Journalism and conflict resolution

by Stephen J. A. Ward

What is conflict resolution journalism?
Conflict-resolution journalism is sensitive and responsible reporting on events in conflict-torn areas of the world. Journalism assists citizens to rebuild their society and to reduce tensions — or at least not exacerbate existing divisions. Conflict-resolution journalism helps citizens live peacefully and move toward democratic institutions.

Conflict-resolution journalism takes many forms, and has many names. It is called “peace journalism,” or “conflict-sensitive journalism.” The words “resolution” and “sensitive” are intentional. They signal that journalism plays a part in rebuilding societies, but it cannot do everything. By itself, journalism cannot end conflict.

The trend toward conflict-reduction journalism emerged by the 1980s. There was a need to develop free and responsible media in Eastern Europe, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rwanda showed how media could spark genocide. Regional and civil conflicts sparked interest in the role of journalism in conflicted societies. In response to these problems, “media development” or “media training” programs were created to establish, or re-establish, responsible press in many countries. Other programs enlist the help of Western journalists to assist the press in developing countries to cover elections in a fair and accurate manner. In this way, conflict-reduction journalism became linked with the work of governmental and non-governmental agencies in post-conflict societies. However, conflict-reduction journalism is not limited, in principle, to non-Western developing nations. The approach could be used to report racial and ethnic tensions in developed Western countries.

Issues surrounding conflict-resolution journalism

Independence from government
Will journalists in conflict-scarred societies feel free to critique government programs and act as watchdog on abuses of power, or will they support the government in the name of stability? Can conflict-resolution journalists expect to hold accountable the governments of struggling countries where leaders are sensitive to criticism, and where the traditions of free speech and democracy are not strongly established?

Exclusion of voices?
Does conflict-resolution journalism mean that certain controversial voices or groups are not included in news reports, or news programs, so as to not spark tensions? Who decides who gets on the news?

Whose media values?
What code of ethics should guide media development? Should media trainers simply “transplant” American, Canadian or Western codes of ethics to countries with different values and needs? For example, is an American journalism model, which emphasizes a free and vigorous press, appropriate for countries that value social cohesion?

What should be done first?
In developing media, what are the priorities? Should press development begin by spending millions of dollars on media technology? Should it start by training individuals to write accurate reports? At what point should professional and ethical standards be introduced? These questions are especially important for agencies that fund media development with taxpayer dollars, or donations from the public.

Objectivity and conflict-resolution journalism
A major ethical issue is whether conflict-reduction journalists should be objective or impartial in their reporting. Some critics of conflict-reduction journalism feel that journalists cannot be impartial if their primary aim is to build social stability and promote peace. Objectivity will be compromised by the desire to reach certain social outcomes. They argue that conflict-reduction journalists will “pull their punches” when they criticize, omit controversial facts or overlook tough issues to avoid conflict. Will their primary attachment be to reporting the truth?

However, many conflict-reduction experts and agencies advocate the development of a professional, independent and impartial news media. They believe that conflict reduction is not served by censoring voices, slanting the evidence, hiding uncomfortable facts, engaging in partisanship, or communicating uninformed spin. The aim is to build, slowly, a media system that reduces bias and other forms of subjectivity. The decline of impartial public journalism and the rise of a divisive partisan journalism usually signals that the society in question is spiralling downward into factions and violence. As the press becomes more partisan, it loses credibility. Without some degree of impartial public journalism, the society fails to communicate effectively, and confidence-building measures falter.

Impartiality as crucial
This understanding of conflict-sensitive journalism is advanced by Ross Howard in two handbooks: An Operational Framework for Media and Peacebuilding (Vancouver: IMPACS, 2002) and Conflict Sensitive Journalism: A handbook by Ross Howard (2003). The handbooks were written for the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (Vancouver: IMPACS) of Vancouver and International Media Support of Copenhagen.

The handbooks state that, “The media can be an ‘instrument’ of conflict resolution when the information it presents is reliable, respects human rights, and represents diverse views. It’s the kind of media that upholds accountability and exposes malfeasance. It’s the kind of media that enables a society to make well-informed choices, which is the precursor of democratic governance” (Howard, 2002: 1).

Being attached to peacebuilding is not enough. How one carries out peacebuilding reporting is crucial. Journalists should look to the common good, question inaccurate statements and avoid provocative or malicious language. Citizens in conflict need to know both sides of the story, and what the other sides actually says and how it will affect them. Journalists need to be respected as trusted professionals who do not take sides. (Howard, 2003: 13-4, 19).

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Links to agencies and programs

A list of publications, projects and conferences is available at the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) of Vancouver.

Also, see:
Canadian International Development Agency
Center for War, Peace and the News Media
Centre for Conflict Prevention and Post-Conflict Resolution
IDEA — International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Stockholm, Sweden
Institute for War and Peace Reporting
International Media Support of Copenhagan
International Journalists Network
Internews (media trainer)
Swiss Peace Foundation