Sunday, May 24, 2015

Turkish journalists, students dissect ethics of refugee reporting

(Istanbul, Turkey)—Even after four months, the journalists who visited Syrian refugee camps and tent cities in Adana, Turkey are still trying to figure out the best way to tell the refugees’ stories using the principles of peace journalism.

Our Peace Journalism Summit, which began today at the University of Istanbul, brought together
Controversial photo--Should media have used this?
those journalists and students who went into the field to report about refugees in January. Each of the journalists and student journalists took turns talking about how to best tell the story of these Syrians.
The most animated discussion centered on the ethics of using the photo you see here of a small child. In published reports, the photographer said that the child mistook his camera for a gun. The symbolism of the war-weary child is powerful indeed. Most of the summit participants said it was fine to use the picture if parental consent is obtained. One participant suggested blurring the child’s face. Another correctly pointed out that if peace journalists are destined to stir an indifferent public into action, there can be no better tool than this picture.

Another group of participants analyzed an online photo essay called, insensitively, “The joy of Syrian children finding fruit in the garbage.” It features pictures of dumpster-diving children. The seminar participants agreed that this essay was dehumanizing and insensitive, and lacked the kind of context and analysis that we expect in peace journalism.

PJ Summit, Day One participants
Finally, students from Cukurova University in Adana discussed their experiences in the camps and refugee tent cities last January. There were several excellent story ideas/research produced by the students. Two excellent angles were a story about the lack of playgrounds and recreation facilities in the Adana refugee camp, and another story about the difficulties older refugee teens have in matriculating to universities here in Turkey. Both stories offer counter-narratives to the typical negative, stereotyping reporting done about refugees in the Turkish media.

The summit continues through Tuesday at the University of Istanbul’s communications department.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sabah Al-Watan TV/Kuwait will never be the same
At least, it won't be the same after my guest spot on their "Good Morning Kuwait" program.
Click here to view in English and Arabic. 

Kuwaiti journalists confront tough questions
KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT--Is Kuwaiti press free when journalists are prohibited from criticizing the emir (king) or from attacking religions like Islam?

The discussion that followed those questions at the Arab Media Forum were among the most interesting I’ve ever had with overseas journalists.

International press NGO’s have traditionally dinged Kuwait’s media (listed as “partly free”) because, for one, direct criticism of the emir is prohibited by law. Violators have been punished and fined. The Kuwaiti journalists, while acknowledging this law, pointed out that they still consider themselves free to discuss any issue, and to indeed criticize any minister, politician, or royal family member except the emir himself, thus ensuring a robust discussion of public policy. One young lady observed that, in her view, the relationship between Kuwaitis and their emir is more social than political, and thus prohibiting criticism of him does little (or nothing) to impede public discourse.

Before this discussion, I would have strongly opposed this line of reasoning. After the discussion, I must admit that while I still don’t agree with the law, I certainly understand it. If Kuwaiti journalists feel unimpeded by the criticizing-the-emir prohibition, who am I to condemn this law?

The discussion then drifted to blasphemy laws, which most Western journalists and journalism organizations strongly oppose. Here, criticizing Islam is punishable by fines or jail time.

Though I was not surprised that the journalists supported the blasphemy law, it was still interesting to hear them defend a statute that some might say restricts their rights. The journalists said that the law merely dictates that there is a respectful media discussion of religion—a discussion that shows manners, according to one reporter. I asked several devil’s advocate questions. I wanted to know if someone who was not religious should be able to express their opinion. The journalists unanimously said yes, as long as the opinion was articulated in a respectful manner. This led to the next question: who is it that determines what respectful is, or what shows proper manners? The journalists said this is outlined in Kuwaiti law. 

I told the journalists that I am always more comfortable when media outlets and journalists decide what is and isn’t respectful instead of having these decisions made by government officials. On this important point, the journalists agreed with me.

As is characteristic of truly remarkable discussions like this one, no minds may have been changed today, but all of our minds certainly were opened.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Kuwaiti Peace Journalists explore lives of those marginalized
In Arabic, Bidoon means “without.” Here in Kuwait, Bidoon is the word used to label the 100,000-150,000 stateless persons who are, indeed, “without” in every sense of the word.

Small house, Bidoon community, Kuwait
As part of our U.S. Embassy-sponsored three-day peace journalism seminar at the Arab Media Forum in Kuwait City, my reporter/students and I visited an 18,000 member Bidoon community about 45 minutes outside of the city called Al Sulabiya. This settlement includes 900 small, corrugated steel-covered, government provided houses, according to a spokesman from Project 29, an organization that advocates for the Bidoon population.

The dozen or so journalists from the workshop and I went to this community to tell humanitarian-themed stories about those who live here. Before today, several of the journalists had not been to this community. The Bidoon, who reside in Kuwait but are not granted citizen status, live at the margins of Kuwaiti society where education, jobs, and good housing are hard to obtain, according to those whom we interviewed. (For more about the Bidoon, click here.)

Welcomed inside a Bidoon house, Kuwait
We interviewed several teenagers on the streets, which were largely empty because it was 111 degrees the afternoon of our visit. We also visited the home of a married couple with four children in the Bidoon village.

In this reporting exercise, I challenged the journalists to produce stories that debunk the negative narratives about Bidoon which are the standard fare of Kuwaiti media. The reporters, based on their questions, were interested in a story angle about the marriage between a Bidoon man and a Kuwaiti citizen woman.

My hope is that the humanitarian stories produced about our visit to Al Sulabiya are only the first of many that will be told by these Kuwaiti journalists and their colleagues about the Bidoon and their plight.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What I'm reading; Prepping for Kuwait and Istanbul

A couple of interesting peace-journalism related articles have come my way lately. The first involves an excellent radio for peace project in South Sudan. The second is a thought-provoking story about a photographer who shot an incident where a xenophobic crowd killed a man in South Africa. Was it his responsibility to photograph the event, or intervene in an attempt to assist the victim?

In other news, I'm leaving for Kuwait in a few days. I'll be doing workshops there next week for journalists, NGO's, and perhaps students as well. Then, it's off to Istanbul, where I'll be working with my colleagues on a Peace Journalism Summit at the University of Istanbul. Stay tuned to this blog for details.

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.