Media lessons from Ferguson; PJ blossoms in Bronx, Kenya
The media were dominated by news from and about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in the last half of 2014. From a peace journalist’s perspective, coverage of Ferguson, while often sub-par, did provide a valuable learning opportunity for reporters and students of media.
In August, immediately after Michael Brown was killed, in an op-ed piece in the Kansas City Star, I wrote that “much of the Ferguson coverage has been superficial, sensational and lacking context, while feeding well-worn stereotypes and narratives.” I pointed out the irony that the August Ferguson coverage was “ reminiscent of traditional war coverage that centers on the ‘action,’ who bombed whom, while marginalizing the underlying causes of the conflict and the search for peace…Given the tone and volume of the reporting, it’s hard to conclude that media coverage hasn’t exacerbated the crisis in Ferguson.”
I went on to offer a guide to reporting civic unrest. This guide included providing analysis and context, not just play-by-play; giving a voice to the voiceless; avoiding ‘us-vs-them’ characterizations (black vs. white, Christian vs. Muslim, etc.); using non inflammatory, non-sensational language; reporting counter-narratives that offer non-traditional perspectives on all the players involved; and giving peacemakers a voice.
These suggestions were largely ignored in November, when violence reignited in Ferguson.
First, I analyzed the cable TV coverage from Monday, Nov. 24, the day of the worst unrest. I wrote that the reporting about Ferguson was “a mixed bag, occasionally offering sober commentary and context, but all too often devolving into “play by play” coverage of the unrest…CNN’s correspondents were plunked down in the middle of the action (so that they could be tear gassed?), while one Fox cameraman who was filming the looting had his camera destroyed. The strategy of such coverage is obviously to add to the drama of the event, to make the journalists participants in the chaos, and, ultimately, to keep viewers tuned in. How much these shenanigans really contributed to the viewers’ understanding of the situation, or to a more nuanced discussion of the issues at hand, is subject to debate.”
I also analyzed newspaper coverage from Nov. 25. “…A surprising number of front pages are serving up less inflammatory images and rhetoric. It was encouraging to see front pages from Oakland, Tampa Bay, LA, Kansas City, Cleveland, and elsewhere shun the low hanging fruit—pictures of the burning cop car, or of shattered glass, or of armored vehicles. Instead, these newspapers took a more thoughtful approach, one that captured the sadness and disappointment of many without highlighting the anger.”
As a demonstration, I posted my version of what a peace journalism-style front page of the unrest might look like. (pictured-right)
My November column on Ferguson concluded, “Readers and viewers in St. Louis, New York, and everywhere else deserve thoughtful coverage that doesn’t exacerbate an already volatile situation and that gives peacemakers a more prominent voice.”
Before the Ferguson situation, I had the opportunity to teach my third peace journalism seminar in the Bronx, NY. This time, the focus was on stereotype-laced media coverage of immigrants in New York City.
“I presented research that confirmed what the participants already knew—that immigrants are stereotyped in the media, that most of these stereotypes are negative, and that negative stereotypes in particular infect audiences. We specifically examined a study by Latino Decisions that discussed the corrosive stereotypes of Latinos and immigrants.
“Then, we discussed using a peace journalism model as a way for media to break out of these stale, distorted narratives about immigrants. While peace journalism was conceived as a way to model war and peace reporting, I’ve found it useful in many other arenas—crime coverage, development issues, politics, etc. Certainly, the peace journalism principles of accuracy, balance, giving a voice to the voiceless (immigrants), being proactive instead of reactive, eschewing us vs. them reporting, and humanizing all sides are useful as we seek to give a more three-dimensional quality to our reporting about immigrants and immigrant issues.”
In October, I was privileged to be invited to teach PJ to a group of students and journalists at Rongo University in southwestern Kenya.
The key focus of the Rongo seminar, one I hadn’t really explored in my 100 or so previous peace journalism workshops and seminars around the world, was reconciliation. I wrote, “The radio journalists agreed that there is certainly a need for reconciliation here in Kenya between ethnic groups, regional interests, political parties, etc. We also agreed on the vital role of media in helping to tell stories and foster dialogues that encourage reconciliation. Toward that end, the journalists split into three groups, and produced peace and reconciliation-themed radio stories. One group’s story was about efforts to reduce tensions between tax collectors and businesses, while the other two spotlighted how one local radio station is giving a voice to those advocating reconciliation and the role of the university in bringing together those with different ethnicities. Each story demonstrated the journalists’ mastery of the principles of peace journalism.
“ …I encouraged them to take what they had learned, and spread the word to their colleagues throughout the region.”
Looking ahead, 2015 will begin with a series of seminars in Turkey on reporting Syrian refugees. These seminars begin Jan. 16. This project will conclude with a peace journalism summit in Istanbul in May. Other possible project locations in 2015 include Kuwait, Lebanon, and Rongo, Kenya.