Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ferguson and media: A second chance to get it right

It’s not often that we have a second chance to “get it right.” However, the press may have that very opportunity in the wake of the upcoming Ferguson, Missouri grand jury decision.

Last August, as the shooting and subsequent unrest unfolded, the media, like a plague of locusts, descended upon Ferguson, leaving in their wake a barren field of distortions and inflammatory narratives that exacerbated an already bad situation.

In the October edition of The Peace Journalist magazine, I argued that the coverage in Ferguson was “ironically reminiscent of traditional war coverage that centers on the ‘action,’ who bombed whom, while ignoring or marginalizing the underlying causes of the conflict and on finding peace. (A) Lexis-Nexis search (of Ferguson-related stories) uncovered only two stories under ‘Ferguson, Missouri and peaceful solutions,’ zero hits for ‘Ferguson, Missouri and finding peace,’ and zero hits for ‘Ferguson, Missouri and finding peace’.”  In addition, I noted that “The coverage of (Michael) Brown typifies the media narrative of young black men as criminals and thugs, a narrative borne out by researchers (Opportunity Agenda, etc.), and illustrated by the press’ treatment of the convenience store robbery video.”

Since I wrote those words, the protests have continued in Ferguson. These protests have been peaceful, yet ignored by the media. A Lexis-Nexis news database (conducted 11-20-14) and narrowed to September and October (after the initial violence but before the grand jury hype) showed 718 stories about “Ferguson, Missouri”, and 115 stories about “Ferguson protests”—less than 1/3 of the overall coverage of Ferguson indicated in my August Lexis-Nexis search. More telling, my current search shows no hits—zero—for “Ferguson peaceful protests” or “Ferguson peace.”

If it doesn’t bleed, not only does it not lead, it’s apparently not even covered.

Of course, that situation has changed drastically as we await the grant jury decision. Faced with a second chance to cover Ferguson, the media now have the opportunity to improve on their dismal record from the first go-round.

Unfortunately, the media are not off to a good start. The Ferguson coverage this week on cable news has been nearly breathless in its speculation about the potential for violence. The same old talking heads are attempting to feed the limitless appetite of the 24-hour news beast with their same old speculation.

If violence does break out, the press must move beyond play-by-play coverage and offer more. As media expert Mallary Tenore ( wrote, “Move beyond breaking news coverage by helping people see the bigger picture…When we see front-page photos of tear gas being fired into the air, it’s hard not to envision Ferguson as a war zone. Stories about the tear gas and arrests are important, but it’s worth asking: To what end? At what point do we as journalists shift our focus from “what’s happening in Ferguson?” to “what’s possible in Ferguson?

“The public deserves to hear stories that paint a more accurate picture of Ferguson and that show what it can learn from other communities.” (The Peace Journalist, October, 2014).

Also, the press must be proactive, and facilitate dialogues before violence occurs by offering a platform to those who feel marginalized. Media should bring police and government officials together with community leaders and opinion makers now to foster such dialogues, which not so incidentally would make for compelling stories.

The media would also be well served to embrace many of the principles of peace journalism. These include providing contest as well as offering a more critical analysis of official statements, avoiding “us vs. them” and “black vs. white” characterizations, reporting about the invisible effects of the unrest in Ferguson, using non-inflammatory and non-sensational language, reporting counter-narratives that offer a different perspective on the protesters and the community, and reporting that gives peacemakers a more prominent voice. (The Peace Journalist, October, 2014).

As with the August unrest in Ferguson, the media are in a position to either pour gasoline on the fire or report in a more responsible way that, at minimum, does not exacerbate or inflame an already tense situation.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn--

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Photo Essay: Peacebuilding Symposium at JCCC

For more information about the symposium, see previous posting below. Pictured below are Sarah Stout, Park University peace journalism student and presenter at the symposium, and Steven Youngblood, keynote speaker and director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Park students shine at peacebuilding symposium
Should Joseph Kony be forgiven by Ugandans, and should Osama Bin Laden be forgiven by Americans?

These controversial questions were among those I posed during my keynote address Saturday, Nov. 1 at the symposium “Culture of Forgiveness: Peacebuilding Lessons from Uganda.” The event, held at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in the Kansas City area, was co-sponsored by the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University.

The forgiveness questions were part of larger discussion about the media’s role in the reconciliation process. My belief, I told the 80 or so attendees, was that media in Uganda and elsewhere have a responsibility to give a voice to peacemakers, to lead discussions about difficult issues (like forgiveness), and to not inflame or exacerbate otherwise volatile situations. For most of the audience members, this was their first exposure to the principles of peace journalism, and judging by their questions, they were intrigued by the concept.

In the afternoon, the symposium featured a number of informative break-out sessions, including several that presented details about the exemplary humanitarian medical missions (via the Medical Missions Foundation) that have been undertaken by nursing students from JCCC and other area universities. 

Three Park University students participated in a breakout session titled, “Students Making Peace.” Bailey Puckett told the gathering about her thousands of hours she has spent working with newly arrived refugees from around the world at Jewish Vocational Services. Doreen Nakagiri, who is from Kampala originally, gave an informative presentation about several youth peacebuilding initiatives in Uganda. Sarah Stout talked about how peace journalism students have contributed to peacebuilding initiatives in Uganda and Cyprus, where Stout worked with local journalists last March.

After the seminar, an attendee told me, “You are really lucky to have students like these at Park.” I told him that I couldn’t agree more.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Kenyan journalists consider their role in reconciliation

A group of journalists from the southwestern region of Kenya gathered at Rongo University last week for a three-day peace and reconciliation journalism seminar.

The key focus of the seminar, one I hadn’t really explored in my 100 or so previous peace journalism workshops and seminars around the world, was reconciliation. The radio journalists agreed that there is certainly a need for reconciliation here in Kenya between ethnic groups, regional interests, political parties, etc. We also agreed on the vital role of media in helping to tell stories and foster dialogues that encourage reconciliation.

Toward that end, the journalists split into three groups, and produced peace and reconciliation-themed radio stories. (Click here to listen). One group’s story was about efforts to reduce tensions between tax collectors and businesses, while the other two spotlighted how one local radio station is giving a voice to those advocating reconciliation and the role of the university in bringing together those with different ethnicities. 

Each story demonstrated the journalists’ mastery of the principles of peace journalism.
The journalists in the workshop were active and engaged, and seemed genuinely interested in using the principles of peace and reconciliation journalism to professionalize their work and to help foster the healing process in their communities. I encouraged them to take what they had learned, and spread the word to their colleagues throughout the region.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rongo students embrace, appreciate Peace Journalism

Media class, Rongo, Kenya
Here on a hill overlooking the picturesque East African countryside, up a rutted dirt road, is the last place one would expect to find a university. In fact, until about three years ago, the large tract housing Rongo University was indistinguishable from the surrounding fields of corn and sugar cane. Now, the area is bustling with about 5,000 university students.

Rongo University is interesting in many respects, including its commitment to peace journalism. Rongo houses the Center for Media, Democracy, Peace, and Security, which is run by Dr. Fredrick Ogenga, a peace journalism devotee. The 200 or so communications/journalism students take a curriculum that is infused with sophisticated instruction and discussions about the role of responsible media. Media responsibility is an especially salient topic here in Kenya, which has seen its share of media-inflamed violence, most notably after the 2007 elections.

Gloria Laker, peace journalist, addresses Rongo class
At Dr. Ogenga’s invitation, I had the privilege of working with students and professional journalists here in southwestern Kenya last week.

My first lecture to a packed house of about 45 students went well thanks to the contributions of Dr. Ogenga, who discussed his center’s goals, and Gloria Laker, the director of the Peace Journalism Foundation of East Africa based in Uganda. Laker chronicled various peace journalism projects in Uganda and Kenya, inspiring the students while underscoring that peace journalism is more than just theory. I talked about how journalists can use their influence as a tool of reconciliation—something that, according to the students, is sorely needed here.

The day after the lecture, I had a fascinating discussion with an extremely bright young lady who quizzed me at length about PJ and about the practice of peace media following the 2013 Kenyan elections. Her conclusion, one that I shared, was that media took one extreme in 2007 (inciting violence), but went to the other extreme in 2013 (ignoring election irregularities—rigging—for fear of inciting violence). The happy medium, I told her, would be media that carefully exercised its watchdog role without inciting. Certainly, it’s possible to point out rigging while simultaneously encouraging non-violent responses to that rigging. She agreed that this is possible, but pointed out that such reports would have to be worded very delicately, avoiding words like protest that could be misinterpreted.
Dr. Fredrick Ogenga discusses peace journalism in Kenya

I led discussions about peace journalism in two other classes later in the week, and even threw in a peace journalism writing lesson for Rongo’s new writing students. They did a great job.

My stint at Rongo University reminded me of my love for teaching, and the importance of peace journalism instruction in East Africa. I can’t wait to share my experiences and impressions with my peace journalism students at Park University.