Reporting on Conflict: A User Guide to the Beyond Intractability Website, Built Specially for Journalists

Compiled by
Cate Malek

The mass media have a powerful influence on how people view the world. Newspapers, radio, and television are frequently the only link to events happening outside of one's neighborhood. A reporter's story on a conflict can be the sole information available to his audience. How the reporter frames the conflict can bias the audience in favor of one party, or one solution over another; it can intensify the conflict, or cool it down.

When you think about it, most news is "conflict" and journalists are participants in the conflicts they cover. Though they usually make every effort to be "objective," this is difficult at best. Sometimes attempts to present both views equally is actually favoring one over the other, if the story doesn't illustrate that one view is much more predominate, or another, while commonly believed, is incorrect. Complex conflicts are full of pitfalls for journalists, but the more one understands what is really going on in a conflict, and the role of the conflict journalist, the better coverage one can do.

This website is full of resources for journalists who wish to report on conflicts more accurately and more constructively. It contains:

Beyond Intractability Essays on the Role of the Media in Conflicts

  • Large-Scale Communication - Many difficult and intractable conflicts involve whole communities or nations. People get their information about what is going on in these conflicts through the media, so the media plays a critical role in how these conflicts develop and change. This is the "introductory essay" to the media section.
  • Mass Media - This essay explores the role of the media in more depth, looking at both the positives and potential negatives of media coverage of a conflict. It also discusses a "theories of journalism" as they relate to conflicts and their resolution.
  • Media Strategies - This is an essay written for people involved in conflicts — disputants and third parties — about how to interact with the media to try to get constructive coverage. It is also useful for journalists to know what parties consider to be helpful and what is not.

Conflict Resolution-Related Information on Current "High-Profile" Conflicts

We have just begun to assemble essays on high-profile conflicts, so we don't have many yet. Examples that we do have at this point include:

Checklist of Things to Consider When Covering Conflicts

  • Do you really understand what is going on? Deep-rooted and intractable conflicts tend to be very complex. Good journalism requires that you do a conflict assessment to understand who all the parties are and what role they are playing in the situation.
  • What are the underlying causes of the conflict? Disputants often frame the conflict in relatively simple (and often self-serving) terms. Very often the sides see the underlying causes as very different. Sometimes they don't even know what they are, as the conflict has gone on so long and become so embedded in the culture, that raw emotions: fearhumiliation, and anger overlie earlier substantive concerns. Good journalists will explore both the superficial, but also the underlying causes of the conflict from all points of view.
  • What are the full effects of the conflict on different constituency groups? Conflict participants, particularly those most directly involved in the struggle, often don't really understand the full cost of the conflict and the potential benefits of settlement or resolution. Doing an assessment of the human, as well as monetary costs, of the conflict on the primary parties, the by-standers (people caught in the middle) and on allies and neighbors of the disputants often reveals an overlooked picture of the conflict situation.
  • Where are you getting your "facts?" Factual disputes are rampant in complex, intractable conflicts. Sometimes this occurs because facts are hard to obtain or understand; sometimes it occurs because each side claims different "facts" are true and the opposing sides' facts are false. Journalists should take care to do balanced and careful fact-finding before believing any facts about what is or has been going on.
  • Are your stories contributing to conflict escalation? Media coverage often contributes to escalating a conflict. Sometimes this is desirable; constructive escalation is sometimes the best way for lower-power groups to gain power to effectively advocate for themselves. But often, escalation gets out of control, and leads to increasing polarizationviolence, and costs to all sides.
  • What can I do to help de-escalate a conflict? Though media coverage often serves to escalate conflicts, there are ways that journalism can be used to de-escalate conflicts and make them more constructive.

Other Important Conflict Topics

The following are links to essays on topics that "conflict journalists" or war correspondents can use to improve their reporting on complex conflicts.

You can also look at the full list of essays on the Beyond Intractability site, should you want to explore the 300+ essays further.