Friday, September 9, 2011

Post 9-11, Media Embrace Conflict, Shun Peace Journalism

EDITOR'S NOTE: Part I of this piece appeared last week. Here are Parts I and II together, and revised as well.

As we examine the first 10 years after 9/11, one can’t help but wonder if the media have learned any lessons. Would we respond to another terrorist attack with the same facile, xenophobic coverage, or would we offer our viewers and readers a more nuanced perspective? Would journalists again be seduced by the superficial beauty of war without, in the words of the old hippie anthem, giving peace a chance?

While the first 48 hours of 9/11 coverage was almost universally praised, many agree that the media in the days and weeks after the attacks were characterized by reflexive vitriol. These statements, compiled by Accuracy in Media in 2001, appear shocking in retrospect:

"There is only one way to begin to deal with people like this, and that is you have to kill some of them even if they are not immediately directly involved in this thing."
--former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger (CNN, 9/11/01)
"The response to this unimaginable 21st-century Pearl Harbor should be as simple as it is swift -- kill the bastards. A gunshot between the eyes, blow them to smithereens, poison them if you have to. As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts."
--Steve Dunleavy (New York Post, 9/12/01)
"America roused to a righteous anger has always been a force for good. States that have been supporting if not Osama bin Laden, people like him need to feel pain. If we flatten part of Damascus or Tehran or whatever it takes, that is part of the solution."
--Rich Lowry, National Review editor, to Howard Kurtz (Washington Post, 9/13/01) "Time to take names and nuke Afghanistan.”
--Caption to cartoon by Gary Brookins (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9/13/01)

These are just a few of hundreds of such hateful, irresponsible statements trumpeted by the media post-9/11. (Yes, these are all right wingers, but there was plenty of pro-war propaganda coming from the left, too. I’ll detail this momentarily). Before disseminating such bellicose statements, the media would have done well to take a deep breath and consider peace journalism, which is when editors and reporters make choices that improve the prospects for peace. One of the principles of peace journalism is to avoid airing inflammatory statements (vengeful comments that appeal more to emotion than to reason) since these statements can induce a rush to war. Post 9-11, not only were these hateful statements published, they were met by nothing but nodding agreement by the public and media. (Osama graphic from

Aside from bitter statements, media coverage post 9-11 has been often superficial, painting only a one-dimensional picture of terrorism. Robert Hackett from Simon Frazier University writes, “Mainstream media are far more likely to focus on the destructive actions and future threat of insurgent terrorism, rather than on its grievances or even the social conditions that breed it.” ( Peace Journalism teaches that a failure to examine the underlying causes of violence creates an atmosphere where violence tends to repeat itself.

Superficial and hate-filled coverage contribute to a cycle of violent retribution, which is easy to justify in a sensationalism-saturated media environment featuring patriotic “us vs. them” coverage. Peace journalism teaches that conflicts are never as simple as just “us vs. them” and that patriotism should have a different meaning for journalists. The most patriotic thing a journalist can do is to arm citizens with complete, accurate information that they can use to function in a democratic society. Did Americans have the full story before we rushed into war during the last 10 years?

When media don’t provide complete, accurate information delivered with a dose of anti-government skepticism, they become little more than government propagandists. Indeed, many journalists assumed an unfortunate cheerleading role in the run-up to the violent retribution inflicted by America during the last decade. A number of journalists have expressed regret about this reflexive rush to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, wrote that “the suddenly apparent menace of the (post 9-11) world awakened a bellicose surge of mission and made hawks of many — including me — who had a lifelong wariness of the warrior reflex.” (NY Times, 9-6-2011). His was an anti-Iraq bellicosity shared by a group of liberal journalists he calls the “I can’t believe I’m a hawk club” that included unlikely war proponents Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, George Packer and Jeffrey Goldberg, Richard Cohen, and Christopher Hitchens. Keller said he and his liberal brethren were “still a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil (Saddam’s Iraq) and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.”

Thus, with pro-war propaganda coming from both the left and the right, the public inevitably got the message that the Iraq and Afghan wars were both desirable and, most frighteningly, inevitable.

Peace journalism teaches that journalists must resist the propaganda, put aside the testosterone and bellicosity, and help our readers and listeners understand that there are options other than war. We in the media have the responsibility to soberly present our viewers and readers the full story, especially when society is drunk with rage. This full story includes putting peaceful solutions on the table, and giving peacemakers a voice while being careful not to lead a rush to violent retribution. Being a peace journalist means promoting neither peace nor war, but at minimum presenting the peaceful and non-peaceful solutions as equals, thus arming our audience with the information they need to make informed choices. The people may still choose war, but at least we will know that they have done so after considering a range of possibilities.

Keller believes that the media have learned a lesson from the mistakes they made during the pre-war, post 9-11 period of the last 10 years. He cites more responsible coverage of the Libyan revolution as evidence to support his thesis. “This time we all — president, public and press — picked our way more carefully through the mess, weighing the urge to support freedom against the cost of becoming part of a drama we don’t fully understand,” Keller said. “That is the caution of a country feeling more threatened these days by our own economics than by foreign enemies. But for some of us it is also the costly wisdom of Iraq.”

While Keller is correct about the improved coverage of Libya, I’m not convinced that the media have turned a corner in terms of practicing responsible Peace Journalism. I’ve witnessed first-hand too much irresponsible, war-mongering journalism in places as diverse as the Republic of Georgia, Kenya, and yes, the United States. In one example, the bitter witch hunt against Casey Anthony demonstrates the lack of maturity in the media, which seemed far more interested in inflammatory sensationalism than in quashing our primitive retributive instincts. In another example, a just-released study of U.S. and U.K. newspaper coverage of violence in Somalia detected a strong preference for war journalism (characterized by inflammatory and demonizing language, “us vs. them”, elitist sourcing, etc.) over peace journalism. (Global Media Journal, Spring 2011). Author/researcher Tewodros W. Workneh wrote, “This study portrays how war, conflict and violence, remain the primary raw materials for international journalism…(The) model of peace-oriented reporting has not yet made an impact on international journalism. These observations and concerns suggest the question of whether the drafting of a strategy for a “peace journalism intervention” into the practices of international journalism should be considered.”

This “peace journalism intervention” will succeed if it gets journalists from the biggest daily to the smallest mom-and-pop radio station to ask this: can the news, even when it’s violent, be reported in a less inflammatory way? Can we, as journalists, frame our stories in a manner that presents peace as a possible (and even desirable) outcome?

If American journalists had embraced the concepts of peace journalism, perhaps the last decade would have been a less violent one.

Steven Youngblood, Associate Professor of Communications at Park University in Parkville, Missouri, is a two-time J. William Fulbright Scholar. He is the director of the State Department’s 2010-2011 Peace Journalism Project in Uganda. Youngblood is putting the finishing touches on his first book, “Professor Komagum: Finding peace and losing my sanity in Uganda”. Connect with me on Twitter @PeaceJourn

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