The October Peace Journalist magazine is now available
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.
CONNECTING PEACE AND ELECTORAL JOURNALISM
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.
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.