Friday, February 5, 2016

Media distortions: An international phenomenon
(Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica)--Media distortions and myths were central to our best discussion of the week here at my peace journalism workshop at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.

One of the central tenets of peace journalism is that reporting as traditionally practiced exaggerates and distorts reality. The basic premise of this theory, as articulated in the book “The Culture of Fear,” is that sensational media over-report (or sensationally report) some risks, creating a public fearful of virtually non-existent risks like dying in a plane crash, having ones’ child abducted by a stranger, or being killed by a terrorist.

As I began the discussion listing distortions and exaggerations, a particularly observant student piped up and asked about the Zika virus. It has been reported extensively—I got 80 million hits for Zika on Google news today. But the question is, has this reporting created undue fear or panic about the virus? A peace journalist covering Zika, I told my students, would begin every story about the virus this way: “Although 80 percent of those who are infected with Zika experience no symptoms….” Media hysteria can always be quashed by context.

I concluded the discussion by asking my students to list media distortions from their home countries. (UPeace students come from around the world). The students listed these distortions/exaggerations:

South Korea-Exaggerated missile threat from North Korea
Costa Rica—All foreigners as criminals
Switzerland—The French are stealing our jobs
Norway—The Swedes are stealing our jobs
Nicaragua-Xenophobia about Costa Ricans
Italy—Muslims don’t respect us
Finland—Overhyped economic “disaster”
Indonesia—Exaggerated tensions between Muslims and Christians
Cambodia—Exaggerated/overplayed political threats (The prime minister said that if he loses the election, there will be war.)

These distortions are a reminder of the prevalence of irresponsible media worldwide, and of the extensive work that needs to be done by peace journalism advocates.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


The Peace Journalist magazine is seeking submissions for our April, 2016  edition. The Peace Journalist is a semi-annual publication (print and .pdf) of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in Parkville, Missouri. The Peace Journalist is dedicated to disseminating news and information for and about teachers, students, and practitioners of peace and conflict sensitive journalism.

Submissions are welcome from all. For the next edition of The Peace Journalist, we are seeking short submissions (300-550 words) detailing peace journalism projects, classes, proposals, academic works in the field, etc. We also welcome longer submissions (800-1200 words) about peace or conflict sensitive journalism projects or programs, as well as academic works from the field. The Peace Journalist will not run general articles about peace initiatives or projects, but rather seeks only articles with a strong peace media/peace journalism/conflict sensitive journalism angle.

Please submit your article via email to Also send a 2-3 sentence biography of the author, as well as a small head and shoulders photo of the author. In addition, please submit photos and graphics that could accompany your article.

The submission deadline is March  7. However, given the limited space available in this issue, it’s advisable to submit your article early.

Click here to see a .pdf of the October 2015 edition.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Covering the standoff: Should journalists use "terrorists"?

Regardless of what one thinks of the armed men who have taken over a wildlife refuge building in Oregon, a peace journalist would be very careful about the language they use to describe the occupiers, especially when it comes to using the term terrorist.

The New York Times, Washington Post, and others have begun a spirited debate about whether they occupiers are terrorists, and whether responsible media should use this term.

What is a terrorist? According to the FBI’s criteria, terrorism:
1. Involves violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
2. Appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. (From Peace Journalism: Principles and Practice, Routledge, 2016).

It is clear that occupying the refuge building violates the law. It also seems clear that this action is designed to influence government policy. To be fair, other definitions also include violence or threat of violence. So far, this action has been non-violent, although there have been veiled threats of possible violence should authorities storm the facility. Thus, a reasonable person could logically conclude that the occupiers are terrorists, though this is debatable.

Given this, are the media labeling the occupiers terrorists? A Lexix Nexis search of newspapers since the siege (1-2 to 1-5) reveals 991 hits for “Oregon Wildlife Refuge.” Of these, 12 stories use the term extremist, 10 militants, 52 activists, 79 militia, 65 protesters, and 21 terrorist. Digging into the terrorist articles, it appears that most are articles just like this one—analytical pieces about whether they should be called terrorists, or pieces that ponder how the situation would be unfolding differently if the occupiers were black or Muslim.

A second study done in the Washington Post looked at 15 major media outlets. It showed that 6 used the term militia, 6 armed protesters or armed activists, 1 militants, 1 gunmen, and 1 armed group.

The conclusion: the media aren’t labeling the occupiers terrorists, even though they would be justified in doing so.

From a peace journalism standpoint, this reluctance to use the term terrorist is laudable. “A peace journalist should avoid using the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” since they seldom add anything but emotion to a story. In an interview, Dr. Johan Galtung, father of peace journalism, said the word is loaded with meaning. “When you say terrorism, you issue a declaration –listen to me, these are just evil people, and the solution is to crush them,” he noted.” (From Peace Journalism: Principles and Practice, Routledge, 2016).

Also laudable is the debate in the media about how this situation would be different if the occupiers weren’t white, Christian conservatives. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine how the media coverage, and the official response, wouldn’t be considerably different if the occupiers were black, Latino, or Muslim.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Covering Trump--and holding him accountable
Our current presidential campaign is providing a laboratory for studying how media cover a candidate who uses inflammatory language and demagoguery. Interestingly, the candidate in question is not dissimilar to candidates I’ve seen in East Africa who rely more on bombast and emotion than logic.

Of course, I’m referring to Donald Trump, who has provided a grateful American media a steady stream of newsworthy, ratings-fueling statements about his opponents, Mexican immigrants, and Syrian refugees.

Given the divisiveness of his statements and his bombast, how should media covered Trump? One piece of advice comes from The Washington Post's senior politics editor, Steven Ginsberg, who says his paper will continue to cover Trump the way it covers all major candidates. "We should be diligent about [holding them] accountable for what they say," said Ginsberg, who interviewed Trump for the Post. "If it's illegal, we should say so. If it's unconstitutional we should say so. If it's un-American, we should say that too…" But Ginsberg cautions that journalists should weigh carefully what they seek to accomplish, asking whether they want to serve as watchdogs or to knock a candidate, in this case Trump, out of the race.” (NPR, Dec. 11, 2015).

Other journalists like Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief of the Huffington Post, take a more aggressive view regarding Trump. "We have a certain obligation," Grim says. "When we see a strain of hate- and fear-mongering rising to a certain level, the press does have an obligation to try to call that out and point out what it is that's happening…The idea that you would block all Muslims — including American citizens — from coming into the United States is not just absurd, it's not just unconstitutional. It's evil, and it's fascist. And it's OK to go ahead and say that, and in fact, media organizations ought to." (NPR, December 14, 2015).

Like journalists in the developing world covering their own bombastic politicians, American political reporters would do well to utilize the points articulated in the “Connecting Peace and Electoral Journalism” checklist which I’ve distributed to journalists worldwide. Especially important are those items admonishing reporters against inflammatory, divisive, or violent statements by candidates;  airing comments and reports that encourage divisions within society; and letting candidates “get away” with using imprecise, emotive language, including  name calling.  Instead, peace journalists would hold candidates accountable for what they say, and offer dispassionate, critical analysis of comments and policy positions. 

Similar ethical principles are reflected in a piece published by the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics about strategies for covering Donald Trump. Their advice includes offering side-by-side comparisons of the candidates’ positions and experience; (mostly) ignoring the outrageous; and asking “why” and “how” questions of all candidates. “Saying that ‘I will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it’ is not a plan. Asking Trump why the nation needs a wall, why the wall would stop the problem he articulates and how he intends to get Mexico to build it is important…Getting Trump to explain how he will get some of his difficult to implement ideas, such as rounding up 11 million people who are illegally in the United States and returning them to their country of origin, through the U.S. Congress is a required task for all campaign reporters.” (Center for Journalism Ethics, November 20, 2015).

Journalists should report about Trump, Hillary, and rest in a way that holds them accountable for their statements and policies, while simultaneously turns down the rhetorical, partisan heat.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Turkish media practice war journalism

 Peace journalism was originally conceived as a response to war journalism, which was defined as reporting that romanticizes and sanitizes war and violence, stoking “us vs. them” hatreds, while presenting violence (war) as the only or best option.

Such war reporting can be seen in the Turkish media the day after a Turkish jet downed a Russian war plane.

One newspaper, Yeni Safak, has a large flaming picture of the Russian jet with the headline, “We warn, we shoot.”  In Milliyet newspaper, the same flaming plane framed a map and included a large headline (as best as I can figure using a clunky translation program) indicating a punch or bruise inflicted after a warning (uradri, in Turkish).  Other papers, according to the Turkish Press Review ( also emphasized the warning given the Russian pilot. Vatan newspaper’s headline said, “We made 10 warnings.” Similar headlines stated that "Russia has crossed the line" (Star newspaper)  and that Turkey had reached its "Limit of patience" (Haber Turk newspaper). 

The heavy emphasis on the warnings, and the limits of patience, echo the official line coming from Turkish President Erdogan’s office. Indeed, this framing sounds almost defensive—we didn’t want to do this, but were left with no choice. 

As for the photos of the flaming Russian plane, this also seems to be a picture that official Turkey would want published and re-published: an image depicting the might of Turkish armed forces and the consequences of violating Turkish air space.

My colleague Dr. Metin Ersoy, a communications professor from Eastern Mediterranean University in Turkish North Cyprus, is also studying news coverage of the incident. He writes, “Actually I am collecting the front pages of Turkish newspapers. It seems that majority of news coverage is supporting Turkish government side and just war oriented frames have been used. (Only a) minority of them just criticized the government… They have used conflict frames in order to legitimize and show violence as a best option of this problem.”

A peace journalist would indeed publish the official line, understanding that it is propaganda. However, she would take a further step, and offer a critique of these military actions, give a voice to those who oppose or criticize it, and provide context and analysis. (The best analysis I’ve seen thus far includes the role that Russian bombing of Turkmen in northern Syria may have had on the decision to shoot at the Russians.) Finally, the peace journalism approach would reject the saber-rattling war frames that present violence (military confrontation) as the only, best response in this situation. Better journalism wouldn’t ignore the violent option, but would balance it with voices from those who advocate non-violent solutions.