Interpreting Violent Conflict: A Conference for Conflict Analyses and Journalists: Summary of Proceedings
By Helen Wolle
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Helen Wolle, "Interpreting Violent Conflict: A Conference for Conflict Analysts and Journalists: Summary of Proceedings," George Mason University: Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, September 1990.
Conference participants discussed how frames of interpretation affect media coverage of conflicts. A frame of interpretation "tells the analyst or reporter what kind of conflict he or she is observing, which sources of information are relevant, what questions to ask, and how to interpret the answers."[p. 2] An inappropriate frame distorts or limits understanding of the conflict situation.
One participant cited the example of the 1989 uprising in China. The media framed events as a student uprising. This led the media to expect non-violent protests demanding Western-style democratic reforms. Reporters missed the violent and revolutionary elements of the protests, and overlooked the significance of the participation of numerous workers. This inappropriate frame led journalists to overlook important background to the conflict, to misinterpret the then-current situation, and to fail to anticipate the violent climax.
Another participant contrasted the predominant U.S. media frame, which reflects middle-class American attitudes, with a frame which focuses on human needs. The mainstream frame suggests that non-conforming social groups and elements can be brought into conformity with the dominant norms by force. This frame has a number of faults. First, it leads to the under- representation of minorities as reporters seek information from sources who are like them: educated and middle-class. He charged that "mainstream journalism and scholarship therefore represents the middle class speaking to itself."[p. 4] Second, this narrow focus leads the media to overlook the system-problems which are the root cause of much social conflict. Shifting to a human needs frame could remedy these defects. A human needs frame would recognize that conflicts are the result of unmet needs, and that such conflicts cannot be resolved by force. They can only be resolved by identifying and addressing the underlying needs.
Just as class-specific frames are distorting, so can culturally biased frames be distorting. One participant argued that the media tend to interpret events through their preconceived notions of society and through stereotypes. This then perpetuates those preconceptions. In particular the media tends to be ignorant about other cultures and world-views. Instead journalists interpret events through the frame of their own culture. In this same vein, another participant argued that "the most powerful newspapers and networks have served as an arm of dominant Great Power interests rather than as a trustworthy source of information."[p. 13] Third world nations are increasingly calling for reorganization of the information industry to better meet their informational needs. Of course the dominant press is sometimes valued precisely as a source of information on the interests and attitudes of the great powers.