Thursday, December 26, 2013

Year in Review Part I: PJ in Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, The Bronx

--Part 1 of 2 parts. Part 2 will be published in early January--

It’s been another interesting year for advocates and practitioners of peace journalism. As I look back on a year’s worth of blogs and articles, the only real pattern I notice is the wide applicability of peace journalism principles across a variety of disciplines, ranging from crime and electoral coverage to hip-hop culture.

In January, I discussed my own cowardice in not pressing a discussion of homosexuality during my many forays to Uganda to teach peace journalism. I wrote, “When, when my current peace media and counterterrorism project is complete, I will to seek another grant for a project emphasizing peace media and tolerance in Uganda, and perhaps elsewhere in East Africa as well. This project would be centered on using the power of media to empower the voiceless and marginalized (women, children, homosexuals) in Ugandan society.” I have followed through on this promise, and am seeking grant money to do this very thing.

In March, I wrote about the peaceful Kenyan election, and the role of peace journalists there in keeping the election peaceful. My blog said, “Of course, the headline on CNN is “Sporadic violence mars Kenyan election”. This is the opposite of peace journalism, since it highlights the violent and sensational. Given what happened in 2007, the headline should be “Miraculous election turnaround for Kenya” or “Kenyans succeed in conquering violence.”

I wrote “Media fuels misperceptions about Lebanon” during my visit there in May. I penned, “When I told my friends, family, and colleagues that I was heading to Beirut, Lebanon, the reaction was shock and horror. How could I go to such an unstable, dangerous place? I must admit to some pre-departure trepidation myself, given the reputation of Lebanon and Beirut in particular. Now, after having spent about two weeks here, I am ashamed at my hesitation in coming here. Indeed it is ironic that I am here teaching peace media, including examining stale media stereotypes, while I myself had been fooled by western media’s hysteria about the Middle East.”

During May, I also visited Kyrgyzstan in central Asia. I asked, “How are religious labels used by leaders (and media) to divide populations and inflame passions? What role do stereotypes have in laying a foundation for hate speech? These were two key questions discussed during the last day of “Generation Peace: New Media Technology for Central Asia,” a conference I’m teaching at this week at Issyk Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan.”

In June, during a visit to the Bronx, NY, I wrote “Peace journalists ponder hip-hop culture.” I commented, “Hip-hop, the students agreed, is often misogynistic and promotes violence. Many hip-hop artists, the students said, aren’t really living the street lifestyle, but are instead presenting themselves as gangsters for public relations purposes—to connect with their audience and thus sell CD’s. So, why should peace journalists care about any of this? The students and I agreed that anything that promotes stereotypes and distortions about any one group can undermine understanding and peace. Thus, it is the journalist’s role to expose anything—music, movies, TV programs—that creates a false negative stereotype. If our commitment as journalists is to the facts, and to facts presented in context, then let’s consider reporting about African American males (for example) that goes beyond the words and images in hip-hop music and videos.”

In July, I was pondering the birth of the new British royal baby when I wrote, “I'm thinking about Ugandan, Syrian, Congolese, and yes, American babies who aren't fortunate enough to be born into royal privilege. I'm especially worried about Congolese refugee children barely scraping by in western Uganda, and Syrian refugee children living in squalid camps in Lebanon and elsewhere. As peace journalists, our role is to tell their story, and keep telling their story, so that these babies might get what they need to survive. I only wish the story of the world's most vulnerable refugees could somehow command just 1/50th of the coverage of the royal baby.”

In the second half of our year-in-review (to be published in early January), we’ll discuss how journalists should cover terrorist attacks, and respond to critics speaking out against peace journalism.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Honoring Robert Kituyi, all Kenyan peace journalists

Congratulations to Kenyan journalist, Robert Kituyi, recent winner of a peace and conflict sensitive reporting award. If you ever find yourself questioning the efficacy of peace journalism trainings/workshops, read the letter below, sent to myself and my Ugandan Peace Journalism trainer/partner Gloria Laker, director of the Peace Journalism Foundation of East Africa.

Dear Prof Youngblood and Ms. Gloria,

Receive greetings from one of your Kenyan peace journalist student. I am so excited that your training with us last year and which culminated in drafting a raft of peace guidelines for our media houses paid off dividends as evidenced itself during the March election that was largely credited as peaceful.

I have been recognized as a winner in this year’s media excellence awards in print category on peace and conflict sensitive reporting. For me this has come as a sweet surprise because the award was not just as a result of one piece of an article I did but a series of many of my stories which according to the judges they maintained a theme of sustaining peace, reconciliation fostering national development.

I know we may have had a series of other trainings in the run up to the March 2013 election; your training had many aspects that were more practical and detailed in nature.

The emphasis on the need to employ the peace guidelines we drafted at the end of the three day-long training and your advice to us to consider development journalism for me was practical and although it never went well with at my former media house, I never let it go. I embarked on tracking and focusing peace and reconciliation initiatives in the Rift Valley, one of the areas known as violence hotspot in almost every general election and which experienced worst bloodshed during the December 2007 violence.

Prof, thank you so much for inspiring many of us. Our group has grown into an association after we successful carried out peace projects towards the March election. We are about 35 journalists drawn from mainly Uasin Gishu County [Eldoret]. Now with news devolved system of government (counties) each counties is being encouraged to form journalism groups something I have always wanted see take root in our country.

Back to the award I know I owe it to you guys for challenges on responsible journalism which to most of us it never meant much sense until one of our own was indicted at the International Criminal Court charged with the most serious crimes – crimes against humanity through his radio program.

I won a laptop, a Sony cyber-shot camera – tools which I have always looked forward to have. These equipment will be available to my colleagues at any given time because without their support in many way I would have achieved this feat.

And to you as my (our) mentors and trainers, on behalf my colleagues I say THANK YOU SO MUCH!

Looking forward to seeing you and sharing with you in much more other opportunities you may have in future.

Happy Christmas and a fruitful year ahead.


Monday, December 2, 2013

In defense of peace journalism: Choosing not to start a riot
By Steven Youngblood, director, Center for Global Peace Journalism

It has been both fascinating and instructive the last few days to read reports from Belfast, Northern Ireland about a peace journalism workshop held there on Nov. 29. Judging from what I’ve read, workshop attendees largely reacted negatively to the concept of peace journalism.

The consensus, summarized succinctly on the Slugger O’Toole website, was that “the phrase peace journalism was found wanting by organisers and delegates alike…partly because the journalistic ethics that apply to conflict equally apply to peace (and every other situation…Moral judgments on (not so) “absolute” rights and wrongs end up being subjective…” (

I’d like to take a moment to respond to some of the criticisms coming from Northern Ireland. Many of these criticisms stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what peace journalism is, or more precisely, what it isn’t. 

In News Letter, columnist Alex Kane says it is nonsense “that journalists and editors and commentators occupy some sort of moral high-ground on which they make great, profound decisions on how they can make the world or the country a better place.”  ( This statement presumes that peace journalists openly advocate for peace, which they do not. Peace journalism, instead, seeks to give peacemakers a proportionate voice and to closely scrutinize claims made by those who advocate violence. (Balance and accountability, in the terms of traditional journalism). If both peaceful and violent alternatives are presented to society, and society chooses war, so be it.

Peace journalists would ask much less of Mr. Kane than making profound, moral decisions. Instead of making the world a better place, peace journalists would hope that at least he not make the world a worse place—to not exacerbate a bad situation, to not sensationalize an already emotional story, to not deliberately mislead and pander to his “primary audience.”  The title of his column, “Why I’d still write this even if I know it would provoke a riot,” speaks volumes about the values of traditional journalism, and the now-antiquated notion that journalists bear no responsibility for the consequences of their reporting.

Kane goes on to say, “Because in precisely the same way that a variety of political parties and lobby groups steer every event to suit their own agenda, then so too will newspapers, programmes, blogs et al steer it to the needs of their core audience.” A peace journalist would ask, what are the needs of a core audience? Lacking expertise and experience in Northern Ireland, I would not presume to tell my colleagues there about their audience. However, in a broader context, peace journalists would argue that what is in the best interest of audiences generally is that they receive a broad, balanced perspective on the news—a perspective that isn’t overly reliant on official sources or sectarian or political propaganda. In the U.S., this approach suggests that the highly partisan media (Fox News on the right; MSNBC on the left) are doing a disservice to their viewers by providing stilted coverage.

Another peace journalism skeptic, John Mooney, argues on his blog against the idea that journalists should serve a common good. He writes, “The notion that journalists have a responsibility to the common good, the one that is decided for them by conflict resolutionists, brings to mind that 1950s USA blacklisted journalists as “un-American” and Stalinist USSR and Nazi Germany also regulated journalists. …I am claiming that the common good is a dangerous thing.” Mooney goes on to argue that feeding a common good can lead to censorship. He writes, “In short, I don’t believe in censorship…beyond a certain decorum. And I believe in people reporting what they see. And I believe in commentators and bloggers pushing their own agenda.” ( )

First, peace journalists also report what they see. If 20 people were murdered, we would write that 20 people were murdered. However, reporting that 20 people were “brutally massacred” adds nothing to the story except emotion—fuel for the fire. Peace journalism would argue that we have an ethical responsibility to not exacerbate an already volatile situation.

Secondly, journalists already make decisions every day about the common good. In hundreds of daily judgments, newspapers decide to put certain stories on page one because they are deemed important or significant. As journalists, we fundamentally believe that having broadly informed readers serves the common good. Isn’t it for the common good that the public knows about a corrupt politician? Isn’t it for the common good that we read that a charity needs more donations to buy food for the hungry? Peace journalists would argue that journalism is already in the common good business, and that our commitment not fueling violence is at least as desirable (for the common good) as holding politicians accountable for their misdeeds. 

To be fair, Mooney's column is also critical of traditional journalism. His are not the words of an extremist, but someone who embraces the important role of journalism. Mooney writes, "To be honest, I am much more interested in justice than peace." The question, of course, is the proper role of journalists in achieving justice and peace.

Even if you bristle at the term peace journalism, consider the validity of its fundamental concepts which are shared by journalism as a whole—objectivity, balance, factual reporting, ethics, accountability, and responsibility. Given these values, I would not choose to write this or any other column if I thought it would provoke a riot.

--Note: For a robust, back-and-forth discussion between Mr. Mooney and myself, see the comments section of his blog at the bottom of the page:  ( )

Friday, November 22, 2013

Would modern technology change JFK coverage?
It’s not hard to picture Dealey Plaza in Dallas lined with thousands of people waiting to get a glimpse of a presidential motorcade. But instead of one lone figure with an 8mm film camera, imagine thousands of observers armed with a smart phone or tablet.

What if they had 24-hour cable TV, Internet, social media, and portable media devices like smart phones and iPads in 1963? This is a question my students and I, along with my colleague Prof. John Lofflin, pondered yesterday.

We all agreed that the assassination would have been tweeted and YouTubed almost immediately. Certainly, there would have been high quality video of the motorcade, and of the fateful moment. We agreed as well that TV news networks would probably have faced an awful ethical decision—whether to use the most gruesome video on the air. If you were CNN, would the pressure to use such video, knowing that Fox might show it as well, be overwhelming? Lofflin said he would show the video, but black out the moment that the fatal bullet struck the president. As a peace journalist, one trained not to inflame or exacerbate an already bad situation, Lofflin’s idea seems sensible.

We also agreed about the vital role of broadcast and print media to help news consumers sort through what would certainly have been hundreds of thousands of tweets, Facebook and blog posts, and images (or purported images) of the event. 

Since social media and Internet exist in 1963, imagine the rumors, conspiracy theories, and false reports about suspects germinating online. Imagine as well the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle combined with the drama of a presidential assassination, and the irresponsible journalism that surely would have occurred under the circumstances.

As we moved on to discuss more traditional media, there was some disagreement about whether newspapers would have (or should have) reported the story differently if 24-hour cable and the Internet existed 50 years ago. Lofflin said that newspapers would still have a responsibility to run a comprehensive story about the assassination (like the iconic NY Times article by Tom Wicker), even if many of the facts were already known by the audience. I’m not so sure about the need for such a piece, or at least the reflexive need to place a comprehensive story on the top of page one. I would run a summary, but subordinate it to stories that expand on the basic information the public has already gathered from the Internet, 24-hour cable, etc.

From a law enforcement standpoint, there probably would have been good cellphone photos of Oswald with his rifle on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Would this have derailed the conspiracy theories? That seems doubtful, especially since there would be thousands of new photos that could probably provide grist for innovative, previously unimagined theories. 

Looking back at the assassination, it’s already tragic enough without having to see thousands of bloody images and hours of graphic video footage. On balance, it’s preferable that the only images we have from Nov. 22, 1963 are a some grainy photos and a few seconds of blurry film.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Peace journalism principles guide disaster coverage

The peace journalism approach is about much more than covering wars.

Exhibit A is coverage of Typhoon Haiyan. In the short term, a peace journalism approach would demand that the power of the media be used to highlight the needs of the survivors, and empower viewers and readers who want to provide assistance. In the coverage I’ve seen from BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera and read over the wire services, I’d say that the media have been vigilant (if occasionally overly dramatic) in making sure that needy Filipinos have their voices heard. TV/video media have also done a pretty good job, in my estimation, of avoiding showing the most graphic images. As peace journalism teaches, journalists should strive to not make a horrible situation even worse by re-traumatizing victims and their families by carelessly showing bodies.

One big mistake made by media is jumping to conclusions about the number killed, and airing what producers must have known were virtually made up casualty figures disseminated by local authorities. This figure, 10,000 deaths, appeared prominently worldwide. In fact, this number was incorrect. Today, the Philippines president said that the early estimates might have been four times too high. When media publicize wildly incorrect figures, this undermines their entire coverage, leading some skeptical viewers to conclude that perhaps the need for relief has also been exaggerated. This, in turn, could have a negative impact on collection of donations for the victims.

Perhaps the most important application of peace journalism principles to Typhoon Haiyan won’t occur this week or even this year. The test for journalists will be if they follow up on the rebuilding in Tacloban and other devastated areas. Journalism has long been criticized, and rightly so, for parachuting into humanitarian disasters then leaving a few days or weeks later when the story gets cold. Peace journalists, I would argue, can and should do more. We should be on the ground three months, six months, and one year from now telling the stories of the victims while holding relief agencies and the Filipino government accountable for their response to the storm. 

No matter how long it takes, the media spotlight shouldn’t leave the victims until their lives take on some sense of normalcy.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

NGO leaders teach communications prof about communications

Today was the third and final day of the Sustained Humanitarian Presence Initiative workshop, sponsored by Irish AID and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. This workshop in Limerick, Ireland for NGO leaders was the first part of a larger project to develop a course to help NGO's operate more effectively in a crisis area. The second part is testing and deploying this project in South Sudan.

My instructional segment today centered around how NGO’s might most effectively utilize media in a crisis area. I began with a discussion of how professional media assessment and engagement skills cut across the many things an NGO does, like gaining acceptance in the community, negotiating with locals, and assessing the situation in the region where the NGO operates. As anticipated (see yesterday’s blog), the participants largely scrapped a primitive list of media skills that I had developed before the workshop, and created their own improved step by step approach to media relations. It was interesting and educational to see how they applied the theory I presented.
As the project progresses, it will be interesting to see how this list of media relations skills is incorporated into the training module that the sponsors plan to test-drive in South Sudan in 2014.