Conflict-sensitive journalism

by Ross Howard

The case for conflict-sensitive journalism

One doesn’t have to be a war correspondent to recognize that journalism and news media can incite violent conflict. In 1994, Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda incited genocide by employing metaphors and hate speech. Serbian state broadcasting during the 1995 and 1999 Balkan conflicts is almost equally infamous. Incompetent journalism and partisan news management can generate misinformation which inflames xenophobia, ethnic hatred, class warfare and violent conflict in almost any fragile state. The anti-Thai violence in Cambodia in 2003, triggered entirely by partisan media, is a more recent example. Radio Netherlands’ website on counteracting hate media indicates that hate radio is currently operating on five continents.

Less recognized, however, is the potential for journalism to influence conflict resolution. And less resolved is whether it should play that role. Is there such a thing as conflict-sensitive journalism? (To be clear, journalism here means reporting that seeks international standards of media reliability such as accuracy, impartiality or fair balance, and social responsibility.)

Although unremarked in the daily grind of news and in journalism education, the reality is that reliable journalism indeed contributes to conflict reduction. It is automatic or innate.

Reliable reporting, and responsibly written editorials and opinion, do things such as establish communication among disputant parties, correct misperceptions and identify underlying interests and offering solutions. The media provides an emotional outlet. It can offer solutions, and build confidence.

As Robert Karl Manoff of the Centre for War, Peace and the Media at New York University notes [1]: the regular journalistic activities are precisely the activities which professional conflict mediators conduct. Johannes Botes [2] at George Mason University similarly describes the parallels between the roles of professional journalists and professional conflict resolvers, such as diplomats and truce facilitators. Journalists and mediators both remain independent of the parties to a conflict. They share similar positions, functions and even attitudes. Of course, there are differences, such as journalists’ instinct for exposing anything secret.

As researchers Hannes Bauman and Melissa Siebert put it, in observing reporting on South Africa’s Truce and Reconciliation process in the 1990s, “journalists mediate conflict whether they intend to or not.” In other words, as journalists, when we do our jobs well, we do more than we think.

It is time to think about it more.

Conventional journalism training and development generally contains little or no reference to the wisdom of five decades of academic and professional study of conflict. Conflict analysis theory and skills are still not considered mainstream journalism prerequisites or practices.

However, at least in fragile and post-war states, some professional journalism developers are now broadening that mainstream. Their approach includes specifically recognizing what most cripples these stressed states, which is violent conflict. Often termed conflict-sensitive journalism, this training retains core journalism values and skills. But it includes an introduction to conflict analysis: the concept of conflict and most common causes, the forms of violence by which conflict is played out, and some insight into techniques of resolution. (See below, The basics of conflict-sensitive journalism.) And in some cases it goes further, into interesting unconventional practices.

At the very least, these added capabilities create better story selection and much more insightful writing and broadcasting. At best, they substantially expand a stressed community’s dialogue and possibly offer glimpses of common ground.

Organizations within the $100-million-per-year journalism development sector, such as the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), US-based Internews, the Panos network, International Media Support, IMPACS, Media&Democracy Group in Canada and others now frequently include conflict sensitization modules within their programs in dozens of conflict-stressed countries. There is a nascent literature [3], and links to practitioners and conflict resolution organizations. As Robert Karl Manoff of the Centre for War, Peace and the Media at New York University notes, the regular journalistic activities are precisely the activities which professional conflict mediators conduct.

But Siebert and Bauman in South Africa in 1990 also argued that journalists should go beyond simply recognizing the roots of violence and their unintended roles as mediators. They argued journalists should consciously help manage conflict rather than exacerbate it, as was done by journalists selecting the right stories from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process to affirm the value of reconciliation.

Individually, many journalists will acknowledge a humanistic or moral willingness to reduce violence. When a CBC reporter recently seized a lighter from a gasoline-soaked protestor about to immolate himself at an Ottawa embassy, most colleagues justified it with references to putting human life ahead of just another protest story.

But applying that moral impulse as a collective or workplace obligation for journalists rarely wins endorsement from Western media professionals. [Interestingly, at the Carnegie Commission’s 2002 roundtable, “Journalists Covering Conflict: Norms of Conduct [4],” the strongest defense of moral obligation came from European reporters who had covered the Balkans conflict and ethnic cleansing, and from Jay Rosen, the American journalist-academic who leads the core-journalism restoration movement in the US.]

Nonetheless, as Jannie Botes reports in the IWPR book, Regional Media in Conflict [5], some journalists in the new South Africa walk a tightrope between ethical obligations to report without self-censorship, and social responsibility to avoid inflammatory or hate speech. Traditional journalists might remain wary of going beyond observing and reporting. But a newer generation raised on anti-apartheid experiences argue the media has a responsibility in reconciling groups in conflict.

Similarly, trainers and advisors working for CECORE in Uganda, Search for Common Ground in Central Africa, Panos in The Great Lakes region of Africa, and Internews in both Indonesia and in the Ferghanna Valley of Central Asia, have devised training to address violent conflict through journalism, rather than merely report it. In the Philippines and Indonesia, journalism which includes deliberately calming or conciliatory news is now competing with the conventional sensational fare, especially in rural communities, inspired by trainers from Internews, IREX and other large training organizations.

British journalist Jake Lynch is a leading proponent of deliberate media engagement in seeking peace [6]. With co-author Annabel McGoldrick, Lynch calls for journalists to address “their responsibility for the influence their coverage is likely to exert on what happens next.” His “workable ethic of responsibility” includes no specific imperative for news judgement, he says, but he also argues that “the choices [of influential news] we make will be based on what we actually want to happen – that is to say, peace.”

Sandra Melone and George Terzis of the European Centre for Conflict Prevention similarly argue that journalism should ensure balanced reporting but “cannot be neutral towards peace.” But neutrality is an old journalism code-word for objectivity, which itself has been replaced by words like impartial and fair. So do we sacrifice an essential journalistic core value, in moving to conflict-sensitive reporting? Probably not. But what about so-called peace journalism? Does it cross the line into advocacy? It’s debatable. But surprisingly few professionals in Western media seem prepared to debate conflict coverage at a time when sensationalistic and trivial reporting deserves new examination for its contribution to polarized, ill-informed and frightened communities.

However, some media development organizations go beyond debate and are making their intentions much clearer. They see and use journalistic techniques as a tool for transforming attitudes, promoting reconciliation and reducing conflict in war-torn countries. Organizations such as Search For Common Ground have pioneered intended-outcome programming, which uses news and entertaining broadcasting to change behaviour. Radio broadcasts such as soap operas, comedies, music shows and call-in shows can present information which helps break down stereotypes, exchanges viewpoints dispassionately, dispels myths and seeks commonalities in communities desperate for any media alternative to hate radio or state propaganda.

But is it journalism? By conventional definitions, no. Granted, the specialists at Search for Common Ground insist that they remain committed to essential elements of accuracy and responsibility in the information they provide. Certainly their material does not resemble propaganda, which relies on misinformation. And it is highly relevant to local situations, moreso than mere body-count news reporting.

Ultimately, as Francis Rolt of Search for Common Ground puts it [7] , organizations and individuals working in conflict zones have been blinded too long by these old arguments about whether journalism techniques should be used for conflict resolution. The media, in many forms, can be more than just news, Rolt argues, and can contribute to peace-building in many ways.

1. Manoff, Robert Karl: Role Plays. Track Two, Vol. 7 No. 4, December 1998.
2. Rubenstein et al: Frameworks for Interpreting Conflict, a Handbook for Journalists. Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, 1994;
3. The Power of Media, A handbook for peacebuilders. European Centre for Conflict Prevention. Utrecht., 2002
4. Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, final report, New York, 1999.
5. Botes, Johannes, Regional Media in Conflict, Case Studies in War Reporting. Institute for War and Peace Reporting, London, 2000.
6. McGoldrick, Annabel and Lynch, Jake, Peace Journalism, in Reporting The World. Also available at
7. Rolt, Francis et al, The Power of Media, A handbook for peacebuilders, European Centre for Conflict Prevention, Utrecht, 2003

The basics of conflict-sensitive journalism

The relationship between journalism and conflict is a curious one. Although conflict – be it political, social or military – is a primary focus, often to the point of obsession for conventional journalism, most journalists know surprisingly little about it. There is, in most journalism training and practice, precious little familiarity with conflict as a social process. The consequence can be a reporting style that feeds on and repeats the worst stereotypes, the drama and the immediacy of conflict, and fuels their ignition into violence.

Journalism trainers and media developers in fragile or emerging states have increasingly recognized that conventional training is insufficient in preparing journalists in such places to report on what is often seen and described as intractable conflict and inevitable violence. Something additional to conventional standards such as accuracy, and skills such as interviewing and editing, is needed to overcome the legacies of authoritarian government, corruption, poverty and an absence of media diversity, editorial independence and a media-supportive legal infrastructure.

What has emerged is an expanded concept of journalism development, a sort of professionalism-plus approach, sometimes called conflict-sensitive journalism. It involves stressing the core values of professional reporting, plus sensitizing journalists to their innate potential as unintended mediators in conflicted societies, and introducing them to a rudimentary analysis of conflict. It argues that journalism which repeats simplistic or stereotyped claims about violence without seeking deeper explanations will mislead citizens into believing violence is the only recourse in all conflicts.

Conflict-sensitive journalism can inject context, an appreciation for root causes, and a new capacity to seek and analyze possible solutions, to the otherwise daily repeating of violent incidents as news. At best, when reported reliably, these elements can alter a community’s handling of its own conflicts.

Essential elements of rudimentary conflict analysis for journalists often include these points:

• Almost all conflict emerges from a handful of causes, most notably inadequately shared resources such as food or housing, no communication between disputants, unresolved grievances and unevenly distributed power. Conflict turns violent when no common ground or shared interest can be established.
• Violence can emerge in several forms, including cultural practices such as widely-practiced hate speech and racial (or religious or gender) discrimination. The violence can also be institutionalized by legally sanctioned racism, sexism, colonialism, nepotism and corruption.
• Conflict almost inevitably ends because of one-party dominance, withdrawal and irresolution, compromise, or real transformation of a dispute into a shared solution. Journalists play some of the roles of a mediator, providing resources – information – to communities to resolve conflict. Successful resolution almost invariably requires an expanded number of interests with new interests, trade-offs and alternatives.
• Journalism risks being manipulated by narrow interests and unchallenged mythologies, especially from traditional elites. A basic analysis of a conflict broadens journalists’ insights, perspectives and sources of information, which produces more diverse stories.
• In acknowledging their innate capacity as mediators, and applying basic conflict analysis, conflict-sensitive journalists apply more rigorous scrutiny to the words and images they apply in their reporting:

• Avoiding emotional and imprecise words such as massacre and genocide, terrorist, fanatic and extremist. Call people what they call themselves. Avoid words like devastated, tragic and terrorized.
• Defining conflicts as multi-faceted, and seeking commonalities as well as points of disagreement among disputants, and seeking alternative perspectives and solutions to the conflict.
• Attributing claims and allegations, and avoiding unsubstantiated descriptions as facts.
• Avoiding the unjustified use of racial or cultural identities in stories and the exclusion of gender diversity in seeking perspectives and comment.

Training courses and modules for conflict-sensitive reporting often provide examples of how traditional reporting describes a violent event, without verifying information or not going beyond bare facts, and using unnecessarily vivid and emotional words such as massacre. In contrast, a conflict-sensitive report would report what is known and give less emphasis to unverifiable claims. It would ensure both sides are included in the report, and it would include people who condemn the violence and offer solutions. It would not blame the conflict on ethnicity and would not repeatedly identify the combatants or victims only by their ethnic identity, if there are deeper underlying causes of the conflict.

Essentially, conflict-sensitive journalism is a reiteration of the elemental principles of professional reporting with added response to the situation of unskilled media workers accustomed to severe constraints, in environments prone to violent conflict. Conflict-sensitivity, however, need not be unique to emerging democracies’ media professionals. It is equally relevant to media coverage of any Western community’s strife.

Examples and Sources
The vast majority of specific examples of conflict-sensitivity training are contained within short or long-term international initiatives to advance media development as an element of conflict resolution and post-conflict democratization. Most initiatives are delivered by NGOs and consultancies.

International Media Support (Denmark) presented a series of conflict-sensitive reporting workshops and seminars for journalists in Sri Lanka in 2002 following declaration of a truce in the country’s extended civil war. The program was designed to address highly unreliable and partisan reporting which was rapidly eroding public confidence in the truce, by media narrowly representing single viewpoints in the conflict.

• Search for Common Ground (USA) presented a week-long training course in Burundi in professional and conflict-sensitive reporting for radio producers and reporters from Central and East African countries which have experienced intense conflict, in 2003.

International Media Support (Denmark) developed, in collaboration with local partner, The Nepal Press Institute, a program of conflict-sensitive training for for journalists from traditionally highly politicized and competitive media outlets, who worked as teams to produce major non-partisan reports on significant national issues for simultaneous countrywide distribution in Nepal in 2003-2004.

Internews (USA) initiated training for more than 200 radio and print journalists in handling conflict issues in their communities – to move beyond “body count journalism” – in recognition of the massively expanded but unprofessional media’s opportunity to play a pivotal role in de-escalating conflict in Indonesia in 2002-2003.

• Internationally-supported Medios para la Paz (Media for Peace) has operated in Colombia since 1997 to address the difficulties of reliable reporting in the midst of violent conflict. Its activities include media professionals’ support and training based on the premise that media coverage can exacerbate a conflict or help reduce it. Much of its work focuses on reporting that can have a positive impact on efforts to achieve peace.

• Search for Common Ground, a US-based conflict resolution organization, presented a 10-day workshop in 2005 for senior radio talk show hosts from 20 African countries to consider techniques of broadcasting likely to retain and better inform audiences without exploiting conflict issues in their communities. A handbook on conflict-sensitive talk-radio was produced for international use.

Other institutions and non-governmental organizations active in conflict-sensitive journalism:
Panos Institute, Paris
Press Now, Amsterdam
Institute for War & Peace Reporting, London
IMPACS (Institue for Media, Policy and Civil Society) Vancouver
Swisspeace KOFF Centre for Peacebuilding
, London
, Paris
Friedrich Ebert Siftung, Bonn

Ross Howard is co-editor or author of the following:
The Power of Media (European Centre for Conflict Prevention) Conflict-Sensitive Journalism, a handbook (IMPACS/International Media Support-Denmark)
An Operational Framework for Media and Peacebuilding (IMPACS-CIDA)
Media & Elections, a handbook, (IMS-IMPACS)
Gender, Conflict & Journalism (forthcoming: UNESCO/NPI)
Radio Talkshows for Peacebuilding: A Guide (forthcoming: Search for Common Ground).

He is an award-winning former Senior Correspondent for The Globe and Mail and a former CTV editor. He has presented analyses on media and conflict/ democratization in Europe, Asia and North America. Ross Howard currently lives in Vancouver. Email: