The Media as Mediator
By Melissa Baumann and Hannes Siebert
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Melissa Baumann and Hannes Siebert, "The Media as Mediator," NIDR Forum, (Winter 1993), pp. 28-32.
The media unavoidably, necessarily mediates conflicts. The authors argue that "its representatives define, shape, and often exacerbate conflict by the stories they choose to cover, by those they omit, by the sources they use, by the facts' they include, by the way they use language, by their own biases, or newsframes.'"[p. 28] For example, the media may encourage polarization and extremism by marginalizing certain parties and by only quoting their most extreme members and positions. This mediating effect can be dangerous when journalists are unaware of their power.
To educate journalists about the role of the media as mediators, the authors helped initiate the Mediation and Conflict Training for Journalists Project (MJP) in South Africa. The project is based on the premise that "the principles of sound mediation are basically principles of sound journalism."[p. 29] The Project encourages journalists to examine their own biases and habits. It encourages them to ask the parties fresh, innovative questions, to widen the frame of the conflict, and to promote dialogue between the parties.
MJP also encourages journalists to be less outcome oriented, and to pay more attention to processes. The authors note that "journalists report the symptoms of conflict, and generally pay short shrift to its causes."[p. 30] The media focus in dramatic events, often presented out-of- context, leaves the public ill-informed about the underlying peace or negotiation processes. However, the process is the real story; it is what the public most needs to understand in order to make informed decisions and in order to promote general reconciliation.
Mediation stresses separating parties and positions, and focusing on the parties' interests. Currently journalists tend to identify parties with their positions, using the "party X says, party Y says" model of reporting. This format can tend to lock parties into their positions, and to make their positions more intractable. MJP stresses investigating and reporting on the parties underlying interests. The authors observe that "if journalists do not explore, help identify, and communicate people's basic interests and needs, they merely regurgitate propaganda."[p. 31] Journalists must pay closer attention to their use of language and choice of terms. The media tends to use terms with heavy positive and negative connotations such as "regime," and to reduce complex perspectives to stark dichotomies, such as democratic or communist. Journalists must also become more aware of the impact of what is left unsaid. For example, reports tend to leave the victims of violence unnamed. Naming confers recognition and power, and so victims are often left unrecognized and disempowered even in death.
Mediation also stresses good listening, the art of paraphrasing, and the importance of giving each side equal time. The authors note that while journalists endorse these skills in theory, in practice many media sources become aligned with a particular side or perspective, and content themselves with having credibility only within a limited constituency. The authors suggest that by drawing on the experience of mediators, journalists could better learn "how to win trust, build credibility, and challenge secrecy and authority at the same time."[p. 32]