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Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Professor Steven Youngblood, the
Youngblood: Like many social science terms, there is more than one definition for “peace journalism”. The one that I like to use talks about peace journalism being when reporters and editors make choices that can create an atmosphere that’s conducive to peace. When we define peace journalism, it’s almost easier to talk about the opposite and the opposite is simply the traditional journalism that sensationalizes violence, that insights conflict and violence and that doesn’t consider the consequences of its own reporting. Peace journalism seeks to counter those things.
Ingles: In terms of what they report and how it’s reported, let’s start with what to report. What do peace journalists report on that others don’t or mainstream media may not?
Youngblood: I would say that for the most part, peace journalists are reporting on the same things that mainstream journalists are reporting on. So it’s not that we’re ignoring violence or ignoring conflict. More often than not, it’s about the way that we report that. Do we report it in such a way that it exacerbates conflict, that it inflames violence or do we report it in such a way that it does not?
As far as what we’re reporting that others might not report, I would say that that might fall in the category of giving peacemakers a voice or at least a proportional voice to those who are advocating conflict.
I think it also means giving a voice to the voiceless because marginalized people, as we know and as social science tells us, are more likely to strike out, to behave violently and so on. Those are the things that peace journalism seeks to do.
Ingles: Why is this happening? Why does mainstream journalism or what some are calling “war journalism” tilt the news that way?
Youngblood: Well, I think some of it is habit. Some of it is the prevailing thought in the media that what we do has to be sensational, that spicing things up and making them sensational sells more papers and gets higher ratings for broadcasts. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think that’s part of the reason.
I think part of the reason is laziness. It’s easier simply to report that kind of propaganda.
Part of it too is that newsrooms these days have fewer and fewer resources and so the resources, the ability of a Woodward and Bernstein to go out and spend months and months and months reporting these things is not going to happen much anymore. It’s because newsrooms are smaller and smaller and smaller. I know my local newspaper here, The Kansas City Star, its newsroom is half the size that it was just a few years ago. This limits the kind of enterprise reporting that I think reporters really need to do to fulfill their watchdog function.
Ingles: In essence, it’s just too complicated? If you expose too many sides, it doesn’t resemble a sporting event that the audience can grasp easily, two distinct sides; one good and one evil.
Youngblood: I think that’s part of it too. It’s a lot easier story to tell and it’s a lot more compelling story. In the U.S.; “Bush versus Saddam.” That was even a Newsweek headline. “Bush versus Saddam: Who Will Win?” Well, if there has ever been an oversimplification, that’s it. It’s taking something that’s multifaceted and complex and boiling it down to something that a fifth grader could understand.
Ingles: What are peace journalists inspired to do differently?
Youngblood: Well, I hope that peace journalists are inspired by the Iraq example, by the examples in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere to take a look at the consequences of our reporting.
One of the tenants of peace journalism is that peace journalism is proactive. Peace journalism is looking for solutions. So as a peace journalist, if I’m in Kenya for example, and I’m looking ahead to an election when the last election was tremendously violent, I’m being proactive and asking myself; how can my reporting help to create an atmosphere where peace is possible?
So rather than just sitting back and waiting for violence to happen, I think that peace journalists are digging deeper and looking at systemic causes and looking to address those or at least to air those grievances because, as we know, many times simply airing and discussing grievance can be very cathartic and can help to let off the steam that otherwise might lead to violence.
Ingles: Can you give examples in your experience or in the literature where peace journalism is working somehow?
Youngblood: Well, there are many such examples. The father of peace journalism, whose name is Jake Lynch, a professor at the University of Sydney, did a study recently where he went to three different countries and what he did was he showed focus groups two different television stories. One story was a traditional war-type journalism and the second was the same story framed as peace journalism told in a different way. A traditional war story is sensationalized. The violence is glamorized. The wording is very inflammatory and emotive. We have brutal massacres, blood and all the use of that kind of language. We have peacemakers not given a voice. We have government propaganda presented as facts and so on.
With peace journalism, you don’t use that kind of inflammatory language. The violence is mentioned in the peace journalism story, but it’s not highlighted. It’s not sensationalized. Yes, you present many options in a peace journalism story, options about the way that the conflict can be resolved rather than just parroting government propaganda that we have to go in and attack these people, smash these people, neutralize them. Rather than that sort of thing, you have others who are proposing non-violent alternatives and the results that he found were consistent with all three countries and that is that the peace journalism approach really does have an impact on audiences.
When audiences see the traditional war reporting, their feelings about the story are that they tend to think that it’s hopeless, that there is no alternative but a violent alternative, that peace is not possible.
But when you take the same story and frame it as peace journalism, they tend to be a lot more hopeful that the conflict can be resolved in a non-violent way. They tend to be a lot more hopeful and a lot more informed about options other than violence to solving the conflict.
I think that there’s both practical applications and research that have proven that this peace journalism approach is a good one.
Ingles: People critical of this idea of peace journalism, and maybe traditional journalists would be involved in this debate, align it with advocacy journalism or activist news writing or broadcasting, that somehow it bends the journalistic conventions that are supposed to promote objectivity. What do you say about peace journalism being activist journalism?
Youngblood: Peace journalism is not activist journalism. It’s not advocacy journalism. Indeed I would say that peace journalism is simply good journalism. We’re not advocating for peace, we are simply presenting to the audience peace as an option. Yes, we still present the violent options. We’re still presenting the government propaganda, but we’re simply going beyond that and we’re saying here are some other alternatives. Peace journalists do not openly advocate for peace. What peace journalists do is present peace as an alternative.
Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Gloria Laker, a journalist in Uganda, who took some of the Peace
Gloria Laker: Before actually sitting in Steven Youngblood’s class, I must say my reporting was very sensational. I wasn’t looking at helping, or minimizing harm. I was looking mostly at how many headline stories I could strike in a week.
I must take you back to the Northern Ugandan conflict. I was based in Gulu, my home district. I was this young journalist full of energy and courage. I would write without caring.
I want to give you an example of the words which I used to use a lot. I used to call the political leaders who issued statements that said they are giving the LRA “terrorists” only two weeks to surrender and I would use such a word (terrorist) in my news article or in any communication not knowing I was actually fueling the conflict. Because each time the rebels would read such a line, what they’re going to do is go and attack a school, abduct more children or carry on ambushes.
So after sitting in Steven Youngblood’s class, I realized that I was doing more damage to my community. I realized the need to change my language and how to frame my stories.
Ingles: Let me ask you in that example that you gave then; the “trigger” word as it were was “terrorists” and so what would you have been using to replace it that would have been fair to the conflict and maybe less inflammatory?
Laker: The word that I would change, especially when I had used such a word like “terrorist” sincerely, what I would do is call them LRA rebel fighters and in that way I was able to engage both the rebels and the government into talks. I was able to introduce some of the rebels, talk to them. I remember meeting some of them in Southern Sudan and they would say, “We’ll give you an interview because you are a journalist who does not just take one side.” I think changing the word from “terrorists” to “rebel fighters” calmed the situation down in my reporting as a journalist.
Ingles: There is a list of things that you used in the training that reporters should avoid doing in their coverage of conflict or their coverage of elections. It’s rather a long list, but can you remember some of the other things?
Laker: Yes, I can. One of things which he always preach in class is to avoid calling names.
Laker: Yes, name-calling. If the president called the other one a lizard, as a journalist, you don’t need to go to the opposition side and say the president has called you a lizard because the opposition side will say, “Okay, then he is a monkey.” Then you rush back as a journalist and say, “He called you a monkey.” Then this one again will use a different word. So we tell them to avoid name-calling. And then we tell them to avoid making a bad situation worse.
Ingles: That’s interesting because I think Americans listening to our interview will think of their own elections and their own media coverage and if one candidate called another a monkey or a bug or cockroach or something like that, it would be very difficult for a reporter not to report that. What would you say to critics that might say if somebody says it, you really have to report it?
Laker: No, no, no. I still stand by my point. To protect my people, I’ll try to use a different word because that is already very sensational. It means to me that the political leader or whoever is talking is trying to use my medium, which in this case is the radio, to incite people. So definitely I stand by my point that I will find a way to harmonize the whole situation as a journalist.
For example, if you already know that there is a conflict, why would you want to put more fuel on the fire? Don’t do that because at the end of it all, it is the innocent citizens who will suffer.
Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with radio producer David Freudberg who produces the public radio
David Freudberg: It’s hard to imagine a more urgent topic for journalistic coverage when war is being waged than people who are innocent bystanders and are either injured or indeed killed.
The UN some years ago came out with a stunning calculation. In WWI, the proportion of civilian casualties was estimated at 5%. By WWII, when we saw what happened in Russia, when we saw the Nazi Holocaust, the proportion of civilian casualties had risen to 50% of causalities in war, an amazing increase. Now we are at the range of 90% of casualties in war being civilians.
War is primarily an experience of the injuring and sometimes killing of civilians. That’s where we are in the 21st century because of technology, because of war tactics, lots of reasons, but that’s where we’re at.
So the fundamental question about war has to be: “What is its impact on civilians, on the population of people who are not combatants, but whose lives are disrupted and sometimes destroyed as a result of war?” If we can’t get to that question, if that isn’t central every time some government rattles the saber and threatens military conflict, I think we have simply failed in our duties as journalists to capture the full story.
You look at the Iraq body count. The latest figure that I’ve seen is approximately 117,000 civilians who were killed as a result of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Think of how many 9/11s you’d have to endure to get to 117,000 people killed.
That’s what we’re dealing with and that’s what we need to address.
Ingles: Well even in 2013, not far from where you’re speaking right now, the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon, horrible as they were, inflicting pain and damage to maybe around 100 and killing three or four I think before it was all done, it seemed like that week maybe I was still hearing in Iraq about suicide bombers and drone attacks in Pakistan where the numbers were multiples of that for single events in war.
Freudberg: I’m glad that you’ve brought this subject of terrorist violence back to our experience here in the United States because it is a way for those of us who live thousands of miles from the theaters of war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to tangibly relate to what’s going on.
I live in the town of Belmont, Massachusetts. That’s where my office and studio are located as well. It happens to adjoin, by a long border, Watertown, Massachusetts which was the site of the late-night shootout when the terrorists alleged to have perpetrated the bombing of the Boston Marathon were encountering the police.
In the middle of the night, I could actually hear some violent sounds going off in the distance. I initially thought it must be thundering and it was only after the fact that I was able to realize that I was literally hearing the grenades going off from these terrorists battling the police. I have to tell you how deeply disturbing it was to hear that and to realize that the quietude of my neighborhood had been pierced by reckless acts of violence by just two people.
You have to multiply so many times to get to the scale of the violence done in neighborhoods in Iraq and Afghanistan and so many of these other troubled scenes around the world.
It was just a very poignant reminder for me that when we wage war in an era when 90% of the people damaged are civilians in war, that we are perpetrating quite an act of violence that will last for a very long time.
What’s hard for us to do, but what we must force ourselves to do, is to understand that the same fear, the same disruption, the same being unsettled in one’s personal life is being experienced by people in remote communities where my government and many other governments may be sending weapons, may be sending drones, may be sending armies, that human beings are impacted by it.
It must always be brought down to the human scale and I think sometimes governments try very hard to sanitize the language of war, the descriptions of war, the images of war in order to minimize the appreciation of the average person of the human scale of it. This is where I think we as journalists are obligated to step up to the plate and to tell the story truthfully in its full perspective, not just be stenographers to the powerful.
Ingles: In your 2007 article for Current newspaper, you took exception to the widespread use of the phrase: “war on terror” introduced by President George W. Bush days after the 9/11/2001 attacks on the U.S. It was adopted by the media in the years that followed.
Freudberg: I guess we, as reporters and writers, try to pay special attention to the use of language. It’s kind of our job to do so and I remember the first time I heard the phrase “war on terror” a long time ago. Somehow it hit my ear wrong because it doesn’t really say what it ostensibly means.
A war on fear would actually mean reassurance. It would mean to calm people down. It would mean to give people a sense of safety. But the way that our leaders and, to a great extent, our mainstream media have adopted the term “war on terror” is actually the opposite of that. You can’t have a war on terror in any logical sense because war itself is always an experience to terrify. That’s the purpose of war. It will terrify. It will intimidate.
So what we need is to look at this language. Most Americans, when they hear “war on terror,” probably in our minds-eye flash to 9/11. That’s where the terrorists took their stand. That’s where they wrought their evil deeds and that’s the impact that we are living with.
I think it’s almost an Orwellian subconscious game playing on subliminal meanings to talk about this as a war on terror. We need to be more accurate in our use of language because the implications of our use of language really have life or death consequences, especially when it comes to matters of war and peace.
I would add another dimension that should be included when we talk about these issues and that is the dimension of introspection.
There is obviously no doubt that anybody who would, in a calculated way, smash a plane into a tower in New York City or set up a pressure cooker bomb and injure hundreds of people in the Boston area and kill some of them, is a sociopathic personality who has somehow become detached from appreciating the human consequences of their actions. It’s a great and awful tragedy and it’s incomprehensible to me frankly.
At the same time, the question is: “What is our role?” What is my role when there’s a dispute that I’m having with somebody? I can easily point the finger at the other person, at the abuses that I perceive, but do I play a role? Is the United States a participant in the international trafficking in weapons, in the international quest for oil that seems to always be related to so much of our interactions with the Middle East?
I think a healthy approach to conflict is to always be looking at one’s self in additional to the actions of others; to look at our own motives, to look at our own deeds and that takes courage. It’s very hard. It’s painful to look in the mirror. Most of us run from it. That’s why psychology has this whole concept of denial, but I don’t know how we’re going to get to a more peaceful world if we don’t develop a great capacity for introspection. That, of course, is on the individual level, but also at the level of national policy.