Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Sometimes, the best we can do is to not make things worse

(Bahir Dar, Ethiopia)-As is frequently the case, the most interesting discussions at a conference occur on the sidelines.

After my introduction to peace journalism keynote at the International Conference on Language, Culture, and Communication this week at Bahir Dar University, I had an invigorating discussion with four Ethiopian communications professors about peace journalism. We talked about whether PJ is possible in Ethiopia. (Consensus: It can be implemented here, at least in part). The most interesting point made by an Ethiopian professor was that PJ stops being peaceful when journalists report news that will make people uncomfortable or angry. He used an example of police shooting and killing protesters to illustrate his point. How can we report a story like this without creating anger or sparking a riot, he asked?

My response was unsatisfying to him and to me: Sometimes, the best we can do as journalists is to not exacerbate the situation, to not pour gasoline on an already blazing fire. We all agreed that this police shooting story must be reported, since it’s clearly news. I added that not reporting a story like this would invite rumors and misrepresentations, and could potentially make matters worse.
Here in Ethiopia, this police shooting story is hardly hypothetical, since dozens of anti-government protesters have been killed during the last three years.

Other conference highlights
International conference sessions at BDU included a presentation of political identification in Ethiopia as reflected on Facebook, by far the most popular social medium here. Prof. Tesfaye Zelalem found that Ethiopia’s two biggest political parties use FB to belittle their opponents, thus missing out on an opportunity to engage in reasoned, reciprocal, productive discussions about substantive issues. 

Prof. Feyisa Mulisa presented research about FB which showed, unsurprisingly, that high school students spend much more time on social media for recreation than for academics. He suggested finding a way to better engage students academically on social media.

Dr. Adem Chanie’s research was about how the Ethiopian government entity BOLSA ineffectively communicates to and about their constituency, the disabled. He recommended participatory communication approaches that would better engage the disabled.

Overall, it was an excellent conference, and a fine opportunity to exchange ideas with some fascinating colleagues.

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