Peace Research Institute Founder says current reporting on war leaves out an important part of the story -- how the conflict can be transcended.

by Ray Cunnington

Conflict can be considered the meat and potatoes of journalism. Conflict is both the common experience of humanity as well as its opportunity for progress. But disputes in the media are often reported as if the parties were boxers in a ring or horses running a steeplechase. Some journalists may even suppose that by quoting a few words from two opposing camps they have satisfied the demands of objectivity.

Questioning this limited view is Norway's Dr. Johan Galtung, a 70 year-old international humanist and scholar, who recently brought his beaming personality to Hamilton for a few crowded days. In addition to being the keynote speaker at the city’s annual Gandhi peace Festival, Dr. Galtung found time to conduct two major workshops for McMaster’s Centre for Peace Studies: one titled Conflict Transformation, and one for writers and journalists on the topic of Peace Journalism.

You might expect that the topic of Peace Journalism would keep real journalists away. But amid the beautiful woods of the Anglican church’s retreat, known as Canterbury Hills in Ancaster, a national TV producer and a senior editor of the Hamilton Spectator joined a privileged gathering of journalists, academics, health professionals and senior students from several parts of Canada, plus representatives from Germany, Spain, Ireland, and Afghanistan. The two-day workshop was sponsored by the McMaster Centre for Peace Studies and the Jack and Joanna Santa-Barbara foundation.

Galtung’s major thesis is that much present day journalism LEAVES OUT the most important part of the story -- how a conflict might be transcended. It is as if a report about an outbreak of disease never considers how the illness might be treated or cured. Can a story about cholera, for instance, be considered complete if the journalist simply describes the suffering of the sick, reports the number of dead bodies, but leaves out everything that might bring the epidemic to a halt? Hardly. Yet by continuing to describe wars and violent conflicts as though they were sporting events, journalists fail in their job to inform themselves and their publics about any alternatives that might alleviate the suffering and bring the conflict under control. Galtung believes it is a matter of helping journalists to become more sensitive to a broader and more complex view of events, and their obligation to report them more accurately. .

Johan Galtung is a modern alchemist who transmutes old ideas into new ones. He is generally regarded as the father of modern peace research and education, having founded the world’s first Peace Research Institute in Oslo. Unlike his medieval counterparts he has traded his magic wand for a laptop, keeping in touch with his many friends in the international community over the Internet. A specialist in the field of conflict transformation, he has worked as a consultant in over a thousand cases of conflict around the world, including a role as advisor to both sides in the recent reconciliation between North and South Korea.

Galtung credits part of his success to his knowledge of languages. "A language is a prism through which you see another culture," he says. He is fluent in eight languages, including Norwegian, German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Japanese, adding "I can also survive in Dutch and Portuguese, but in those languages I can’t give a lecture."

The son of a doctor who became deputy mayor of Oslo after the many years of Nazi occupation, Johan grew up in a household which was dominated by two topics of conversation: health and politics. His first university doctorate was in mathematics, the second in social science. After extensive travel abroad, he worked as a journalist for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation before becoming involved in conflict transformation. He has written or co-authored 100 books; he is a professor of peace studies at five universities and a consultant to many governmental and non-governmental organizations.

Besides reporting the immediate facts of a conflict, says Galtung, the task of the peace journalist is to look beyond the question of who wins, to how the situation might be gradually transformed. What is the conflict about? Who are the parties? What are their real goals? What are the deeper roots of the conflict in structure and culture, including the history of both?

Undue focus on the violence in Northern Ireland, for instance, only serves to hide the underlying conflict and nourishes more violence. The peace journalist needs to report on those who are working to prevent further destruction by asking about their visions of conflict outcomes, their methods, and how they might be supported.

Missing facts are as important as reported facts. The task of the good journalist is not only to report what IS, but also to highlight what is MISSING from the story. The old adage about the first victim of war being truth is only partially true. Peace is the first victim, truth is the second. The search for missing truths applies not only to conflicts between states, but to local issues of violence like rape and wife battering, mistreatment of children, race or ethnic strife, class conflict.

There is no essential difference between good journalism as it exists now and peace journalism except that peace journalists are looking for possible cures rather than focusing solely on the disease. Good journalists love it. For not only may it reduce human suffering, but actually provide a more realistic image of what goes on in the world.

Everything is changing. Even the military are involved with peacekeeping. Education is no longer an elite privilege; in today’s society very many persons are as well or better informed than the elites. And democracy gives them the right to participate in matters affecting them.

Peace journalists can confront the mighty by asking the right questions: how long is this illness going to last? What alternative therapies might be available to avoid costly and painful operations like open heart surgery or electric shock treatment? What kind of help will be needed during convalescence? How much longer is this stricken patient expected to remain an invalid? How much is this costing me?

As for the crucial question of whether peace journalism can sell, Galtung admits that peace journalism starts with a major handicap. Because peace itself is a slow and positive process, the perverse negative traditions for assessing news may often consider it boring, trivial, not to be reported. Perhaps a clever newspaper may introduce a special weekly or fortnightly page on the "World Conflict Situation": how are conflicts moving, if at all.

If they have sports and finance pages, written by specialists, why not also pages on something even more important? Dr. Galtung believes there is growing evidence that women in particular are looking for news about solutions to conflict just as they are looking for solutions about health and every other matter. 

The peace journalist is not limited to the field of international events, but should be asking every level of government what it is NOT doing to combat poverty, hunger, violence, or ways to protect the environment, and then ask why they aren’t doing more. It will not satisfy a peace journalist to be told ‘there is no money’ or ‘there is no alternative’.

A simple rule for finding the real story behind the story is to look for those who have been marginalized or excluded; they can usually be trusted to come up with plenty of other ideas.

During the two-day workshop the participants examined aspects of many conflicts including Kosovo, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Israel, Korea, as well as the standoff at Oka, and the lobster dispute at Burnt Church. Dr. Galtung helped to explain what all of these have in common, repeating that they are not simply quarrels between two adversaries as generally reported, but usually involve many parties (some of them hidden) who are jostling between themselves to secure particular outcomes.

In Kosovo, for instance the protagonists are not just Mr Milosovic and the U.S. government, but involve a combination of at least 15 major countries, economic interests, military and religious organizations outside Yugoslavia, and 13 major groups inside Yugoslavia, making a total of 28 players who need to be at least partially placated if the conflict is truly to pass away. But how long it will take for the patient to fully recover is anybody’s guess. Fortunately Dr. Galtung suggests that a few specialists and nurses are already at the bedside.

When asked how he keeps himself so cheerful in the face of so much ignorance and pain, Dr. Galtung said, "I celebrate the joy of life." His recipe for happiness is "Enjoy the smallest things you take for granted. Just stand up – curl your toes."

After Hamilton, Galtung left for Italy, where he expected to have an audience with the Pope, and then on to seminars in Italy, another seminar in Austria, two in Germany, one in Spain, and two in Japan. He hopes to return to Canada perhaps as early as next year.

His forthcoming book, co-authored by Richard Vincent, is U.S. Glasnost; Missing Political Themes in U.S. Media Discourse. Cresskill NJ: Hampton Press. Dr. Galtung is the director of TRANSCEND, a Peace and Development Network, with website

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