Wednesday, April 24, 2013

PJ ethics take center stage at Cal State-San Marcos

If peace journalism means not inflaming passions, then why do peace journalists tell emotional stories? Aren't peace journalists biased?

These tough questions were posed by attendees at my keynote address last night at California State University-San Marcos. It was gratifying to see about 130 people in the audience for my presentation, "The Ethics of Peace Journalism: Serving a Higher Calling."
I answered the questions about emotional reporting by drawing a diagram on the board. I wrote the word ‘EMOTIONS’, and drew two lines coming off of the word. One line led to ‘CONSTRUCTIVE’ and the other to ‘DESTRUCTIVE’. Underneath the chart, I wrote, ‘BIAS?’. My explanation was that traditional journalists who sensationalize stories use emotions to anger, inflame passions, divide people, and sometimes, to mislead. They’re more interested in selling a story than in the consequences of reporting in a needlessly emotional way. This is destructive. Peace journalists also use emotions as they tell stories, but these emotions are used in a constructive way. I played two radio stories that I produced. These reports use emotional hooks to shine the spotlight of publicity on problems like displaced persons and forgotten orphans. These stories were crafted with the consequences of this reporting squarely in sight. Those consequences, I hoped, included getting help for those profiled in each story.

Some of the attendees commented that the sort of constructive reporting that I did reflects a bias. Perhaps it does. I responded by talking about objectivity, and the fact that journalists’ biases are reflected in the hundreds of decisions they make every day—what to report, which words to use, where to place stories, which quotes to use, etc. These are the criteria that journalists use to judge newsworthiness. Jake Lynch calls them filters. I suggested to the audience that journalists should add one more criteria (filter) as they make editorial decisons: what are the consequences of my reporting? Is it constructive or destructive?

For about a half dozen students in the crowd, this answer was not satisfying. These students left believing that peace journalism is just as biased and manipulative as traditional journalism. We ran out of time before I could elaborate on my response.

As the keynote finished, I presented a list of 5 questions I wanted the attendees to consider and discuss. (See below). I’m hoping these questions provide grist for many discussions in Cal State-San Marcos classrooms in the coming weeks.

Peace Journalism and ethics questions

1. Should journalists be responsible for the consequences of their reporting?

2. Do journalists have a higher ethical responsibility to peace?

3. Do the ends--peace--justify the means, if those means include ignoring some of the traditional ethical guidelines of journalism?

4. Does the instantaneous and potentially viral nature of every social media post carry extra responsibility for journalists? If yes, how?

5. Is objectivity the ultimate goals of journalists? Is fostering peace more important than maintaining absolute objectivity?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Should peace journalists give voice to racists?

It’s not easy being a peace journalist who, on the one hand, wants to avoid inflammatory comments but, on the other hand, sees the need to expose those who would spread hate and divisiveness.

This very situation arose yesterday when I learned on Facebook of a flyer (pictured) that was distributed to the home of a colleague of mine here in Kansas City. The flyer, and the sentiments behind it, are reprehensible and offensive.
Racist propaganda, distributed in a Kansas City neighborhood.
The question becomes, then, should a peace journalist take on the purveyors of hateful messages like these? If we do challenge their bigotry, do we inadvertently give their messages credibility? By starting discussions like these, are we needlessly inciting conflict?

One the most frequent criticisms leveled against peace journalism is that it avoids reporting about conflict and controversy. However, this criticism reflects a misunderstanding about peace journalism. When I teach PJ, my students learn that PJ doesn’t relieve or excuse them from covering conflicts, controversies, and even wars. We have a duty to our readers and listeners to inform them about these things. The question becomes, then, not if we should cover violence and mayhem and conflict, but how we report about these things—how we frame our stories.

Thus, the racist flyer, while on its face as useless as those who produced it, will provide valuable grist for my peace journalism students at Park University, who will be tasked with deciding if they would report on the flyer and the organization behind and, if they would report it, how they would frame their story.

For what it’s worth, I would choose to report about the flyer, but do so in a way that deprives those who produced it of the publicity they crave for their organization and their cause. In fact, the image of the flyer posted here has been cropped to exclude the name and web address of the organization that distributed it here in Kansas City. In my reporting, I would not seek comment from the racists, but I would interview those who would discredit this divisive, white supremacist propaganda.

This means my report would not be balanced, since I would have only one side of the story. However, is it always incumbent upon us to balance every story, even when one side has no credibility whatsoever? This is one more question for my classes here at Park University and at my peace journalism seminars this summer in the Bronx, Lebanon, and Kyrgyzstan.--SY

--The new Peace Journalist magazine is out! If you didn't get your copy, click here.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The New Peace Journalist Magazine is Here!

The April edition of The Peace Journalist magazine, published by the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University, has arrived.

For a free .pdf download, click here.

The April 2013 edition features a piece by peace journalist Professor Jake Lynch about the International Peace Research Association's latest research on PJ, and articles about PJ projects in Uganda, the Bronx, NY, and Kenya.

Archives: April 2012  October 2012

Monday, April 1, 2013

Kenya's peace journalists come under fire

Kenyan media generally practiced peace journalism in the aftermath of the March elections this year, according to observers as well as a small study conducted by peace journalism students at Park University. Yet interestingly, Kenyan media have come under fire for utilizing this style of reporting.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) wrote, “Some critics have condemned the media for not following up on claims made by politicians that the poll was rigged. For example, parliamentary candidate Ayiecho Olweny cried foul after he lost the Muhoroni seat which he had been expected to win easily.” (March 28)

A number of disgruntled Twitter messages have echoed this criticism and accused the Kenyan media of “rolling over” and “advocating peace”. Among those messages:

--Kenya overapologetic media. Peace journalism isn't journalism, it's a campaign.

--The entire country is saturated & zombified by messages of peace - no critical thinking is going on here... #Kenya -Though we were smart!

However, one anonymous journalist told IWPR that disseminating sensational accusations would have been irresponsible, especially given the media’s role in unrest that followed the 2007 election. The journalist said, “Can you imagine if we started running headlines about elections being rigged? What would have happened? There was already too much tension across the country. I thank all my colleagues for being responsible and interrogating allegations made before rushing to flash headlines.” (March 28)

A recent small study confirms that Kenyan journalists did indeed not “rush to flash headlines” and instead practiced peace journalism. Using a rubric that measures different peace journalism criteria (language, framing, bias, etc.), a peace journalism class at Park University examined 35 Kenyan media stories produced in March after the election. A majority of the stories (51%) were rated peace journalism, while only 9% were deemed traditional/war journalism due to their inflammatory nature. The rest fell somewhere in between. The few instances where peace journalism was not practiced were primarily reflected in biased, one sided stories, but again, these were the exception.

Many have been quick to praise the responsible, non-inflammatory journalism practiced by Kenya media. Kenya’s information ministry said that media performed well compared to 2007, and played a role in propagating peace and national cohesion. (Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, March 18). Nicolas Benequista, on the London School of Economics Blog, wrote, “Kenyan journalism can set a new, better standard. Election coverage in Kenya in 2013 gave us a glimpse of that possibility.”

I couldn’t agree more. The Kenyan media critics, it seems to me, appear to be disgruntled political partisans who are lashing out at a media that they blame for not correcting a “fixed” election. This anger is reminiscent of the incessant whining from America’s Republican Party about how the mainstream media wasn’t tough enough on Obama prior to his re-election.

Media in Kenya, America, and elsewhere can still fulfill their watchdog function, and call out election irregularities, without sensationalization. Peace journalism is not a campaign, as one Tweeter said. Peace journalism doesn’t advocate, but it doesn’t inflame or otherwise serve political agendas, either. This is bound to upset political partisans, some of whom depend on hatred and divisions to advance their agenda; hence the criticism.

Peace journalists, listen to the criticism, but keep on doing the right thing, which is to consider the consequences of your reporting, just like Kenya’s responsible journalists did last month.