Friday, November 25, 2011

Kansas City Star needs peace journalism lesson

NOTE: This was an editorial column that I sent last week to the Kansas City Star, my hometown newspaper. I have not heard back from them, so I'm assuming that they are not going to publish it. This is no big surprise since the columnn is pretty critical of a piece published by the Star about a member of the Phelps family/Westboro Baptist Church. For the uninitiated, this is the "Christian" church that hates just about everyone, and has even picketed funerals of gays and servicemen.

I wrote this column the day after the Star's story was published.

When someone is spewing inflammatory, hateful words, are we in the press obliged to report those words?

At a Conflict Sensitive Journalism workshop in Nairobi, Kenya earlier this year, journalists from around the world and I debated this very issue, which was raised by an attendee from Zimbabwe who asked if his newspaper should report the racist, destructive words of that country’s authoritarian president Robert Mugabe. The consensus response was that, as a conflict sensitive or peace journalist, the editor must report those words but then provide the context needed for readers to examine Mugabe’s language and decide for themselves if it incites hatred and encourages divisiveness and sectarianism.

I am hopeful that, at minimum, there was a similarly robust discussion in the editorial offices of the Kansas City Star as the decision was made to publish the story, “An heir to hate” (Nov. 20, 2011).

From the perspective of peace and conflict sensitive journalism, the decision to run this story, and the choices that were made about how to frame the story, were ill-considered.

Among other things, peace journalism asks reporters and editors to make choices that are conducive to peace, reconciliation, and development in their societies. This doesn’t mean abandoning their objectivity—it simply means that journalists should frame their stories in such a way to give peacemakers an equal voice to those who would spew hateful speech. Peace journalists also consider the consequences that occur as a result of their reporting.

This examination of the consequences clearly didn’t occur as editors crafted their approach to telling the story “An heir to hate”, which profiles Megan Phelps-Roper, one of the ringleaders of Topeka’s infamous Westboro Baptist Church.

First, while not flattering, the piece was unbalanced and insufficiently critical of Megan and her fellow hate-mongers. Most of the story is a matter-of-fact presentation of Megan’s life peppered with her quotes reflecting her philosophy. In fact, there are only several paragraphs in the story dedicated to criticism of her hateful beliefs (from the Southern Press Law Center), but these are precious few, and buried half-way through the piece. In the parlance of a Reporting 101 course, the story lacked balance.

Perhaps the lack of balance was a deliberate technique by the editors to give Megan enough rope to hang herself with her own ugly, ridiculous utterances. Assuming this is so, despite the laudable intent, this technique is too clever, too nuanced, to be effective. It’s dangerous, especially in dealing with an incendiary topic like this, to assume your readers will detect such subtleties. It’s just as likely that some will see the piece as tacitly approving of Megan and Westboro, even if this isn’t the intent.

Second, the decision to print this story at all, regardless of how it was framed, was a poor one. By publishing “An heir to hate”, The Star has simply provided a platform for promoting her church and her hateful beliefs, which are too distasteful to repeat here.

The Star’s decision to tell this story is not without its irony. The piece includes, briefly, the tale of one of Megan’s cousins who escaped from Westboro Baptist Church’s clutches, and is now happily married. The implication is that Megan, who is unattached and without any prospects, could escape and find a completely normal, married life just like her cousin. The irony is that by running this story, The Star has added a few minutes to Megan’s 15 minutes of frame, thus seemingly justifying with its media spotlight Megan’s decision to keep preaching hate even if it means that she probably won’t have a husband or family of her own. If Megan can get Sunday-paper publicity for her cause, then she must be doing something right.

In fact, I had been under the impression (perhaps mistakenly) that the media understood Westboro’s thirst for publicity and had tacitly decided to stop covering them. This is the essence of good peace journalism—refusing to give a platform to those who hate. Besides, do the rantings of a few dozen lunatics really constitute news? Many would argue no.

I will soon embark on teaching a peace journalism and terrorism project in Uganda for the U.S. State Department. In my workshops, I will be using “An heir to hate” as grist for a discussion about the symbiotic relationship between extremists/terrorists and the media. Surely, the Phelps gang is no better than other terrorists who seek to manipulate the media for their own purposes. My message to the Ugandan journalists will be to continue to report on terrorists when necessary, but to frame their stories in such a way as to not give “aid and comfort” to those who advocate hatred and violence.

Perhaps The Star would like to send some editors and reporters to my peace journalism and terrorism seminars in Uganda.

Steven Youngblood, associate professor of communications, teaches peace journalism, broadcasting, and reporting at Park University in Parkville, Missouri. He has taught peace journalism workshops worldwide. Youngblood will be delivering a commencement address titled “Inciting Peace” at Park University’s December 10 commencement.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ugandan students shine in online course

I always learn more from teaching than my students learn from me.

This was certainly the case with my just-completed online Advanced Peace Journalism course. The online course was the last activity of a 16-month, $270,000 US State Department/USAID-sponsored peace journalism project in Uganda.

The eight week course, team taught by myself and Ugandan peace journalist Gloria Laker, was “attended” by 10 radio journalists who had prior, face to face PJ training in Uganda. The students analyzed peace journalism case studies (in Gaza and Macedonia, for example), confronted the reservations expressed by PJ’s critics, and looked at how peace journalism can be applied to the reporting of current events like the Casey Anthony trial in the U.S. or the mass shootings in Norway. As a culminating activity, the reporters produced excellent radio stories with a peace journalism theme. (Click here to listen).

The students posted volumes of insightful comments, none more so than when we discussed if peace journalists should publish gruesome photos of ‘dead Gaddafi’. One wrote, “I would censor a photo/video that would cause violence because if the photo/video is too graphic it can escalate the conflict because the affected side, say if they see the mutilated body of their leader, may never forgive the opponents.” Another radio reporter wrote, “As a peace journalist, I do think that such a picture is inciting and results into violent and very unprofessionally published, Instead they should have torn down by fading face and publishing in black and white to reduce the sensitive of the image and the reducing violence.”

This led to a more general discussion about how to handle controversial and potentially volatile stories. A student wrote, “Most reporters do think that big news is controversial news… Sometimes reporters do forget that they judge and begin to nickname some one like murderer, thief, rapist, killer etc. making one side look dirty hence … bias minds toward one side. We should try as much as possible to be fair to all (because) emotions, discriminations and bitter statements may result in another war or even genocide because of the negligence of some reporters and editors.”

He concluded, “When media don’t provide complete, accurate information delivered with a dose of anti-government skepticism, they become little more than government propagandists.”

The online students unanimously agreed to the need for continued peace journalism training in Uganda. One wrote, “Peace Journalism is essential to journalists in Uganda if the current strife from the community and government is to be addressed. A number of journalists have been victim to the current accusation of bad journalism on Ugandan practitioners. Some have been imprisoned, some murdered in mob violence for ‘not being objective. We should not say journalists in Uganda are practising bad journalism but they only lack skills in Peace Journalism which will make them be appreciated as important people in the community.”

Another said, “The best way to reach my colleagues is to use case studies where peace journalism has worked. I would convince them about the utility (usefulness) and power of peace journalism by telling them that peace journalism is solution-orientated because it gives a voice to the voiceless. It also humanizes the enemy and exposes lies on all sides. I would also convince them that peace journalism highlights peace initiatives and also focuses on the invisible effects of violence, such as psychological trauma.”

The dedication of these students, who overcame some major technical obstacles in completing this online course (including brown-outs and typhoid), has stoked my resolve to continue teaching peace journalism in Uganda and elsewhere.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A cheap oil change? We can do better

Is anyone else uncomfortable about the seemingly endless barrage of gratuitous Veteran’s Day offers from businesses? I’ve seen today a free meal deal at Applebee’s, a free car wash, and, strangest of all, a discounted $15 oil change for veterans that was advertised in the Kansas City Star.

Is saving vets a few bucks the only way to thank those who have sacrificed so much for us?

A better idea might be to support veterans when they get home, and not just with a few sweet deals. By support, I mean encouraing businesses to actively recruit vets for jobs, and actively (and vocally) supporting enhanced public and private sector support for vets struggling with the mental and physical after-effects of combat.

Of course, much has been written, but not enough done, about serving and saving homeless veterans. Vets make up 9% of the overall population, but are 15% of the homeless population.(LA Times)

The freebies are fine, but their effects are as fleeting as Veteran's Day itself. If we value the contributions of our veterans, we need to stand up and be counted, and not just one day a year.

Peace Journalism Podcast

I spoke at a recent Parkville (MO) Rotary Club meeting about my adventures teaching peace journalism in Uganda. The speech was especially salient for the Parkville Rotary, which has generously donated $4000 to feed hungry kids at a poverty-stricken school in Arua in northwestern Uganda. A week after my presentation, I was interviewed about Uganda and peace journalism for a Rotary Club podcast. Click here to listen to that podcast. (Be patient…the first two minutes of the show touches on other Rotary business).

Friday, November 4, 2011

Peace journalism student readies for Jordan

The article below is about Andria Enns, who traveled with me on a short term study abroad program to Uganda in the summer of 2010 on a Peace Journalism mission. Congratulations, Andrea, on this great honor.

Next step: Jordan (click here for full article)
By Rob Roberts-- Lee's Summit Journal

"Andria Enns, a junior at Park University from Lee’s Summit, is getting to see lots of the world she wants to change through better communication.

Enns, who is majoring in public relations and broadcasting, will be leaving next month for a nearly month-long stay in Amman, Jordan, most of which is being financed through grants from the Creative Learning foundation and United Planet. In August, Enns was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, a Creative Learning initiative aimed at enhancing the capacity of local organizations around the world to improve lives in their communities. More recently, she won the $2,000 grand prize in the 2011 United Planet Day Contest for an essay she wrote about her 2010 trip to Uganda, where she worked on a peace journalism project. In Jordan, Enns will work for Friends of the Global Fund, a nonprofit organization aiming to end malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Toward those ends, she will be writing grant proposals, creating marketing materials and doing video journalism."

Andi's essays (blogs) about Uganda were outstanding. You can click here to see her blog, which is incredibly insightful. Of everything Andi wrote about Uganda and Peace Journalism, this was my favorite:

"Today was the first day on the trip that I felt angry. I have been enamored with the friendliness of the people, the beauty of the land, the differences of – well – everything! I’m not even sure what I’ve eaten, I just take what I’m handed. But I’m not just angry with the corruption that dominates the lives of Ugandans. I am angry – maybe even more angry – about life in America. (Photo-Andi Enns and friend in Uganda)

In America, we throw everything away because it costs us more (or so we say) to reuse and recycle than to just get a new one. Paper plates, plastic bottles, soda cans. Ugandans use everything over and over. Trash cans aren’t a common sight – there is very little to throw away. Glass soda pop bottles are recycled. Dishes are ceramic. Clothes are used within an inch of their life.

More than angry even, I am ashamed. I am embarrassed that I ever complained about living in Dearing. It’s a paradise compared to what the average Ugandan lives in. In Dearing, I have as much clean water and hot water as I want, reliable electricity, indoor plumbing that always works, air conditioning, constant internet… I probably can’t name all of the things I took for granted. Those things aren’t all present in the nicest hotel in Fort Portal. Imagine going to a hotel in the States and even one of those items missing. You, and admittedly I, would throw a fit. Unimaginable that even the Motel 6 not have hot water or wireless internet.

We live in opulence. And we complain about it. We are so self-centered.

Let me rephrase. I am so self-centered. I am so immature. I am so ungrateful."