Thursday, January 10, 2019

Shutdown coverage should highlight suffering, spotlight solutions

In covering the government shutdown, some news outlets have tried to break free of the usual partisan bickering, and instead have offered exemplary reporting that tells stories of the voiceless government employees, concentrates on solutions, and rejects “us vs. them” narratives.

In a Nexis Uni search for Jan. 2-9, there were 25,527 news items on the government shutdown. Of these, 776 discussed government employee, paychecks (2,373), mortgages (676), second jobs (92), food stamps (92), savings (729), and employees going broke (1,370). In the search, 2,355 mentioned “employee impact” generally. For example, Chris Cuomo’s concluded his CNN program on Jan. 9 discussing the impact of the shutdown on employees, and cited a pitiful example of advice given to those without paychecks that included suggesting that they hold garage sales. In another interesting piece, the Huffington Post discussed how the shutdown is “piling on the stress” for expecting parents.  Local reporters are also getting into the act, describing, for instance, how the shutdown is affecting one family in Rochester, Minnesota

Some news outlets have also helped to educate the public about possible solutions. Of the news items in the search, 2,370 discussed solutions; 3,111 compromise; and 346 mentioned the possibility of a state of emergency. That said, many of these mentions include the word no before the aforementioned terms—“no compromise” or “no solutions in sight” were common themes. (“White House meeting ends with no shutdown solution,” for example.) Still, important ideas for solutions have been discussed in USA Today (“If they don’t want a wall, what are Democrats’ border solutions?) and The Hill website (“Ending the shutdown presents opportunity for solution on immigration”) 

Finally, in the news search, there were occasional reports during the previous seven days that rejected “us vs. them” narratives and instead examined common ground (364), unity (468), and bipartisan (2,697) and nonpartisan (305) solutions to the crisis. For example, the Washington Post wrote, about how a bipartisan governors group is calling for an end to the shutdown.

While it’s encouraging to see articles like these, it’s important to note that these pieces are still in a small minority—about 3,000 out of 25,000 news pieces included the terms “bipartisan” or “nonpartisan”; about 5,500 out of 25,000 articles news items mentioned compromise or solutions of any kind; and only about 4,500 of the 25,000 items discussed employee paychecks, suffering, and going broke.  

As the shutdown continues, journalists can better serve their audiences by including more stories that give voice to the victims of the shutdown and discuss solutions while rejecting pointless name calling and partisan posturing.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Reading list:
"Harrowing Year" for Press Freedom; Analyzing Peacebuilding
Since it’s the holidays and class isn’t in session, I thought it would be a great time to assign some reading. While I can’t promise that it will be light reading, I can guarantee that it will be interesting.

First, the topic of journalists under fire continues to dominate discourse in the field. It was the theme of a wonderful conference I recently attended (see previous post) and of the most recent edition of the Peace Journalist magazine. The Press Freedom tracker has an interesting end-of-year analysis detailing what it calls a “harrowing year for press freedom. The Tracker has documented more than 100 press freedom incidents since January, from murders and physical attacks to stops at the border and legal orders.”
Alarming graphic from The New Republic

Along the same lines, the New Republic has posted an interesting article analyzing why so many journalists were murdered in 2018. Author Joel Simon observes, “There is no single explanation for why journalists are being killed and imprisoned. But the disappointing response of the United States government to these crimes—its abrogation of its traditional role as model for a free press—helps explain why the perpetrators are acting with such impunity."

Two other articles assess peace and peacebuilding. One, in Dr. Johan Galtung’s Transcend Media Services website, talks about how rural radio stations are helping to foster peace in Colombia. The second article, published at Peaceinsight.org, suggests strategies for enhancing peacebuilding, including bottom-up approaches, constructive conflict management, and confronting and transforming populism.

Here's hoping for a less harrowing and more peaceful 2019.


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.