Saturday, December 8, 2018

Journalists from around the globe compare threats, challenges

(Santa Fe, NM)-I traveled 754 miles from Kansas City to Santa Fe, New Mexico this week to attend and speak at a conference titled, “Journalism Under Fire” (JUF). Little did I realize that this short trip would literally take me around the world.

JUF was blessed by the active presence of 48 international journalists (literally, from Albania to Zimbabwe). These journalists were brought to the U.S. as Edward R. Murrow Fellows by the U.S.  State Department.

Interactions between the international journalists and the Americans present enlightened and enriched both groups. I was privileged to moderate two exchanges with the international journalists. One featured journalists from Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Nigeria (panel discussion on misinformation), while another had reporters from Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria (Citizen Exchange Circle). We discussed fake news and government propaganda; the double-edge sword of social media; the challenges of reporting about terrorism; and the state of media freedom in their respective countries.
Intl journalists' panel discussion


My breakfast and lunch chats with the visitors about their careers and their lives were equally enriching. Professionally, several journalists even indicated an interest in hosting me for a peace journalism workshop or project in their home countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

At JUF, the international journalists and I were engaged by some wonderful speakers, including Pulitzer Prize winners Dana Priest (Washington Post) and Don Bartletti (Los Angeles Times).

Priest spoke about global censorship. Interestingly, she said that Facebook’s handling of news constitutes “a new kind of censorship” that promotes extreme views by giving consumers only the news Facebook thinks readers “want.” Photojournalist Bartletti showed his photo essays from the U.S.-Mexico border (including recent shots of the caravan), and from Honduras. His photos were evocative: infuriating, depressing, and startling.

Other JUF speakers included Ukrainian Olga Yurkova (fake news, Russia and Ukraine); Arbana Xhare from Kosovo (threats against journalists); Angela Kocherga and Alfredo Corchado (covering the U.S.-Mexican border); Nikahong Kowsar (the dangers of political cartooning in Iran); and several New Mexico journalists discussing their challenges and threats. I also spoke about peace journalism and covering migrants (see previous blog for details).
Journalism Under Fire plenary session


Journalism Under Fire was organized by Executive Director Sandy Campbell and his staff at the Santa Fe Council on International Relations. Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post spoke at JUF and wrote about the conference in the Post. Rezaian noted that the conference was timely, since threats facing journalism “one of the most consequential challenges facing free societies today.” I couldn’t agree more.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

In Santa Fe, talking immigrants, media coverage, and PJ
(Santa Fe, New Mexico)—Given the right topic, even I can hold an audience’s attention.

This was proven today at the “Journalism Under Fire” conference, where a lively group of about 40 gathered with me to discuss media coverage of migrants, and how peace journalism can be a tool to improve that coverage.

After a quick examination of superficiality, negativity, and stereotyping coverage of Syrian refugees in  European and Turkish media, we talked about how many of those same traits can be seen in recent coverage of the caravan “crisis.” I showed findings of recent studies that showed the threat was exaggerated, and that negative language was used far more than positive language about the caravan migrants. Finally, we discussed the way that the president used the media to spread his anti-immigrant hysteria.

Peace journalism, conversely, would portray immigrants more three-dimensionally, and with a humanitarian angle. PJ would also reject the harsh, judgmental language we’ve seen so much in the media. I played several examples of peace journalism style stories, including a terrific piece by NPR’s Scott Simon about a family separated at the border (https://www.npr.org/2018/08/11/637780548/how-separation-affected-a-migrant-family).

The audience pitched me some difficult questions to close out the discussion. Will audiences pay attention to PJ stories? (Actually, research shows audiences prefer PJ and solutions themed stories). How can we get media consumers out of their bubbles? (Not easy. Start with media literacy).
We could have discussed all of this for two more hours. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the discussion doesn’t continue at coffee breaks and lunch over  the next couple of days.

I’ll have more about this excellent conference in the coming days. For now, learn more at: https://www.sfcir.org/journalism-under-fire/ .

Monday, November 26, 2018

On caravan, press regrettably plays 'follow the leader'
The American press’ regrettable “follow the leader” behavior while reporting the migrant “crisis” has served the Trump administration more than the public.

Trump sparked an avalanche of coverage as he repeatedly warned about the “threats” posed by a caravan of 3,000-7,000 Central American migrants winding their way through Mexico towards the U.S. Trump’s statements, and the accompanying press coverage, peaked in the 10 days before the midterms, and fell precipitously in the 10 days after the election.

From Oct. 27 to Nov. 5, the 10 days before the elections, Trump mentioned the migrant caravan more than 60 times, according to CNN ( https://tinyurl.com/ycek87o6). During those same 10 days, a LexisNexis broadcast transcript search showed 2,458 hits for news stories about the caravan. In the 10 days after the midterms, Nov. 7-16, Trump used the word “caravan” only once, during a news conference on Nov. 7 (CNN).  In a LexisNexis broadcast transcript search for Nov. 7-16, there were only 904 hits for “caravan” stories—a 63% drop from the pre-midterm level.

This trend was especially, and predictably, true on Fox News. CNN reported that the caravan was mentioned on Fox 733 times in the seven days preceding the election, and only 126 times in the seven days after (through Nov. 15). ( https://tinyurl.com/ycek87o6)

This data showing press coverage mirroring Trump’s caravan statements would seem to answer the chicken-egg question, “Do the press lead or follow?”

Of course, media must report what the president says or does, even if it is demonstrably false political propaganda. However, once initial reporting makes clear the president’s virulent anti-migrant stance, how much daily repetition is really needed? Certainly, such repetitious reporting puts the press at risk for becoming a vehicle for political propaganda, xenophobia, and fear mongering.

Some of this repetitious caravan reporting included fact checking aimed at setting the record straight. A NexisUni search showed 318 hits under “caravan fact check” before the midterms. This includes fact checking reports by AP, The New York Times, and NPR among others. There’s no question that fact checking is important. But the same questions must be asked here: Once the record has been set straight again and again, at what point does the fact checking become self-defeating? When can legitimate fact checking be perceived (or dismissed) by the president’s supporters as Trump-bashing? Does too much fact checking feed the narratives that Trump is being unfairly targeted by a hostile, “fake news” press.

There is a better way. Instead of being led by any politician, the media should set the tone, and the agenda, with more insightful, thorough coverage. In this instance, better reporting would have started with the same prominent (front page, lead story) coverage about the president’s caravan claims, then backed off (less coverage, less prominent coverage, less live coverage) once the reporting became repetitious. Better reporting would have featured a majority of stories focused on the migrants themselves, as well as the impact of the caravan on Mexican host communities. Better reporting would have muted the red-faced pundits and political opportunists on both sides. Why report the same hate, fear, and anger from all sides over and over?

More responsible reporting about any migrants (immigrants, asylum seekers, and refuges) would avoid spreading propaganda (like that coming out of the White House); not use language that reinforces stereotypes, racism, sexism or xenophobia (“invasion” of terrorists and criminals, for example); proactively report stories that offer counter-narratives that debunk stereotypes and challenge exclusively negative narratives (stories explaining that migrants are actually fleeing for their lives); and tell stories that humanize migrants and border officials.

Whether real or politically-created, there will be another “crisis.” Perhaps next time, the media can avoid being used as a political megaphone, and instead report in a way that gives a more nuanced view of the situation and of those seeking refuge.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Journalists struggle to overcome authoritarianism
It’s been a rough week for journalists here and abroad. 

In the U.S., White House attacks against the press, including nasty comments directed at individual reporters, continue unabated. From a peace journalism perspective, journalists are best served when they avoid falling into the partisan narrative trap laid by the president, and instead stick to the facts as much as possible. Good journalism, and especially reporting that rejects “us vs. them” narratives, is the best weapon against our critics. 

A state newspaper in Tanzania claiming that
the arrested CPJ representatives were spies
In Africa, two recent incidents reflect the precarious nature of press freedom. In Tanzania, Committee to Protect Journalists Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal and CPJ Representative Muthoki Mumo were arrested, harassed, threatened, and interrogated by authorities. Their electronic devices were confiscated. “They repeatedly accused us of lying,” Quintal wrote. “We were alone at the mercy of a posse of men, some of whom were very abusive and hostile. The only woman agent had long gone home. We were taken back downstairs into a shabby sitting room and asked gendered questions. An intelligence agent was particularly abusive towards Muthoki. He even slapped and shoved her. I tried to intervene and was told to back off. I was terrified that Muthoki would be sexually assaulted (she was not) and I would be powerless to stop them.“ ( https://tinyurl.com/y9uen8ep )

Fortunately, Quintal and Mumo were released, thanks in large part to international pressure on the government.

Across the continent in Cameroon, authorities unlawfully detained TV reporter/anchor Mimi Mefo as part of a false news and cybercrime investigation. She was later charged with a state security offense of publishing false information about clashes between the army and separatists in Anglophone Cameroon. After a storm of protest, led by an online #FreeMimiMefo campaign, the government relented and released her. However, at least six other journalists have been arrested since Oct. 7, and two remain in prison. (http://www.africanews.com/2018/11/10/cameroon-journalist-mimi-mefo-released/ )  

In Cameroon, where I’ve spent the last two Julys, reporters surveyed in July, 2018 said that they believe they are safer (not safe) from arrest, kidnapping, and violence if they practice peace journalism. More details on this survey can be found in the latest Peace Journalist magazine (https://tinyurl.com/y7pb2cnb) , which also features stories about reporters under fire in Nigeria and Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Practicing responsible peace journalism doesn’t make us bulletproof, but it does make it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to justify the harassment, arrest, and abuse of journalists.


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Reconciliation and media in the U.S.
Today, the day after the election, I thought it would be interesting for my peace journalism class at Park University to do a little brainstorming about reconciliation in the U.S. and how media can bolster reconciliation processes.

Toward that end, I asked student groups to identify reconciliation issues, and then list a few stories the media might tell about these issues that might generate valuable discussions about the issues at hand.

One group chose the victims of hate crimes and their perpetrators, and listed as "healing" reports stories where the perp openly discusses his crime, and stories about how he is reaching out to victims in various ways. A second group chose as their issues reconciliation between African Americans and police, and listed stories including contextual pieces about overall arrests and trends involving African Americans and joint (African Americans and police together) projects to assist those in need in the community. The final group chose reconciliation between Middle Easterners and the larger society. This group would promote stories that told stories about Middle Easterner academic achievers, and about common challenges in employment.

I kicked in my two cents and chose the related topic of reconciliation between Christians and Muslims in the U.S. The stories I would report would include how the two groups have joined forces on political campaigns, and features on how discrimination cuts across religious boundaries.

As always, I learned more from my students than they learned from me.