center-for-peace-journalism/_documents/PJ-An%20Introduction.pdf
Study: Readers prefer stories with solutions By Caroline O’Donovan. 2014. http://www.park.edu/center-for-peace-journalism/_documents/_resources/solutions.docx
Peace Journalism Works! By Jake Lynch. 2012. http://www.park.edu/center-for-peace-journalism/_documents/_resources/lynch%20Peace%20Journalism%20works.docx
- Transcend Media Service – www.transcend.org/tms/
- PeaceVoice – www.peacevoice.info
- OtherWords – www.otherwords.org
- Institute for Public Accuracy – www.accuracy.org
Keywords: conflict escalation, media framing, messaging, peace journalism
The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 6 of the Peace Science Digest.