Friday, October 5, 2012

The October Peace Journalist magazine is now available

The latest edition of the Peace Journalist magazine (Oct 2012)  is now available. Click here for free download. This edition features articles by world-reknown journalist/educators Jake Lynch and Al Tompkins. Enjoy!

Connecting peace, electoral journalism

The following is a piece I wrote for the October Peace Journalist magazine.--SY

Elections are inherently divisive, controversial, and provocative. In much of the world, violence during and after elections is almost expected. For example, post-election violence has recently scarred Nigeria, the Philippines, Kenya, Myanmar, and the Ivory Coast, among other places.

Even in places like Western Europe and the United States where violence may not be tied to elections, one could suspect that increasingly bitter and shrill campaigns and elections polarize societies politically, squeezing politicians into increasingly tight corners on the far left and far right, thus making these countries more difficult to govern.

As peace journalists, we should be analyzing our role in covering these elections, and asking ourselves if the language we use and the way we frame our stories is contributing to, or instead, mitigating, the bitterness and divisiveness.

The connection between inflammatory media and post-election violence has been established in numerous places around the world. One notable example is Kenya after the 2007 elections when violence took 800-1300 lives and displaced 200,000-600,000 people. (Numbers vary, depending on the source). This violence was partially media-fueled. Indeed, one journalist/manager from a Western Kenyan radio station is on trial at the Hague for allegedly inflaming the deadly violence.

The link between media and politically polarized Western governments is discussed in a study published last month by Washington State University in the U.S. In the study (4 September, 2012), researcher Douglas Hindman “suggests intense media coverage of highly polarized and contentious political issues tends to reinforce partisan views, creating ‘belief gaps’ between Democrats and Republicans, which grow increasingly pronounced over time.” Admittedly, the researcher in this instance is focusing on the intensity (volume) of coverage, and not specific characteristics of how partisan issues are framed. Nonetheless, it’s not an enormous leap to theorize that the tone of the coverage, and not just the intensity, also reinforces partisan, compromise-resistant views.

Given this, is the negative tone of the coverage of the U.S. presidential election contributing to increased political rigidity? A Pew Center study (23 August 2012) finds that “72% of this coverage has been negative for Barack Obama and 71% has been negative for Mitt Romney.”

It seems intuitive that this incessant negativity would have a polarizing effect. However, a colleague of mine correctly points out that it’s quite a distance between cause and effect here. Does negative, narrow coverage cause political polarization, and cause electoral losers to not accept the outcome of elections? That’s yet to be proven.

Still, a demonstrated link between irresponsible media and electoral violence combined with this suspected link between media and political polarization certainly provide reason enough for peace journalists to report prudently around election time. Keeping in mind media’s power to inflame passions and potentially to exacerbate political divisions, we have devised a list of electoral journalism do’s and don’ts for peace journalists.


What a peace journalist would try to do in an electoral situation, using the 17 PJ tips (McGoldrick-Lynch) as a foundation.

1. AVOID portraying races as only between two candidates with two ideologies. INSTEAD, give voices to multiple candidates (when those candidates are viable), to multiple ideologies (not just the extremes), and to multiple players involved in the process, especially the public.

2. AVOID treating the election like a horse race. Polls and surveys are fine, but they are only a part of the story. INSTEAD, concentrate on issues of importance as identified by the public and articulated by candidates and parties, including platforms/manifestos.

3. AVOID letting the candidates define themselves through what they say. INSTEAD, seek expert analysis of the candidate’s background as well as the veracity and logic of the candidates’ comments.

4. AVOID airing inflammatory, divisive, or violent statements by candidates. INSTEAD, there are two options: A. Edit these comments to eliminate these inflammatory statements; B. Publish or broadcast these comments, and then offer pointed analysis and criticism of what is being said.

5. AVOID airing comments and reports that encourage sectarianism and divisions within society—race-baiting, for example. If these comments must be aired, then follow up with commentary pointing out the candidate’s attempt to divide and distract voters. INSTEAD, insist on the candidates addressing issues that highlight common values and bring communities together.

6. AVOID letting candidates “get away” with using imprecise, emotive language. This includes name calling. INSTEAD, hold candidates accountable for what they say, and use precise language as you discuss issues.

7. AVOID framing the election as a personality conflict between candidates. INSTEAD, focus on the candidates’ positions on issues of importance—schools, health care, roads.

8. AVOID unbalanced stories. INSTEAD, seek to balance each story with comments from the major parties or their supporters. Balance includes getting input from informed citizens.

9. AVOID letting candidates use you to spread their propaganda. Identify and expose talking points. INSTEAD, as you broadcast their statements, include a critical analysis of what is being said.

10. AVOID reporting that gives opinions/sound bites only from political leaders and/or pundits. INSTEAD, center stories around everyday people, their concerns and perceptions about the candidates and process.

Whenever I have presented this list at peace journalism seminars, the participants have been receptive to the idea that they have a larger responsibility to their societies. This responsibility includes both helping to inform citizens so that they may intelligently fulfill their electoral duties and framing stories so as to short-circuit violence and not exacerbate political polarization.

Journalists understand that implementing these ideas in our highly competitive media environment, one that values tension, conflict, and sensationalism, will be at best very difficult. Despite this, the journalists I’ve worked with all believe that practicing responsible electoral journalism is worth the effort.

No comments:

Post a Comment