Saturday, March 31, 2012

"The Peace Journalist" debuts soon

I’m putting the finishing touches in the next few days on the inaugural edition of The Peace Journalist, a publication of the new Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University. The Peace Journalist is dedicated to disseminating news and information for and about teachers, students, and practitioners of peace and conflict sensitive journalism. I’m very proud of this magazine, which features articles from literally around the world. Within 7-10 days, the online version of the magazine will be posted on this site, so stay tuned.

Trayvon Martin and the search for responsible coverage

As my previous post below indicates (see below), there is precious little good reporting about the Trayvon Martin case. One exception is nicely balanced, deliberately un-sensational report by a Park University student featured in the latest edition of the Northland News, a weekly news program produced by the broadcasting students at Park University. I commended the reporter, Rudy Harper, and reminded him that even though we’re 95% sure what happened, it’s not our job as journalists to fill in that last 5%.

One very thoughtful analysis of the media coverage of Trayvon Martin is from the Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank and training center.

Mallary Tenore writes, “Much of the coverage has featured coded language that leaves readers with confusion rather than clarity and impressions rather than facts. News organizations, for instance, have reported that the Department of Justice said its community relations service will meet with officials, civil rights leaders and authorities in Sanford, Fla., this week to “calm racial tensions” nearly a month after the 17-year-old African American was shot.” For the complete piece, titled “How to cover Trayvon Martin killing: Report on ‘racial tension’ and look beyond the hoodie”, click here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Media lynch mob pursues "justice" in Trayvon Martin case

Is George Zimmerman an innocent man?

Even though he hasn’t even been charged with a crime, let alone convicted, the prospect that Zimmerman acted in self defense seems inconceivable, thanks in no small part to the tone, tenor, and volume of the media’s coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Of course, Zimmerman may be guilty, and may have acted with racial malice. But should the media determine this?

As a peace journalism instructor, one of the things I teach my students is to consciously avoid framing stories in such a way as they pour gasoline on the fire, and to be especially cognizant of inflammatory language that can exacerbate an already tense situation. In this instance, the media have not followed these guidelines.

Take CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. Ordinarily, I find Cooper’s program to be among the best on television. Their coverage of Syria, for example, is putting increasing pressure on the international community to remove the despot Bashar Assad. However, I have found AC360’s coverage of Trayvon Martin’s shooting to be uncharacteristically sensational, leading a stampede to lynch Zimmerman before he’s even charged. In the guise of balance, Zimmerman’s attorney has appeared on AC360, but his lone voice is easily ignored among a cacophony of “get Zimmerman” shouts, repeated ad naseum.

I am not questioning the accuracy of CNN’s reporting, only the amount (41 reports, and counting, according to The Atlantic) and tone. How often do the same allegations need to be repeated? How often do we have to hear from grieving parents or angry protesters? How many times do we need to hear a fuzzy recording of Zimmerman allegedly uttering the f-word followed by a racial slur?

The repetitive and negative coverage have created an atmosphere where officials may be forced to indict him, even if the evidence doesn’t call for an indictment. If indicted, Zimmerman stands almost no chance of finding an unbiased jury anywhere in this country.

Of course, CNN and other media outlets can’t resist the “racial tensions” element to the story, an element both juicy and inflammatory. Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said, “When I hear ‘there are racial tensions,’ a.) I don’t know what that means, b.) I don’t know why there are tensions…Tensions is a nebulous word.”

Maynard added, “It tells me that people who don’t share the same ethnic or racial background are at odds with each other, but really? All of them are… There’s too much room for fill in the blank. I think as audience members, all of us are going to fill in the blank differently.” (Daily Kos)

These kinds of convenient, broad accusations of racial bias may boost ratings, but they do little to create an atmosphere where Zimmerman can properly utilize his constitutional protections.

Worse, one is left to ponder the possible consequences if authorities decide not to charge Zimmerman, or if he is charged and later found innocent. If this happens, will the media induced hysteria inevitably lead to a violent reaction?
Sadly, it’s hard to imagine another outcome.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn

Footnote: For another interesting take on this, see a piece in The Atlantic discussing the fact that Fox News has virtually ignored the Trayvon Martin case, running only one story. Is Fox racist?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ugandans react to Kony 2012

Ugandans have a variety of mixed—and fascinating—opinions about Kony 2012. (For my view, see previous blog entry below). Here is what some of my Ugandan friends and colleagues are saying:

“About Kony 2012, it will be every Ugandan's Joy to have him brought to book or Killed. What has made many Ugandans irate about this situation, me inclusive is the timing. For 20 years Kony committed atrocities and not a single campaign of this nature was launched, six years later when the man is admiring a mouse hole for a home, a 'savior' comes. The video has already had psychological effects on people especially from the north, where they can’t help but remember those days and situations. Instead of us focusing on reconstruction, we are invoking animosity among a fragile population. Just imagine the LRA returnees and their neighbors. Steve, I welcome all efforts towards scooping Kony out of wherever he is hiding and that will bring lasting nightmare free sleep but in doing so, we need respect the plight of the people who are enjoying promising peace development and psychological stability in Northern Uganda. …I only wish it came out at least 15 years ago.” –Director, development NGO

“The invisible children and film makers need to think peace in their scripts They should re-edit the language used, and why wear Kony T-shirts at the screening? To me the video bring sad memories of the war. –Director, media NGO
“In my opinion, such videos are uncalled for at this time; this is a healing time for Northern Uganda and such videos compares to putting salt on a fresh wound. Its sensational nature thus does not guarantee it any accuracy. It miscommunicates that the war is still raging when it is not.”--Journalist

“The Kony 2012 project is. It comes like Obama's 100 troops-too late really. A peace journalist can cover this but in a different way. I said northern Uganda is in a healing process and this means there are a lot of reintegration and rehabilitation activities taking place. This is what a peace journalist should focus on now. After all the bad things people have or the world has seen during the over decades LRA war in Northern Uganda, people now will love to hear and see good things after the bad ones.” –Journalist, Gulu

“As a peace journalist, I think the work was not done professionally, it was not necessary at the moment, and lacks focus because the region which is ravaging from the war is now relatively peaceful and so many developmental activities are taking place…As peace journalist, I think Invisible Children in their campaign (should) would have brought in the aspect of post war recovery activities focusing at the current situation while giving the reflection of the war time.

This is the program in the recovery drive which would include how much is needed to address the wounds of the war which left so many orphans widows/widowers, The Invisible children would also include in the video what good things are needed to help the victims of war and the current activities they are doing in regards to rehabilitation of the post war areas like in northern and DR Congo. I think the IC would have hired the expertise of local Journalists in the land to document that campaign; it would have been done in a professional way. I think the issue of Kony should be left to people of Uganda/Northern Uganda other than throwing trash for people to view across the globe.” --Journalist, Northern Uganda

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn --

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Kony 2012 flawed, but its goal is admirable

The blinding glare of publicity about Joseph Kony has cast light as well on the organization Invisible Children, an NGO that produced a viral 30-minute video about Kony . However, I believe that the microscopic scrutiny of Invisible Children and the video is distracting us from the real mission here, which should be bringing Kony to justice.

If you haven’t been anywhere near a computer the last week, the Invisible Children produced video, “Kony 2012”, that tells the story of leader of the rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army and the impact he has had over the last 20 or so years, mostly in Uganda.

The video, which has logged 71 million YouTube views in less than a week, has sparked a barrage of criticism against Invisible Children, which has been accused of poorly spending donations, among other things. A recent piece in the Los Angeles Times cites an article in Foreign Affairs magazine that said that “San Diego-based Invisible Children had manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers." (LA Times, 3/10/12).

Whether these claims against Invisible Children are true doesn’t matter much to me, and shouldn’t matter much to you unless you’re considering donating to this organization. (I’m not). What matters is finally arresting Joseph Kony.

Ditto regarding the criticisms of the video, many of which are probably valid. “Kony 2012” features too many cute children, too much violin music, and oversimplifies Uganda’s 20-year struggle against Kony and his rebels. It gives the mistaken impression that Kony is still terrorizing Uganda. He is not, having left that country for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic in 2006. (He and his group are continuing their attacks in these countries, however). Recognizing the film’s shortcomings, Invisible Children, on its website, wrote that the video’s goal was “to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format, focusing on the core attributes of LRA leadership that infringe upon the most basic of human rights. In a 30-minute film, however, many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked.”

“Kony 2012”, and its stated goal of spotlighting Kony and putting pressure on international governments to facilitate his arrest, is disturbingly manipulative. Ironically, the story it tells needs no dramatics, no embellishment. Kony was charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and his group kidnapped 30,000 children and forced them to be child soldiers or sex slaves. I have personally spoken to and interviewed dozens of his victims in Northern Uganda. Their powerful stories don’t need tears, sappy music, or dramatic close-ups.

Even with its shortcomings, the video is a powerful tool. A week ago, it would have been inconceivable that I could write and talk about Joseph Kony, and that Americans would know what I was talking about. Since he is now infamous, we can discuss who should spearhead an effort to capture Kony, how he could be brought to justice, and so on. Again, who would have thought this would be possible one week ago?

As an educator, “Kony 2012” offers grist for a number of interesting discussions about the nature and power of viral social media. We will also discuss the role (if any) of peace journalists in promoting efforts like the one to capture Kony. Peace journalists are taught not to inflame an already volatile situation by using emotive language or images. Would that rule apply in this case?

Most interesting to me will be the discussion about the ends justifying the means. Does a noble end (bringing Kony to justice) justify the means (a manipulative, inflammatory video produced by a criticized organization)?

I am personally choosing to look past the flaws of both Invisible Children and “Kony 2012”. I recommend to anyone who will listen that they should support the effort to make Joseph Kony the world’s most infamous man, and further that they should contact every opinion maker they can and deliver an unequivocal message that Joseph Kony must be brought to justice.

Steven Youngblood has been teaching peace journalism in Uganda off and on since 2009. He lived in Uganda for 10 months in 2010-11 directing a peace journalism project. He is currently directing and teaching a new peace media and counterterrorism project in Uganda. This effort got underway last December, and will continue this May and June.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Vociferous, contemplative students reach mid-term

As the spring semester sprints towards mid-term, I’ve been thinking about the outstanding students in my peace journalism class.

My peace journalism class, 13 strong (a small, wonderfully intimate class that is typical of Park University), has alternated between vociferous and nearly silent during these first eight weeks.

They were quiet and contemplative, for example, during the recent visit by Peter Makori, a gifted Kenyan journalist who told the class about his experiences being imprisoned and tortured by Kenyan government officials for uncovering corruption. Makori’s tale is a count-your-blessings story for my American students. It’s also a lesson in bravery and perseverance. Makori, knowing the consequences of uncovering government corruption, did so anyway for the greater good. Makori’s bravery is reminiscent, of course, of the sacrifice made by Marie Colvin and others in Syria.

The peace journalism students have been more animated during our many ethical discussions. They’ve read about the criticisms leveled against peace journalism, and have gone on the offensive against the critics. We’ve discussed Syria at length—should the press have an anti-Assad agenda? (See blog below). We’ve discussed the ethics of getting involved in a story, even if that involvement consists of helping starving children or orphans, something I’ve experienced in Uganda. Last Thursday, we discussed the concepts of vengeance, justice, and forgiveness, and how these apply to peace journalism.

As we discuss these weighty topics, the students seem surprised at my stock answer, which is “I’m not sure” or “I’m still wrestling with these issues myself.”

I’m hoping the students are as engaged the last half of the semester, which will include guest speakers (journalists and journalism trainers) from Afghanistan and the Philippines, among other places.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn --