Belfast Telegraph

'Peace Journalism' flags up role of media in conflict

By Paul Connolly

A recent workshop at Queen's University on 'Peace Journalism' revived a long-standing debate about how far journalists can and should go when covering conflict.

Some 15 years ago, a similar debate raged in the US and elsewhere, mostly framed as 'journalism and conflict resolution'.

It arose out of a trend towards what was known as 'civic journalism'. ‘News breaks: can we fix it?’ was the title of one of the most memorable documents at the time.

This was viewed by some as cutting-edge stuff, which in extremis insists the role of journalists is not just to report the news, but to actually assist in resolving conflicts.

A lesser, and perhaps more achievable, aim is to at least ensure reporting does not actually aggravate conflict. Traditionalists who preferred reporting to actually intervening were more comfortable with that.

Interestingly, in that late-1990s debate, conflict was defined by some as everything from civil war and communal strife to neighbourhood disputes and even industrial incidents and strikes.

Reporters were urged by the most zealous practitioners to intervene and defuse controversies. However, it was also acknowledged that any mission to at least factually explain, balance and contextualise the roots of conflict played a valuable role in the wider understanding of a situation.

In a Northern Ireland context, that might mean, for instance, putting sectarianism in its true, wider context and not merely focusing on attacks on one community by the other. Much of this, properly done, is the true practice of journalism.

In Northern Ireland, journalists are fairly well-trained and stories are, in the main, reasonably balanced, thanks mostly to the Editors’s Code and a kind of in-built moderation. No mainstream newspaper, or broadcaster, supported the use of violence for political ends in the Troubles.

This was and is not the case in many other societies. I remember crawling to the front line in Bosnia with an 'independent photo-journalist' dressed in the uniform of his local Croat militia with an AK-47 strapped to his back. His 'independent' assessment of the conflict made, well, interesting listening.

A key issue in peace journalism is that one person's view of peace isn't always another's. Was the Northern Ireland media too uncritical of the ceasefires/Good Friday Agreement? Or were journalists at times too harsh on John Hume, Gerry Adams, David Trimble and Ian Paisley? Hard to say.

The truth is that a lot of stuff that can be labelled conflict resolution journalism is just actual journalism and there was an excellent example of this in the Belfast Telegraph this week (some of the results are here).

After US diplomat Richard Haass's suggestion to the Stormont Executive parties that they might wish to design a new, neutral flag for Northern Ireland, the Telegraph asked readers to send their contributions via the website.

The result was a joyful smorgasbord of hundreds of ideas and observations. From the witty — Tayto crisps, stout and Ulster frys — to the sarcastic (a circus ring with clown) and serious attempts at compromise, featuring crowns and shamrocks.

Among my favourites was the wag who suggested: how about "a flag with green on one side and orange on the other side, with a white bit (to represent peace) in between. Sounds familiar?".

There were many really thoughtful and valuable suggestions, particularly some promising combinations of red, white, blue, orange and green, representing Britishness and Irishness and giving a nice rainbow effect.

Crucially, there were few attempts at triumphalism, or victory by one side over the other. The overwhelming theme was of a shared future.

I don't know if the initiative amounts to conflict resolution, or peace journalism, or whether it's just an exercise in normal journalism.

But whatever it is, it is something valuable.

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