Realizing that a Large Proportion of News is About Conflict

Jannie Botes

Assistant Professor, Program on Negotiations and Conflict Management, University of Baltimore

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: If I'm a journalist, what should I consider about conflict and conflict dynamics and how should it change my work?


You know, it's fascinating to me that while we all understand that conflict is news and news is conflict for about 90 % of the time, I once challenged students to bring a story from the paper that's not about conflict. And they always brought me sports. That's stylized conflict. But there is the odd story that's not about conflict in the paper.

Q: A reconciliation story?

A: Even then, a reconciliation story is post-conflict. Journalists often have the attitude of "I know conflict when I see it." Well, maybe that's true, but that doesn't help you report on it. But what always surprises me, is that while conflict is news and news is conflict and about 90%

of what we do is about conflict. When I try to get journalists to give me a definition of conflict, they struggle. They cannot give you a simple definition of what is a conflict. Which has always led me to believe to that there is a huge hole in the education of journalists if 90% of what we do as journalists is cover conflict then shouldn't we understand what a conflict is? Shouldn't we understand the anatomy of a conflict and therefore sort out how people interact, what is contentious behavior, how do conflicts escalate and de-escalate, who tries to resolve it, what is negotiation, and what is mediation?

Twenty-five years ago the word mediation hardly existed in the media, and now it still interests me that the odd people, they talk about third party negotiation. They have the term, but they haven't got it quite right, and now and then you see people say mediation when they meant negotiation or arbitration. So that would be my first point about it, is there seems to be a lack of education and a gap that needs to be filled. You know, this is a side issue, but when I came to America for the first time in 1986 and I asked the questions about how journalists are trained, the answer was well, post-war when Dan Rather and the others got trained, when they were young, normally what happens is that journalists got the best social science liberal arts education that you could possibly give them. In other words, they got history and philosophy and political science, and then they went to a newspaper or television station, normally a newspaper and then afterwards to radio and television. Print was the training ground, and then they got hands on training to be a journalist, but they came with something. They came with their social science/liberal arts background.

Then in the 70's came communication schools. As you know, there are only so many credit hours in a degree, so what now happens, is in essence and I went through a masters in journalism, was that one half of that was practice, and half of it was theory. Half of it was a course on international relations, and what have you. So as one of the people who I asked that question said to me in 1986, I remember very well, he said, "In a sense what happens now is the journalism schools train people on how to write stories." You get people who come out of places like the University of Missouri, which is a great journalism school, the oldest, if I remember correctly. They teach you how to write, they teach you how to do radio and television. But because they are only so many credit hours in a degree, unless you've got a good liberal arts education somewhere else, you won't get it in that degree. That is because half of the hours are already gone into making you a journalist. This person's point was that the older generation had something to write about. This generation has nothing to write about because they know how to write a story, they know what a story is but they don't have the same background of information depth of the liberal arts, social science, or education to write a story.

Q: No context with which to put it?

A: Yes, this may be interesting to you but we're going to do that over the phone if you're ok with it. I think journalists are social actors that land in the middle of conflicts whatever they do. They cannot avoid it. They seek it but it's also that they cannot avoid it. And that's why I say journalists provide information and understanding. This might be a controversial point for journalists because they like to say; especially the older school journalists like to say we just report the facts. Whereas I would say, no, journalism is a form of social intervention. And you cannot escape that because the moment you go to somebody and you say tell me about this, and you take that information which you've just gathered and you use that to interview the other side of the dispute or someone with a different point of view, and you listen to the B-side of that and you go back to the A's and you go to other people with that information. Therefore you have in a sense joined that conflict. Now you print it in the newspaper, so you are very much apart of the social intervention and the context of that conflict and other people base their positions very much on what you wrote.

To just say, we report the facts, doesn't make sense. It's not that it's disingenuous because people don't try to lie about it, it's just you are a part of a social process and you cannot escape that. There's no escaping it. Therefore journalists cannot escape impact and to talk about just the facts to me doesn't make sense. It also renders the claims of neutrality and impartiality senseless to me. Although as journalists, I do understand the idea of having to strive for neutrality and impartiality. Journalists hate those terms. They prefer to talk about fairness and balance. I think with fairness and balance you have the same problems but at least you have something to strive for.