Thursday, December 20, 2012

Email from Gaza renews my hope

Today, I received an email from a professor at the University of Gaza. I thought his words were beautiful. He wrote:

"I am pleased to introduce to you, and initiate any type of cooperation that may contribute to build the bridge of understating among nations on the pathway of achieving peace in the world, especially in this bleeding region which I believe deserve peace, justice, welfare, and equity among all nations and religions of it as the cradle of civilizations.

Happy Christmas, and nice holiday, for you and all of the American people and the Christian world."

Thank you, professor. After the events of last Friday, I needed a dose of hope.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Post shooting, journalists must empower voiceless; set agenda

Journalism has a long, proud tradition of giving voice to the voiceless. In fact, this notion is spelled out in the Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: “Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.”

Since Friday’s mass shooting, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the voiceless.

As I’ve taught peace journalism abroad, the voiceless have usually been the extremely poor, the displaced, and victims of war or famine. I’ve preached that by telling their stories, we are empowering them while simultaneously nudging officials to take action to improve the lot of the underserved. The Connecticut shooting reminded me that empowering the voiceless doesn’t only apply in chaotic developing countries.

I’m not alone in thinking about the victims, and journalism’s responsibility to them. On yesterday’s “Reliable Sources” on CNN, George Washington University Professor and former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno echoed my thoughts, asking rhetorically that if six or seven year old shooting victims aren’t voiceless, who is?

There is seemingly little dispute that we as journalists have an ethical duty to speak for those who can no longer speak, or who, though the fog of grief, have been unable to speak. I’ve been heartened by Anderson Cooper’s effort to inform us about the lives of each of the victims, for example. What is more contentious, however, is media’s role in shaping public policy after the initial shock has worn off.

Given the righteous anger that’s bubbled up since the shooting, some might call for open advocacy by journalists for gun control and perhaps improved care for the mentally ill. Despite the temptation, this would cross the line, abandoning objectivity and inserting journalists into a story that they’re trying to cover. The last thing journalists need to do, in my view, is add to the already deafening noise created by the pundits.

Instead, I believe that we as journalists, and particularly as peace journalists, have an ethical responsibility to use our agenda-setting influence to put issues like gun control and care for the mentally ill on American society’s front burner. This is not to suggest advocacy for (or against) gun control or enhanced mental health care. Rather, it means simply that we are journalists should exercise our agenda setting prerogative as we have done on other issues.

Agenda setting by the media is not a new concept. My local newspaper, The Kansas City Star, is agenda setting in an ongoing series about hunger among youth, while CNN has led discussions about bullying and human trafficking. These media outlets are not openly advocating specific solutions, but instead are using their influence to advance meaningful dialogues about matters of public importance.

After the shooting, the media-led discussions about gun control and mental health care are already underway. A Lexis-Nexis search shows 610 news stories about gun control published today (12/17), compared to just 64 stories one week ago, and 25 stories on the same day a year ago. A second search under mental health care shows 27 stories today, compared with 10 a week ago and just 9 a year ago. The real question is, will this discussion continue next week? Next month? I for one will be monitoring media one or two months from now to see if the media keep these issues on the front pages and at the forefront of the public agenda.

One of yesterday’s “Reliable Sources” panelists, media expert Lauren Ashburn, was skeptical that journalists could stay focused on these issues. She predicted that the media would turn away from gun control and mental health issues once the next crisis occurs. For the sake of the victims, the truly voiceless, I fervently hope her prediction is wrong.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn. To order my book about my time teaching peace journalism in Uganda, Professor Komagum, click here. --

Friday, December 14, 2012

Reasonably coherent on NPR; Acidic comments accuse, confuse

I appeared a few days ago on KCUR, Kansas City’s NPR affiliate. The program, Central Standard, was excellent, and my host, Jabulani Leffall, was thoughtful and well prepared. (Click here to listen to archivedcopy of the program in which I discuss peace journalism and my new book Professor Komagum).

After the program, I came across some angry, ugly comments on the Central Standard web page. Those comments about my appearance, followed by my responses, are below.

Comment 1: Remember the story about Mortenson and his "charity' works in Afghanistan on 60 Minutes show? How do you tell us that "War-torn' when there is no war going on Uganda? There used to be a rebel group ion northern Uganda, which was vanquished three years ago and Joseph Kony is no long anywhere near Uganda. An easy way of milking cahs (sic) from the State Department? Curious! isn't it (sic) ?

Response 1: By war torn, I mean war-impacted, which all of Uganda (especially Northern Uganda) was and is. Of course I know that Kony left Uganda in 2007. As for your other comments, comparing my work to Mortenson, they are shameful. You have no idea as to my honesty and motivations. You have no right to question my good intentions.

Comment 2: Well, now you've gone to (sic) far ! Your story has disintegrated into telling tall tales about nearly being crushed by a rhinoceros and how Ugandans practice witchcraft. Come on sir, this is an old story about an ego-driven Western educated "superior" white man who treks to the wilds of Africa to bring knowledge to the wild tribes. This narcissistic message has been told for the last 200 years.

Response 2: 1. These are not tall tales. These things happened; many Ugandans do believe in witchcraft, whether you believe this or not. I suggest you read V.S. Naipaul's The Masque of Africa.
2. Ego and narcissism? Why the anger? Simply put, I had some good ideas that I wanted to share with some friends and colleagues in Uganda. Are these ideas invalid because I am a white Westerner? Does this make me a neo-colonialist? I have hundreds of Ugandan friends and colleagues who would strongly disagree with your stilted assessment.

Perhaps I’m more na├»ve than I thought, but I was really surprised by the vitriol of these comments. I suppose derision is to be expected when one is in the public eye, but I was still shocked that people who have never met me would so ignorantly and brazenly question my integrity and honesty. In addition, to suggest that I have financially profited from my peace journalism work is truly laughable, as my wife or any number of creditors could attest.

As for being a “superior” Westerner, my colleagues in Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere have moved beyond commentator #2’s post-colonial finger pointing, and have instead chosen to embrace good ideas like peace journalism even if they do come from a white Westerner. If only we could all be so wise.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Peace Journalism research highlights conference

At the International Peace Research Association conference in Tsu, Japan, presenters discussed many aspects of peace journalism. See previous post for details from the first few days of the conference. Here are some presentation highlights from the last part of the get-together:

Media coverage of UN peacekeeping in DRC: In a presentation titled “Bad news with little context”, Virgil Hawkins analyzed NY Times coverage of peacekeeping in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His first finding was that there was little coverage—only 43,000 words over a three year period. By comparison, 49,000 words worth of coverage were printed during one week of the recent Gaza conflict. Second, Hawkins found that 23,000 of the 43,000 word total of DRC peacekeeping coverage was negative, focusing on failures, attacks on peacekeepers, etc. As his title implies, the Times coverage was context free, again focusing predominantly on specific incidents.

Human wrongs journalism: Ibrahim Shaw examined U.S., British, and French newspaper coverage of the NATO intervention in Iraq. His thesis was that converging media and political/corporate interests have led to a war journalism framing. Interestingly, he told the gathering that the struggle for oil skewed coverage in favor of NATO intervention, and that media all too often simply accept what they are told by authorities. Shaw also discussed how NATO’s intervention was a failure in humanitarian terms, but that this aspect of the intervention was ignored or glossed over by the media.

Reporting on the legal aspects of the use of drones: Researcher Rune Ottosen looked at whether two newspapers, The New York Times and a Norwegian newspaper called Aftenposten, address the legal issues raised by America’s drone wars. His analysis concluded that the legal issues were largely ignored in news coverage over a six month period, and that editorial consideration of the topic wasn’t much better, with only one column in each newspaper examinining this vital issue.

Media as Bridge Builders: In this session, Matthias Mogekwu talked about moving beyond content analysis and considering other models of examining media. He suggested looking at conflicts using an interpersonal communications approach—that is, applying interpersonal communication elements like listening and perspective to larger national and international contexts and conflicts.

Making sense of the crisis in the 2011 horn of Africa: Julia Hoffmann, in this presentation, discussed her study of U.S., African, and online media coverage of the crisis. She began by presenting criticisms of humanitarian crisis reporting, including negativity, emphasis only on acute phases, tribalizing, ethnocentrism, and passive victimization. Hoffmann’s research indicated, among other things, a heavy reliance on non-African sources by reporters, the invisibility of non-elite sources, and a tendency by U.S. media to suddenly lose interest in the story.

At the media and peace plenary, there were three participants. In the first, Ibrahim Shaw discussed how media framed the Arab Spring. He said the coverage clung to an event orientation, providing reporting without context in part to feed the 24 hour news cycle. Shaw showed several British TV reports from the Libyan revolution, and took them to task for failing to reveal that the events covered therein were actually managed media events.

In the second plenary, Julia Hoffmann spoke about the consequences of the prevailing war journalism, including compassion fatigue, societal inertia, the vulnerability of journalists to manipulation and propaganda, and the pre-emption of non-violent responses to conflict. She also presented a communication for peace model that showed peace journalism’s relationship to other elements such as media law, journalism education, public information, and new media.

The final plenary speaker was Jake Lynch, who presented his research, “A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict”. One strategic objective of his research, he said, is to supply evidence to donors that the peace journalism approach does indeed deliver results. Lynch continued his presentation in the peace journalism commission session by noting that his trans-national research does indeed demonstrate that peace journalism has a measurable impact on TV news audiences. For example, in South Africa, research subjects were divided into two groups. One group was shown a story with a peace journalism frame, while the other saw a report with a more traditional war framing. Both stories were about the same topic, a tragic series of rapes in South Africa. Viewers of the war story tended to blame individuals for the crime and to favor punitive solutions. Viewers of the peace-framed TV story were more likely to blame the rapes on systematic causes, and tended to favor cooperative solutions to the problem. In short, Lynch’s research demonstrates the peace journalism approach meaningfully impacts audiences.

Professor Komagum ebook and print book now available

Professor Komagum, my book about teaching peace journalism in Uganda, is now available in print, in full ebook, and in an ebook preview (the first 100 pages for only 99 cents). Click here to get yours today.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn