Media Work Pays Off
by Paul Wahrhaftig
Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: "Media Work Pays Off". Conflict Resolution Notes. Vol. 12, No. 1. June, 1994. Pp. 3-4.
Paul Wahrhaftig presents a strategy chosen by the Conflict Resolution Center International (CRCI) for redirecting media coverage of the Second Urban Peace and Justice Summit from being aggressive and sensational to more constructive. This strategy includes three steps.
Step 1--Damage Control: Context building.
The media did not know the background of the event. For them it was "a gathering of the gangs" (p. 3). CRCI decided to give them information about the history of the Summit and its goals. They sent a letter to major media sources explaining the event and a copy of the article about the previous summit in Kansas City. They emphasized that violence did not take place during the earlier meetings and that this was an event directed at bringing peace to the communities by establishing direct dialogue and understanding with gang members. The CRCI letter was published in the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette"; later journalists interviewed the Kansas City mayor, who expressed his support and satisfaction with the achievements of the similar summit that took place in his city.
Step 2--Establishing ground rules for coverage.
CRCI sent an article that criticized the media coverage of conflicts to the newspapers' editors in order to give them an alternative framework for reporting on the event. In this article Joann Byrd ("Washington Post") negatively describes the usual sensational coverage of conflicts in the media: reporters interview extremists on both sides of the discord and publish a story that provokes further polarization and escalation. Joann Byrd suggests the necessity of emphasizing the attempts of conflict resolution and reconciliation, as much as the negative sides of the conflict: "We ought to make it hard for a conflict to get on the agenda without the next item being attention to its repair" (quoted in Wahrhaftig). Byrd also suggests ways of implementing this. Editors distributed the article to their reporters, providing a direction for covering the story. The reporter from the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette" noted that his articles on the Summit were discussed by the reporters and editors before publication.
Step 3--Process clarification.
The fact that the press was excluded from the mediation meetings could have created some suspicion in the media. Paul Wahrhaftig clarified this issue for the media by saying that confidentiality is one of the essential features of mediation. His response was published. He also clarified an accident in which a gang member who did not participate in the Summit started a fight, by recognizing that there are always people who do not want peace and whose actions set the process back. But if the peace process has enough strength, it gets back on track. This information from an expert allowed the press to put the accident in perspective and make its own evaluation of the Summit's peace process. As a result of these actions of Summit organizers, the media was able to present a fair and truthful coverage of the event.
CRCI was able to test its strategy. Paul Wahrhaftig and his colleagues did not submit the article written by Joann Byrd to one of the newspapers, and the coverage by this newspaper was as bad as the coverage by others before CRCI intervention.
The last step done by CRCI was to send their positive evaluations of the cases of fair and truthful reporting to the newspapers' editors and offer those reporters an opportunity to participate in the Conflict Resolution Media Award competition.