Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Newspaper images, words exacerbate Baltimore unrest
Analysis of day-after newspaper coverage of the unrest in Baltimore on Monday, Apr. 27 shows that images and words used too often exacerbated the tense situation there.

A mini-study was conducted of 10 leading newspaper front pages from the NY Times, Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Seattle Times, Kansas City Star, and Boston Globe. The study analyzed the picture(s) and the headlines and sub-heads used on the front pages.

In terms of visuals, the most commonly used photo was one of a gas-mask wearing protester with his fist defiantly raised. This was used in the Baltimore Sun, and two of the other newspapers. Three of 10 front pages featured burning vehicles (St. Louis Post Dispatch).  

Were these photos inflammatory (no pun intended)? As peace journalists, the question we ask is, does the image exacerbate the situation—create more divisions within society, stoke racism and hatred? By this litmus test, it’s hard to see the shot of the defiant, gas-masked, fist raising rioter as anything but inflammatory, playing on the emotions and fears of the white community.
The vehicle burning shots exacerbate the situation to a much lesser extent, since they essentially parrot what was seen for hours on TV Monday night. However, the burning shots do misrepresent and exaggerate what happened. (After all, how many cars, total, were burned? Was it half the cars in Baltimore, as the coverage would have us believe?) 

Several other photos were each used twice. One is a shot of police carrying off an injured comrade (Washington Post, for example). Is this photo designed to elicit sympathy for police officers? (Not that we shouldn’t have sympathy for officers, or for anyone else in Baltimore.) A final photo used twice on these 10 front pages is a shot of a police officer throwing something at protesters (a smaller photo in the St. Louis paper). This shot is also a misrepresentation. There were hundreds of cops on the ground. How many threw objects at protesters?

Of the 10 front pages, only two—The Seattle Times and Baltimore Sun (in a smaller picture)—displayed a prominent picture of peaceful protesters. These peaceful protesters, by everyone’s account, far outnumbered the rioters. Yet, there are represented on the front pages of only two major newspapers in the study.

In terms of language used in the headlines and sub-heads, a peace journalist always carefully considers word choice, seeking words that are accurate but not inflammatory or sensational. The most frequently used word was riot/rioting, shown on four of these front pages. There’s nothing wrong per se with this word, although it tells only part of the story. A peace journalist might also use the word rioting, but be careful not to omit the word protesters, or peaceful, or justice. Two of the head/sub-heads used the word violence, which is an accurate descriptor of what happened.
Two papers (including the Baltimore Sun) used the word looting. By itself, this isn’t inaccurate, although like the word riot, it reveals only one aspect of a more complex story.

It was a pleasant surprise that none of the 10 major dailies in the mini-study used the words bloody, burns, or burning in their headline. (Of course, it didn’t take long to find the sensational headline “Baltimore Burning” in the New York Post, but this should come as no surprise. BTW, on the bottom of page one on the same day, a sub-head in the Post screams, “Why I killed Jeffrey Dahmer!”).

When covering civic unrest, daily newspapers, broadcast journalists, and social media outlets should utilize the principles of peace journalism, especially peace journalism's admonition to consider the consequences of one's reporting.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

At UPeace, Peace Journalism takes center stage
(Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica)--Almost everywhere where it’s taught, peace journalism is an outlier: an odd stranger who wanders onto campus with lots of energy and some heretical ideas.

However, here in the jungles of Costa Rica, it’s different. Not only is peace journalism not perceived as odd, but instead, it’s seen as an integral peacebuilding tool. This week, I’m at the University for Peace, a UN mandated (but not funded!), master’s degree granting institution of higher learning.  

UPeace’s mission is: "to provide humanity with an international institution of higher education for peace and with the aim of promoting among all human beings the spirit of understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, to stimulate cooperation among peoples and to help lessen obstacles and threats to world peace and progress, in keeping with the noble aspirations proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations".

These are lofty aspirations to be sure, but nonetheless goals that are grounded in the academic departments here, including Environment and Development, Peace and Conflict Studies, and International Law and Human Rights.
I’m here as a consultant, reviewing the Media, Peace, and Conflict Studies that is offered under the Peace and Conflict Studies departmental umbrella. As part of my consultant’s research, I’ve had the privilege to interview almost everyone at UPeace, including professors, students, and staff.

The students at UPeace are as diverse as one might expect. The small focus group I led had students from the Philippines, South Korea, Mexico, and Cambodia. They said that they love the “UP” experience—studying on this beautiful campus in gorgeous Costa Rica in a place where their peaceful orientations are the norm rather than the exception. The students and I also discussed some curricular and teaching improvements that might find their way into my consultant’s report on the peace media MA program.

As I look over the course offerings in the peace media program, I must admit to a twinge of jealousy. There are so many classes in this program (and in others as well) that I’m dying to take. One is “The role of media in the Rwandan Genocide,” something I’ve talked about in class for years, but would love to learn more about myself. 

A second particularly-interesting course is “Language, Media and Peace,” taught by Professor Leon Berdichevsky. Professor B joined me Wednesday from Costa Rica as I Skyped with my class back in Parkville, Missouri. We had a vibrant discussion about the use of language, and especially about language as conveyed in film and comic books. 

I have a week to cook up my recommendations and serve them up in my report. The upshot will be that while there are structural and curricular challenges to overcome, that the peace media MA program at UPeace is well positioned to help lead a renaissance in media and media studies over the coming decades.

Monday, April 13, 2015

After attack, Kenyan newspapers reject sensationalism

When violence occurs, journalists of course must cover it. Peace journalism differs in that it encourages a discussion of how to responsibly report such violence.

One example is the awful events of April 2, when 147 people were killed in an attack at Garissa University in Kenya.

In perusing Kenyan newspaper front pages from the next day, a peace journalist would examine both the words and the images, looking for content that was needlessly sensational or inflammatory—content that makes a bad situation even worse.

One Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, uses the headline, “Kenya Unbowed,” which is defiant but not sensational or inflammatory. The front page image, of a soldier running with his truck in the background, is a curious choice since it seems so generic and unremarkable. Indeed, this stock-photo-type-image could have been used in any instance when troops are deployed. While it’s not a great picture, at least it’s not bloody or disrespectful of the victims as is so often the case when incidents like this are reported.

The Star uses a headline with the words “massacre” and “raid.” Both these terms, particularly “massacre,” are inflammatory, further fueling grief, hatred, and the desire for violent retribution. The Star’s page one picture, another non-descript shot of a soldier, is similar to the Standard’s.

The Daily Nation uses the best photo, one of the grief-stricken relative of a victim. This picture reveals the impact of the violence without exploiting or sensationalizing it. The headline “147 killed, 79 hurt in campus attack” is straightforward without exacerbating an already terrible situation.

Overall, these three Kenyan newspapers deserve generally high marks, from a peace journalism perspective, for eschewing sensationalism. It must have been tempting to use bloody pictures or screaming headlines. It’s gratifying to see these Kenyan journalists acknowledging on their front pages that the events of April 2 needed no embellishment.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The New Peace Journalist magazine has arrived!

The April, 2015 Peace Journalist magazine is here! This edition features articles about our peace journalism project in Turkey (Reporting Syrian Refugees)as well as pieces from Greece, Jordan, and Afghanistan. Click here to view online through Issue-- . Or, use this link to view/download .pdf file:  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Charlie Hebdo coverage: A second analysis

Editor's note: I first wrote about Charlie Hebdo coverage two days after the attacks this January. I have taken that material and updated it for the Peace Journalist magazine, which is coming out in April. Here is that piece:

In the months that have followed the Charlie Hebdo murders, media worldwide have offered up a mixed bag of sensationalism and occasionally insightful coverage.

In examining newspaper coverage from the days following the attacks, the language of sensationalism predominated in headlines that screamed “Bloody Climax” (Times of London), “Massacred in Minutes” (Daily Express), “Barbaric” (Daily Mirror), “War in Paris” (NY Post), “La liberte assassinee” (Paris Normandie), “Morder” (Bild-Germany), “Liberte 0, Barbarie 12” (L’Equipe-France), “They wanted to die martyrs…instead they died as vile, pathetic, murderous scum” (Daily Mirror). Several newspapers covers showed a graphic that extends the middle finger in defiance of the attackers.

What’s wrong with these headlines? They certainly capture the anger associated with the attack. However, they do not reflect the array of other emotions ranging from grief to regret to empathy present in the days after the attacks. These sensational headlines (often accompanied by bloody images or inflammatory artwork) do nothing but fuel the fires of anger, and practically beg for an emotional, violent outburst in response to the attacks.

A peace journalism approach, in contrast, would not sugarcoat what happened, but would also not seek to exacerbate an already anger-filled, tense situation.
More responsible headlines after the attacks included “Assault on Democracy” (Guardian), “The world stands with France” (International New York Times), “Manhunt follows terror attack” (Washington Post), “Paris Magazine Attack” (NBC News website).
As for the front page images, an unscientific survey of front page images in the days following the attacks shows the dominance of three photos or illustrations. One is the aforementioned cartoon middle finger extended, the second is a photo of a police officer on the ground moments before he was shot, and the third is a surveillance picture of the gunmen leaving their car on the way into the Hebdo building.

These images, while not ideal from a peace journalism standpoint, could be much worse. The middle finger is inflammatory, to be sure. However, the front page pictures could have been so much worse. Imagine the bloody possibilities, including detailed images of the dead and injured. One responsible front page, The Daily Telegraph, showed the picture of the gunmen with their car, but also had five large photos of some of the victims.

A peace journalist, when considering which images to use, might consider several guidelines that I wrote about several years ago in response to images published in the New York Times of a shooting at the Empire State Building (Peace Journalism Insights, Aug. 24, 2012):

1. Are these images sensational, or are they necessary for a complete understanding of the story?
2. Will these images needlessly inflame passions against a suspect, scuttling his right to a fair trial?
3. What about the families of the victims? Should we consider their feelings before we publish?
4. Do the pictures in any way glorify the crime, making it (in a sick way) attractive to copycats?

In terms of the content of the coverage, one key tenet of peace journalism is rejecting the traditional media narrative of “us vs. them,” which is an oversimplified, inaccurate reporting construct. In the aftermath of the attack, reporters, commentators, and bloggers all too often seized the opportunity to promulgate their stale, East vs. West or Muslim vs. Christian narratives. These traditional narratives are deliberately polarizing, and do nothing but fuel more animosity.

Peace journalists would explore the legitimate grievances behind those who opposed Charlie Hebdo, without giving justification to the violence perpetrated against the newspaper. Responsible journalists should explain the violence and its context without excusing it.  There was one encouraging sign in the coverage: The most important underlying issue explaining the attacks, the nature of blasphemy, was explored in depth by a number of responsible media outlets like New York magazine (Jan. 7), the Huffington Post (Jan. 26), and the Washington Post (Jan. 19).

Traditional media have, unfortunately, successfully created an inaccurate, one-dimensional narrative that depicts Muslims as a single minded, monolithic entity. Peace journalism should present Islam in a more accurate, multi-faceted  manner that reflects its diversity.

The Charlie Hebdo incident, tragic though it may be, continues to offer Western media an opportunity to broaden and enhance the media portrayal of Islam while leading a discussion about the chilling effect the murders have had on legitimate public discourse about religion.