Monday, January 6, 2014

Year in Review Part II: On Zimmerman, Syria, Kenya 

The second half of 2013 brought more analysis of how peace journalism applies to a wide range of issues and disciplines. 

July began with my take on the mainstream press coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. I wrote, “Whether it’s the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial (1935), the Jody Arias trial, the O.J. Simpson debacle, or the just completed George Zimmerman trial, there’s nothing quite like a courtroom drama to bring out the very worst in America’s press. During the Zimmerman trial, both the extent and tone of the coverage reflect little more than shameful pandering…. Both the tone and extent of the Zimmerman trial coverage represent the antithesis of peace journalism. 

“A peace journalist (and a peace journalism media outlet) would have covered the trial, but not wall-to-wall. We would have sought always to put the trial into the proper perspective—that while tragic, Trayvon Martin is just one of 6,100 U.S. gun victims since the Newtown shootings last December. Peace journalists would have given much less airtime to racial demagogues from both ends of the political spectrum, and instead sought to hear from those who seek a middle ground. Peace journalists would have speculated less, and tried to stick much more to the facts.”

In August, America seemed at the precipice of a war in Syria. I warned of the folly of such a conflict, how we must learn lessons from Iraq. “While the diplomats, generals, and weapons experts debate the veracity of the chemical weapons charges and desirability of military intervention in Syria, the media would be well advised to remember their own missteps leading up the Iraq war 10 years ago. By their own admission, many in the media shirked their watchdog role in the run up to the Iraq war. They were largely content with parroting Bush administration propaganda (lies, some might say). .. So, here we are again 10 years later, an administration vilifying a dictator and accusing him of horrible crimes against his own people. If the media have learned anything from the pre-Iraq debacle, it is that we must never be only the mouthpiece of an administration bent on intervention. We journalists need to be asking questions, and lots of them, seeking independent verification of the claims against Syria. We must be skeptical.

“As a peace journalist, one devoted to explicitly stating the consequences of war and to giving peacemakers a voice, we have an even higher responsibility in times like these. We need to lead a discussion debunking the myth of a “clean, surgical strike”, and examine at length the number of civilian injuries and deaths that could occur. Peace journalists must seek out and give a voice to peacemakers and to those who seek a non-violent response in Syria.”

One month later, I wrote about another hotspot, Kenya after the mall bombing. “As for the coverage of the mall attack, my peace journalism students and I here at Park University are closely scrutinizing how the media are treating the incident. Right now, we have more questions than answers. Among these:

 1. Does coverage inadvertently play into the hands of the attackers? Does it somehow glamorize or legitimize what they have done?
 2. Does sensational coverage make a bad situation worse? (See images from the Sunday front pages of Kenya’s two leading newspapers, The Nation and The Standard).
       3. Are bloody images necessary to tell this story, or are they merely voyeuristic and sensational? Do such images respect the privacy of victims and their loved ones?
       4. Has the coverage in any way hindered officials who are seeking to end the stand-off, and to investigate the attack?”

In November, I looked back at the JFK assassination, and wondered aloud how things might’ve been different if the media in 1963 possessed today’s technology. My students and I discussed this, and “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. (If social media existed) 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.”

Finally, we capped off the year with a robust discussion about the merits of peace journalism. This discussion was ignited by a peace journalism seminar held in Northern Ireland. I responded to several peace journalism naysayers in my blog and on the critics’ blogs. Among other things, I wrote about the critics’ mistaken belief 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, I said, have no delusions about necessarily making the world a better place. Instead, “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 (one skeptic’s) 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.”

As for 2014, an exciting year lies ahead. The Center for Global Peace Journalism and yours truly are organizing seminars in March in Cyprus and October in Haiti. We’re also working on grants that may bring us to Turkey and Lebanon next summer. As always, we’ll have all the details here at Peace Journalism Insights.

Happy New Year!

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