Johann Galtung seems like the quintessential professor: his
white hair is a bit long, his conversation laced with academic
phrases, often asserted with the certainty of someone who has
integrated the keen insights gained during direct intervention
in wars and conflict into a lifetime of scholarship. His
commanding persona inspires awe and argument.
Galtung is a professor of Peace Studies, a discipline that
sounds strangely archaic in these times, conjuring up peaceniks
and hippies going to San Francisco with flowers in their hair.
But there is nothing airy-fairy about this no-nonsense
Norwegian, who has been traipsing around the world for years
with a network called Transcend.
This group of academics, researchers and traveling
conflict-solvers may sound out of fashion, but is deeply engaged
with some very practical initiatives that help parties to
conflicts resolve their differences.
Galtung has now turned his gaze on how journalism and the
media actively contribute to the misery and violence of the
world. And he is filled with ideas about what to do about it.
Like many gurus, Galtung has inspired followers, in this case
a group of real-world journalists who are exploring how his
ideas might be injected into the insular world of media, where
the often unexamined notion of objectivity is worshipped
uncritically and its disciples are rarely open to new ideas and
ways of viewing the world.
Spurred by Jake Lynch, a TV journalist with Rupert Murdoch's
Sky News, a new initiative, Reporting
the World, is challenging one-dimensional war and conflict
reporting, offering concrete alternatives rather than mere (if
solid) criticism. Jake is the driving force behind the
initiative, a MediaChannel-affiliate, which has been holding a
series of seminars in association with the Freedom
Forum in London and the Conflict
and Peace Forums at Taplow Court, a Buddhist center outside
of London on an estate graced by a statue of King George III
(remember that conflict?). The seminars have attracted
prominent U.K. and international editors and reporters willing
to debate objectivity and balance in reporting.
I just returned from the latest two-day forum, where
Galtung's ideas were alternatively embraced and dismissed by a
diverse group that included a former government spokesperson, a
foreign editor at the BBC and the Sunday Times' foreign
correspondent of the year. I kept wondering if this discourse
would even be possible in the U.S. Would mainstream media mavens
be willing to discuss their practices and listen to critics?
Perhaps. But the real question is, will discussions like this
change anything in terms of how stories about conflicts are
framed and phrased?
12 Points Of Concern
Galtung laid out 12 points of concern where journalism often
goes wrong when dealing with violence. Each implicitly suggests
more explicit remedies.
l. Decontextualizing violence: focusing on the
irrational without looking at the reasons for unresolved
conflicts and polarization.
2. Dualism: reducing the number of parties in a
conflict to two, when often more are involved. Stories that
just focus on internal developments often ignore such outside
or "external" forces as foreign governments and
3. Manicheanism: portraying one side as good and
demonizing the other as "evil."
4. Armageddon: presenting violence as inevitable,
5. Focusing on individual acts of violence while avoiding
structural causes, like poverty, government neglect and
military or police repression.
6. Confusion: focusing only on the conflict arena
(i.e., the battlefield or location of violent incidents) but
not on the forces and factors that influence the violence.
7. Excluding and omitting the bereaved, thus never
explaining why there are acts of revenge and spirals of
8. Failure to explore the causes of escalation and the
impact of media coverage itself.
9. Failure to explore the goals of outside
interventionists, especially big powers.
l0. Failure to explore peace proposals and offer images of
11. Confusing cease-fires and negotiations with actual
12. Omitting reconciliation: conflicts tend to
reemerge if attention is not paid to efforts to heal fractured
societies. When news about attempts to resolve conflicts are
absent, fatalism is reinforced. That can help engender even
more violence, when people have no images or information about
possible peaceful outcomes and the promise of healing.
There is a lot of food for thought in these ideas, and Lynch and
his partner, another TV reporter named Annabel McGoldrick, flesh
them out with specific examples, case studies and dissections of
how TV has covered a number of events: conflicts in Iraq, the
Balkans, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia.
They also seek out ideas for developing new ethical
frameworks for covering the world, with their accent firmly on
the practical choices facing reporters and editors. Lynch has
demonstrated how this works in pieces published on MediaChannel
Middle East — War Journalism and Peace Journalism"
The Peace Journalism Way"), showing that the same story
can be covered legitimately in different ways — some that
perpetuate a conflict and others that suggest how it might be
Lots of frustration was expressed when some working
journalists felt defensive or contemptuous of critics who were
not really familiar with their work cultures and the pressures
they face. The healthy back and forth suggested that seminars
like this provide a needed forum, missing in the hectic
environments in which many of us work, for more reflection about
how journalists work and what journalism is for.
Also fascinating was the realization that many journalists
need support and even psychological counseling after being
traumatized in dangerous assignments. We are not unscathed by
conflict reporting. One participant, an editor at the BBC World
Service, actually became a psychoanalyst on the side and is now
working with colleagues. It is not surprising that when
journalists are personally affected by what they see, they tend
to become more compassionate toward the suffering of others.
A personal engagement with reporting conflicts can also bring
anger and frustration when media companies decline to publish or
air reports on human suffering. There were journalists at the
seminar who were still outraged that their hard and dangerous
work, exposing atrocities in Sudan or the genocide in Rwanda,
had encountered huge problems getting published or being seen.
Linda Melvern, author of the revealing "A People Betrayed:
The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide" (Zed), denounced
the declining commitment to investigative reporting in many news
outlets. Others were depressed and enraged by the way the media
system devalues their work. Many spoke against institutions like
the BBC, where a historic "mission to explain" has
given way to "docu-soaps" and programs designed to be
more "accessible" (i.e., parochial and dumbed down).
This directly connects to the issues under discussion because so
many channels are cutting back on global coverage and
While we were meeting in the luxury of a beautiful suburban
London setting, so-called race riots were going on not far away
in the city of Bradford, England, where Asian youth were
reacting often violently but also in self-defense to police
abuses and provocations by racist skinheads and neo-Nazis from
the British National Front. When we discussed coverage of a
similar incident in Oldham, England, a few weeks back, it was
clear that the media were not fully investigating the police
role. (The police in some instances train media workers in how
to cover riots, contributing, in the view of one BBC producer in
the seminar, to complicity between journalists and the police,
although after the events TV news outlets refused to turn their
footage over to police investigators.) Nor were the actions of
fascist groups exposed. Little attention was paid to the deeper
causes of the uprising, among them social and economic
inequalities like poverty and injustice.
Suddenly the coverage of conflicts and their resolutions was
no longer abstract or simply occurring "over there, "
in the "nasty Balkans" or "intractable Middle
East." Social violence had come home, and British
journalism was now challenged to report it.
Suddenly, Reporting the World was around the corner.
And perhaps, if media-makers heed the lessons of the good Dr.
Galtung, they just might learn to do a better job of making
sense of what's happening.