Tuesday, November 17, 2020

PJ needed to set the tone for peace in Ethiopia
It is with great alarm that I view the current violent conflict in Ethiopia, where I spent the spring, 2018 semester as a State Department Senior Subject Specialist. I was based at the University of Gondar, near the Tigray region from where the conflict originates, but traveled throughout the country, including to Mekelle (also spelled Mek'ele), the capital of the Tigray region. 

As a peace journalist, I am as always concerned with the news media and their coverage of the conflict. Are they accurately reflecting the situation in Ethiopia? Are they fanning the flames of conflict, or instead are they practicing peace journalism?

I called upon two of my Ethiopian colleagues to help me make sense of the media coverage. I’ve decided not to use their names, out of respect for their privacy.

First, regarding international coverage, both of my colleagues are critical of the news media. My colleague whom I’ll call Abel said, “some of the international reporting has been surprisingly incomplete and partisan. The national defense forces were engaged in respecting rule of law in the defiant Tigray Liberation Front Forces. While this was the fact many news organizations such as Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy Magazine, the BBC and The Guardian represented the event as a brink of civil war. This is totally out of context and incomplete.”

He continued, “The other dishonest news come from Reuters news agency. While the Tigrayan Liberation forces have killed more than 500 ethnic Amhara civilians in border town of May Khadra, the reporter reported as (though) they were ethnic Tigrayans and were killed the national defense force. This is totally a fake information which is aimed at disinforming the international community.”

My second colleague whom I’m calling Kaleb agreed. He said, “Most of international news are biased... This is not civil war. It is a military operation…I also believe that Tigrayan brothers and sisters are ill informed and highly influenced by TPLF’s (the ruling party in Tigray) propaganda and disinformation. TPLF has created a false narrative in the country that Amhara (the region bordering Tigray, which includes Gondar) is chauvinist.”

Media coverage by Ethiopian outlets is also a concern. At the local level during any conflict, peace journalism asks whether local media reports are flag waving, jingoistic propaganda (traditional war reporting), or whether they are more balanced and give local residents a chance to consider non-violent responses to conflict.

A quick perusal of several Ethiopian news sources reveals the prevalence of traditional war reporting. (Keep in mind that there are only a few sources in English, so this analysis is severely limited.) The Ethiopia News Agency (https://www.ena.et/en/), for example, uncritically parrots government information in stories titled “Inhabitants of Addis Ababa Express Support for National Defense Force,” “Ethiopians Honor Defense Force,” and “Reports, Footages Claiming Airstrike on City of Mekelle (in Tigray region) False.” Ethiopia Zare (https://ethiopiazare.com/) does the same in stories like “The Ethiopian government asked the international community to condemn TPLF.” One needn’t look beyond the lead of this story to divine its approach: “The heinous and reprehensible massacre committed against innocent civilians in Mykadra by TPLF is clearly a grave violation of the most basic norms of international law.”

The same jingoism can be found in at least one Tigrayan media outlet, Tigray Online (http://www.tigraionline.com/) in stories titled “Barbaric-Genocidal Ethnic Cleansing, Extreme Savagery, in Ethiopia,” “(Ethiopian leaders) Abiy Ahmed and Esayas Afewerki Planned and Started a Joint War against the Innocent People of Tigrai,” and “Ethiopians fleeing to Sudan describe air strikes, machete killings in Tigray.” This last story includes the quote, “They killed anyone who said they were Tigrayan. They stole our money, our cattle, and our crops from our homes and we ran with just the clothing on our backs.”

Instead of this traditional reporting, peace journalists would critically analyze propaganda, and instead seek to balance stories with reports from all sides. PJ stories would reject inflammatory language (“barbaric,” “innocent people,” “savagery,” “machete killings”) and instead use more straightforward, less anger-inducing verbiage. PJ would give a voice to everyday people impacted by the conflict, without exploiting them for partisan purposes. Peace journalists would also examine the source of the conflict, and lead societal discussions about potential solutions.

Peace journalism alone won’t end the violence in Ethiopia, but can help erect a foundation upon which peace can someday be built.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Students:Whether you candidate won or lost,
use this election as peacebuilding opportunity

Note: I plan to email this to all of my students as soon as we have a presidential winner.

Nov. 4, 2020

Dear Peace Studies and Peace Journalism students:

Despite the divisions and angst it has generated, the presidential election nonetheless offers us the opportunity as peacebuilders to put our craft into practice. This is true regardless of which candidate you supported.

If you supported the winner, congratulations. As a peacebuilder, I would hope that you would accept the results graciously and with humility, and not celebrate by using inflammatory language that might deepen partisan, racial, and cultural divides. Further, as a supporter of the winner, I believe it is your responsibility to reach out to those who supported the other candidate to build bridges, in the parlance of peace studies and peace journalism. During these discussions, begin with listening, and with showing empathy for the emotional impact from the election results. Let them know that your vote was cast with the best intentions, for the leader and policies you feel will be most beneficial for the country, and was not a ballot cast against the supporters on the losing side.

This difficult discussion is not optional. The father of peace studies, Dr. Johan Galtung, wrote this week on Twitter that failure to conduct these demanding conversations will lead almost inevitably to violent conflict. As a “winner,” you are uniquely positioned to demonstrate your humility by initiating these discussions.

If you supported the losing candidate, I’m sorry. Keep in mind that during your life, you will assuredly win and lose some electorally. Politics are cyclical.

Even though the results seem very personal, I believe that they are not. Sure, there are obnoxious forces on both sides who do vote with malice in their heart—racists, xenophobes, homophobes, haters of Christians and rural Americans, elitists, etc. But I believe that 99% of us vote with the best intentions, not intending to personally harm anyone. Some of these good intentions arise out of ignorance and social and geographical isolation, and offer an opportunity to you as a peacemaker to educate those around you about our diverse society. This is a chance for you to build bridges as well. Begin by listening carefully, and don’t be argumentative or pedantic.

Regardless of how your candidate performed, you can harness your anger and disappointment, or energy and enthusiasm, to build peace. Begin by looking around to find the impediments to positive peace in our society. Positive peace, as theorized by Dr. Galtung, is the attitudes, institutions, and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies. Positive peace is sustainable and built upon a foundation of justice and opportunity for everyone. Make it your mission to seek out and combat impediments to positive peace, be they structural (laws, policies, procedures) or cultural (ideology, language, traditional attitudes). Your peace activism might, for example, battle sexism or racism, or seek to expand and protect religious and free speech rights. You could also monitor and call out news media that distort and fuel the divides in our society.

In short, what will you do as a peacebuilder to plant the seeds for a sustainable, lasting peace?

We can do better—better at communicating with and respecting one another, and better at fostering positive peace. We’ll never get rid of partisanship, but perhaps we as peacebuilders can help build a society where the nastiness and bitterness accompanying our elections becomes a relic of the past.


Professor Youngblood

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Indian, Pakistani journalists talk objectivity, challenging officials
There were several loose ends and leftover questions from last week’s peace journalism seminars for 80 engaged Indian and Pakistani journalists. (See previous post, below).

Q: One journalist said his family was murdered in Kashmir, and noted that it would be hard to bury his own emotions were he to report on this incident. Can this be reported objectively?

A: No one would expect objectivity under these circumstances. Objectivity is a goal that is worth striving for, though 100% objectivity isn’t realistically attainable. We all have biases. The best we can do as journalists is to be aware of our biases, and try to mitigate them. In this instance, I would ask to be excused from reporting about Kashmir, or for that matter, anything like this that is deeply personal. Any good editor would understand. If there was no choice but for me to report something that personally involved me (or in which I had a conflict of interest), then I would at least make my editor aware of the situation, and my biases, so that she could edit my story accordingly so as to remove the bias.

Q: In many countries, journalists fear the consequences of challenging official government narratives and officials. This wariness often leads to self-censorship. Given this understandable fear, how can we implement some of the changes that peace journalism recommends?

A: This is a problem in many places around the world, at least the ones I’ve worked in. The answer from my colleague Stephen Franklin is perfect. He says the key is “taking small steps to see how far you can go, and slowly test the pushback from editors, politicians, and government officials. That's how I've seen journalists in similar places try to work things out - although I've also seen them lose their jobs and their publications shut down.”

These small steps, in my experience, are almost always possible, even in state owned or controlled media outlets. For example, I visited a state TV and radio outlet in Hawassa, Ethiopia in 2018, and was pleased to discover that peace journalism was possible even there. I wrote, “It’s clear at least some of the (state TV and radio) journalists feel frustrated and stifled, though it also evident from the discussion that they believe that at least some elements of PJ can be implemented at the state media in Hawassa. These PJ elements include giving a voice of the voiceless; responsible refugee and IDP reporting; media as reconciliation tool; and avoiding inflammatory reporting.” (http://stevenyoungblood.blogspot.com/2018/03/is-pj-possible-on-state-run-radio-and_27.html)

I’ve seen the “small steps” method work in places as diverse as Uganda (where politicians own many media outlets) and Yemen (with strict government censorship and licensing). The key, as articulated by my Pakistani and Indian colleagues last week, is to begin by reporting stories about what governments might see as non-controversial topics like climate, water, trade, agriculture, and Covid-19.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Pakistani, Indian journalists gather on Zoom
Among peace journalism’s many powers is an ability to help journalists see their key role as bridge builders, cross-cultural agents who can help bring conflicting parties closer to reconciliation.

This bridge building, cross border role was emphasized last week as I “met” 80 Indian and Pakistani journalists on Zoom. The seminars last Tuesday through Friday were organized by the East-West Center, based in Hawaii.

My 90 minute seminars, given for 20 journalists at a time (10 from each country), began with a discussion of how “the other” is portrayed in media. The journalists then explored the basics of peace journalism, especially how language and violent, sensational framing can exacerbate conflicts. The journalists analyzed stories from their both countries for peace journalism content (or lack thereof).

The sessions concluded with the journalists breaking into groups and creating their own set of guidelines for more responsibly reporting cross border issues. These ideas on how to implement peace journalism included:

--Beginning with small steps and reporting “softer,” non-controversial stories (science, agriculture, health, etc.). These stories might include climate, water, and trade, for example. These small steps could “test the system,” so that journalists could know how far they can push the boundaries of what authorities would allow.

--Getting sober analysis from all sides during TV forums, not just “jingo-ists.” 

--Being careful to avoid demonizing and inflammatory language, including words like “enemy” and “terrorist.” 

--Avoiding blaming “them” for environmental problems.

--Using cross-border teams to fact check and verify info from the other side.

--Reporting stories that highlight commonalities—environmental crises, Covid-19 challenges, etc.

-- Interviewing everyday people, and not just officials—giving a voice to the voiceless, in the parlance of peace journalism.

--Producing counternarrative stories about Kashmir that debunk the media-perpetuated myth that the region is nothing but a war zone.

--Turning down the temperature, a difficult task given the structural challenges in India and Pakistan that favor TV shows that both toe the government line and are sensational, often featuring angry shouting matches. “We need a voice of reason,” one reporter noted. 

My four peace journalism seminars were only the beginning of a larger project for these Indian and Pakistani journalists titled, “Reporting on cross border issues of mutual concern.” This week, they will be trained on multimedia journalism, and later, split into groups to study reporting in four content areas—agriculture, environment, health, and economy. Each of these sessions is being taught by Univ. of Missouri professors. Then after these virtual sessions this month and next, the plan is to continue the project face-to-face by bringing the journalists and trainers to Kathmandu, Nepal sometime in 2021, depending on the pandemic. The idea is to get reporters from each country to team up on mutually compelling stories in the four content areas.  (For more, see https://www.eastwestcenter.org/professional-development/seminars-journalism-programs/reporting-cross-border-issues-mutual-concern )

The project is funded by the U.S. Dept. of State and implemented by the East-West Center, which “promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue,” according to its website. The Center is an independent, public, nonprofit organization with funding from the U.S. government, and additional support provided by private agencies, individuals, foundations, corporations, and governments in the region.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Study: Media don't celebrate Trump's Covid diagnosis
The media’s coverage of Donald Trump’s bout with Covid-19 has been largely free of “just desserts” narratives, while attacks against him for being irresponsible have grown as the president has recovered, according to a new study.

A NexisUni database search of news on Oct. 3-4, the two days following Trump’s positive test announcement, maxed out at 10,000+ hits for “Trump and Covid.” (Maxed out means there were at least 10,000 stories, though the database shows only the first 10,000). Of these, only a small number of stories contained “just desserts” keywords like “karma” (114), “deserved” (370), “inevitable” (265), and “ironic” (65). There were even 126 hits for “didn’t deserve.” If fact, the phrase “just desserts” was found only twice in this search.

Using the total of 10,000 news stories on Trump and Covid on these two days, even the most frequently appearing “just desserts” keyword, “deserved,” appeared in just 3.7% of the stories. Clearly, the media steered clear of most attacks that would imply that Trump got what he deserved, as well as language that might be seen as celebrating Trump’s infection. To do otherwise would have given right-wing media the red meat they crave to feed their narrative about the liberal media hating Trump.

According to a second NexisUni search, the “just desserts” narrative did not gain any additional traction the following two days. On Oct. 5 (the day Trump returned to the White House from the hospital) and Oct. 6, the keywords of “karma” and “deserved” showed slight increases (from 114 to 137 and from 114 to 137 respectively) while the term “inevitable” (265 to 199) had a decreased number of hits. The keyword “ironic” stayed about the same (65 to 68).

Statistically, the press took it easy on Trump on Oct. 3-4 when it came to his perceived lack of personal responsibility, and what some see as his cavalier attitude when it comes to exposing others to his infection. On these two full days, the search of 10,000+ Trump and Covid news stories showed a modest number of hits for the keywords “reckless” (267) and “irresponsible” (280—just 2.8% of the 10,000 stories).

However, on Oct. 5-6, the press attacks on Trump’s personal responsibility escalated. A NexisUni search found 10,000+ Trump and Covid stories on these dates. Of these, 858 used the term “reckless,” while another 579 used the word “irresponsible.” Both totals were more than double the preceding two days, perhaps indicating that the press felt increasingly comfortable justifiably attacking Trump as he recovered and his prognosis improved.

One interesting aside: Whether a deliberate poke in the eye or not, the press liberally used a term Trump hates, “obese.” From Oct. 3-6, “obese” appeared in 1296 of 10,000 Trump and Covid stories—about 13%.

In summary, despite what one might hear from conservative outlets, there was almost no celebration in the news media when Trump contracted the virus. Instead, between Oct. 3-6, in 10,000+ articles, the media offered “prayers” (1364 hits) and hopes for a “speedy recovery” (1602). Once Trump was back in the White House, attacks against his irresponsible behavior did escalate, justifiably so, since his behavior calls into question his judgment and commitment to protecting others.