Large-Scale Communication

Phil Barker

March 2005

Additional insights into large-scale communication are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Communication plays a major role in promoting and alleviating conflict. The source of conflict can often be traced back to a lack of communication, or an inability to express who we are and what we desire. Such communication is important on two levels: in small-scale settings, such as one-on-one or small-group communication, and in larger-scale settings, such as the news and entertainment media.

Much of the information we receive about the world around us is either influenced or controlled by the media, including television, newspapers, and radio. Other than information we personally take in, our view of the world is largely shaped by the way in which information is presented by these media outlets. For instance, someone from the United States may receive information about the current conflict in Northern Ireland only from news reports on the television and radio, or in the newspaper. Similarly, people in Northern Ireland may know little about the conflict between Pakistan and India, other than what they see or read in their local and national news. Because of this limited exposure to information, it is very important to recognize the impact that the media have on conflict and to ensure that this influence is used appropriately.

Why Focus on Conflict?

The news and entertainment media tend to focus on conflict. The news media rely on advertising for income, and advertisers look for programs with a large number of viewers: "Audiences are the commodity the commercial media sell to their advertisers."[1] Media representatives assert that they focus on conflict because that is what people want to see. Conflict is more "interesting" to viewers than peace, just as an accident on the road draws the attention of passersby. The result is a tendency to "focus on the episodic and fragmentary accounts of the most dramatic moments largely leaving out the preceding causes and antecedent consequences."[2]

This habit of focusing on the negative aspects of a conflictual situation is extremely problematic. By only addressing these aspects of an issue, the information is skewed and can adversely affect the ideas and images that the audience has of the conflict participants. This is particularly worrisome when it affects the attitudes of the participants themselves. If an individual in Israel only hears negative news about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via the media, then his or her attitudes and actions are affected accordingly.[3]

What Should the Media Do?

Because of the great responsibility associated with reporting the news, there is some controversy as to how reporters, editors, and others associated with the process should treat stories on conflict. There is often a call for unbiased views in the news media, associated with an apparent responsibility to look at a situation without taking sides. However, a lack of bias is impossible to achieve, as every person has his or her own opinions and perspectives that do not disappear while he or she is reporting a story. In addition, "as all journalists know, their mere presence on the scene often alters the behavior of parties to conflict."[4] In many cases, the parties involved in the conflict use the media to their own advantage, portraying themselves or their causes in a positive light. This is, quite obviously, a difficult situation to deal with.

One alternative to the idea of unbiased reporting is peace journalism, in which reporters draw on the insights of conflict assessment and resolution to try to better explain the interests of each side and the conflict dynamics, including coverage of constructive or de-escalatory moves.[5]

In addition, the media can play a large role in the spread of small-group conflict-resolution techniques to the larger audience. In other words, the negotiations and resolutions that are produced in small-group discussions (i.e., peace treaties) are only useful to the extent that the actual parties to the conflict accept them. (See the essay on scaling up.) Media outlets can be a vital part of this process, spreading information about the peace agreements and the benefits of peace in the attempt to get people to understand and embrace the agreements.

Clearly the media are an integral part of any conflict situation, even though they may not play any direct role. It is very important that the media and individuals involved in it realize their impact. Understanding the role of the media allows us to move in the right direction, by recognizing media bias and dealing with it accordingly. The media, just as any other actor in conflict, must be aware of the consequences of their actions in the hope that they will ultimately alleviate tension, rather than exacerbate it.

What Can Individuals Do?

Individuals need to be aware of the inevitable (and sometimes intentional) bias of reporting and try to read and/or listen to reports from several different types of sources. Rather than relying on one newspaper or television station, listen to as many different accounts as possible, and examine the differences in coverage to try to get a better picture of the views of all sides of a conflict situation. With the Internet it is particularly easy now to get first-hand reports from all over the world. One must be careful to examine the source: some are likely to be credible, others very much not. But even reports that are not credible do give a picture of what one side feels and fears, and what they are trying to get their own constituents and the outside world to believe. For example, some Palestinian reports of Israeli attacks on the West Bank are highly exaggerated, but even so, they give a useful idea of the feelings and fears of many Palestinian people. The same thing is true on the other side: some Israeli reporting too is exaggerated, but it gives an insight into Israeli feelings and fears. By comparing these very partisan reports with other more "objective" reporting -- from, for instance, The New York Times, the BBC, or other respected news outlets, it is possible to develop a better picture of what is actually going on.

[1] Tehranian, Majod. "Communication and Conflict" in Media Development, Issue 4 (1996).

[2] Tehranian, Majod. "Communication and Conflict" in Media Development, Issue 4 (1996).

[3] See essay on stereotyping.

[4] Botes, Johannes. "Journalism and Conflict Resolution" in Media Development, Issue 4 (1996).

[5] Annabel McGoldrick and Jake Lynch, "Peace Journalism: How to Do It." Accessed at; A bibliography of more peace journalism articles is available at "Published Articles and Chapters About Peace Journalism and Reporting the World", available online at$file/rtwarticles+.htm.

Use the following to cite this article:
Barker, Phil. "Large-Scale Communication." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <>.

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