Using Conflict Analysis in Reporting

The Peace Journalism Option 3


Jake Lynch for Conflict and Peace Forums  



Conflict and Peace Forums
Taplow Court, Taplow, Bucks, SL6 0ER, United Kingdom
Phone +44.1628.591 233 / 239 Fax +44.1628.773 055 email



Table of Contents


1. Introduction

Conflict Coverage

A new approach

Perspective: the fact and the truth


2. Practical Examples

Explaining conflict, framing violence

Conflict or meta-conflict?

Media responsibility

Practical reporting decisions

Britain and Ireland

From "apportioning blame" to conflict analysis in South Africa

Worthy / unworthy victimhood


Beyond 'victim journalism' and 'how do you feel'?


3. Reporting of the 'Kosovo Crisis'

'The Serbs' - aggregation and dis-aggregation


Assumotions revisited

The KLA and the media


4. Journalism and market forces

The rise of ethical purchasing and investment

Two tentative conclusions


5. Appendix: Middle East

The view in international media



About the author & publisher





Journalists have become accustomed to vying with estate agents and politicians as the profession least trusted by the public at large. Complaints from readers, listeners and viewers often echo the classic critique scripted by Rudyard Kipling and delivered by his cousin, then British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, nearly seventy years ago. Journalists, he complained, wield "power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."

The traditional response has been to plead, 'we just report the facts'. In particular journalists in Western, especially Anglophone media generally resist any suggestion that the consequences of specific decisions they make in reporting can be predicted in advance. The logical corollary of this, that such decisions might be made with reference to some sense of responsibility for the consequences, is only permissible in certain tightly circumscribed situations. British newspapers and broadcasters not mentioning the ethnic identity of someone committing a criminal offence, except where it is relevant to the story, is one isolated example.

In general, the belief that journalists 'just report the facts' holds sway as a constitutive assumption of the work journalists actually do. But in doing it, many are increasingly struck by the inadequacy of this theory as an explanation for the way really things work.

In a media-savvy age of spin and chequebook journalism, it is increasingly clear that facts are provided or created - at least partly - for reporters to report. Sources for stories are constantly adjusting, presenting or even devising their newsmaking behaviour in the first place, in order to get on the news for purposes of their own. Something which applies to members of the public featuring in 'human interest' stories as much as to politicians and their media teams. To report these facts is therefore to imbibe an agenda, whether acknowledged or otherwise; an agenda always already built into the facts even as they occur.

Neither is it useful to ask who put it there: after all, newsmakers can only know what to do or say, in order to be reported, by studying previous reporting. 'Just reporting the facts' is a model of the process as a linear sequence of cause and effect. In this model, events arise 'spontaneously' of their own accord, in precisely the way they would have arisen, whether anyone ever thought journalists might report them or not; only then do newspeople enter the process by arriving to cover them.

In many instances, modern conditions of newsgathering can only be understood by remodelling the process as a positive feedback loop. The reporting of a fact or statement in a helpful or gratifying way feeds back into the calculations and creates an incentive for more of the same - for a similar fact or statement to be provided later. The converse is also true - if the story 'goes wrong' from the perspective of the source, the incentive is then to offer something different.

So any and every piece of reporting adds another layer to the cumulative influence of news on the collective understanding of journalists' likely response to facts or statements provided for them to report. The precise nature of this influence is always the result of conscious news decisions about what to cover and how to cover it. These decisions therefore condition the nature of the facts likely to occur in future.



Conflict Coverage

For all the diversity of today's media, it is still possible to discern a typical pattern of decisions made by most journalists when covering conflicts, and to use this model, the positive feedback loop, to predict the influence of the pattern of decision-making on the kind of facts likely to be presented and/or provided for them to report in future. The classic journalist's portrayal of conflict is as a titanic tug-of-war, a zero-sum game between two parties, played out along a single axis and consisting entirely of violent exchanges.

Put it like this, and any inch gained by one side can only be the same inch lost by the other.

A framing of the conflict which requires one unambiguous winner, and one equally clear loser, as the outcome.

If violence is the only thing or the main thing being reported, it appears to be its own cause: the attack by side 'A' explained as retaliation for the earlier strike by side 'B'. It leads inevitably to the question, 'who started it?' - the answer to which, of course, always depends on how far back you go. Crucially, with no other issues being reported as possible causes of the violence, the behaviour of the side which 'started it' at the chosen point of origin can only be explained as irrational or evil. These are factors which merit no serious analysis, cannot be 'reasoned with' and demand that the party in question be coerced instead into 'backing down' from its unreasonable stance - or face 'punishment'. A logic which makes violence seem to make sense as a means of settling disputes.



A new approach

Conflict & Peace Forums is one of a number of groups to have developed and experimented with a new approach, drawing on the insights of conflict analysis and transformation theory and aiming to suggest broader, fairer and more accurate ways of reporting.

• Instead of a tug-of-war, the first priority is to frame a conflict as a round table, consisting of many parties, many issues. A complex, interlocking pattern of fears, inequalities and resentments which can only be overcome by seeking, devising and implementing complex, interlocking solutions.

• For that it is necessary to insist on parity of esteem for needs and suffering in place of worthy and unworthy victimhood. The emphasis is therefore less likely to fall on a search for someone to 'blame', and more likely to lead to an examination of the structural/cultural factors which perpetuate the conditions for violence. They now appear as 'the problem'.

• The structure and culture of a conflict are shared - and contributed to - by all the parties. Because 'blame' cannot therefore be pinned on one, demonised party, suddenly it makes sense to balance and neutralise those factors if the conflict is to be transformed into a non-violent phase - not something you can do with more violence.

• This 'pulls the focus' of reporting to penetrate the meta-conflict &endash; often in the form of familiar 'positions' as articulated by official sources on each side &endash; through to an examination of how the real conflict, the pursuit of incompatible goals, bears upon the lived experience of people in the conflict arena and thus perpetuate the conditions for violence.

• Portraying the nuance and complexity of lived experience, with an equal esteem for the needs and suffering of all parties, can transcend the tendency to lump all stakeholders together into two 'sides' or aggregates &endash; vital in framing the conflict as a round table of many parties, many goals.

• Which is the better story - familiar bellicose rhetoric from the leaders or 'official sources' of one party; or creative ideas for transforming or resolving the conflict, even if suggested by others?

• What, indeed, is required to resolve or transform a conflict? Compromise, where all the parties end up accepting less of the same thing they were seeking in the first place - or the creativity to transcend existing agendas and devise a hitherto unimagined way forward?

• What does a resolved or transformed conflict look like? Can peace be measured by visible effects alone (a signed document plus a ceasefire), or must invisible effects, including stored-up guilt and trauma, be taken into account?

• Who makes peace - elites in halls of negotiation, or the people who must live with any eventual settlement? Or both?

Professor Johan Galtung, director of the international TRANSCEND network of invited scholars and practitioners for peace and development, diagnoses traditional reporting of conflicts as a condition he calls 'War Journalism.'

He invites us to imagine the debilitating effect by transposing it to the work of health correspondents. It would amount to "a news blackout on everything we associate with medical practice" - all that would be reported is the advance of disease. "That kind of journalism would be disease-orientated, and the journalist could refer to himself as a disease correspondent. His concern would not be to highlight how diseases might be overcome, except by means as violent as the disease itself (eg open-heart surgery, chemo or radiotherapy). The softer approaches would go unreported; so would anything known as preventative medicine."



Perspectives, 'The Facts' and 'The Truth'

Typically, in 'War Journalism', privileged perspectives are camouflaged as facts, using phrases which have become classics of journalese: 'said to be'; 'thought to be'; 'it's being seen as'. Osama bin Laden is 'said to be' a Saudi multi-millionaire and 'thought to be' responsible for the 1998 American embassy bombings. Talks take place between Western envoys and authorities in Belgrade: 'it's being seen as clarification, not negotiation'. Instead, the approach presented here offers ways to:

• Equip audiences to interrogate perspective, and to alert them to a world consisting of many different perspectives.

• It directs them to the question, who wants me to know or believe this, and why?

• In place of the time-honoured journalistic quest for 'the truth', singular, it recognises many, contingent truths. The most important thing may be to understand how and why some truths are routinely commended to our attention, while others are ignored or suppressed.




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