Assistant Professor, Program on Negotiations and Conflict Management, University of Baltimore
Topics: mass communication, media mediation, large-scale communication, framing, media strategies
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
- The Journalism in South Africa During Apartheid
- Media Mediation
- The Impact of Media on Conflict
- The Ubiquity of the Media Mediation Model
- Informal Third Parties
- Proximity to a Conflict and Neutrality
- Media Frames
- Media Journalism and the Coverage of "Events"
- The Framing of Governmental Information
- Development of Conflict Through the Media
- Realizing that a Large Proportion of News is About Conflict
- The Media as a Tool for Empowerment
- Journalists as Conflict Analysts
- Journalists as Parties to the Conflicts They Cover
- Journalists as Escalators of Conflicts
- Media Oversimplification of Conflicts
- Failure of the Media After 9/11
- Must the Media Always be "Neutral"?
Q: Jannie, can you give me an overview of your work?
A: To give you an overview of my work, I have to sort of go back to my radio and television days in South Africa where I anchored a public television show after first working in radio as a journalist, a public affairs show, which in a sense is similar to the McNeal Lehrer Show here. Television came very late to South Africa, in 1975, which is a whole history in itself. I was one of the people who got into that field as a very young person. I was 25 when I got into television and anchored when I was very young. It had to do with the fact that the apartheid government wanted to keep television away from South Africa because they understood the socialization aspects of television, but that's another long story.
More importantly my days as a journalist in South Africa and especially as an anchor made me very keenly aware of the intersection between the media and the conflict. In those days the African National Congress, the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, was banned and that meant that we had to cover the major conflict in the country without being able to quote Mandela while he was in jail, or have members of the ANC on television or cited or quoted in newspapers. So we had to get really ingenious in terms of how to cover the story. When Nightline came to South Africa in 1985 for a week of reporting on the conflict in South Africa, they had a similar problem.
By law, they had to get special permission from the government to cover some of the ANC people because they weren't broadcasting in South Africa, they were broadcasting in Washington, but they still did not have major ANC member interviewees because they were either banned or they were outside of the country. Nelson Mandela was in jail. So the major representative of the out party, the party not now in control to use conflict resolution theory for the moment, the ANC party being the apartheid government of South Africa at the time. The chief representative that they had of the ANC party was Bishop Tutu, although he was not a politician but he was the official spokesman, or rather unofficial spokesman of black people in South Africa. So for those shows with the minister of foreign affairs at the time Pik Botha as the official response for the government in the debate that was held on that first show, "The Other Side" representing black South Africa by Desmond Tutu.
I was always keenly aware of the fact that we could not have the impact on a story that other people could because our hands were tied behind our backs. It was very interesting to me that Nightline did a lot for us because South Africans then said, "Why don't you do this kind of intense journalism?" They said this because the Nightline shows were broadcast on South African television, after the cuts were edited out that were too critical for the government from their view. All that made me keenly aware of the shortcomings of South African journalism and working for them unfortunately at the time, but you couldn't work for anybody else. The only people who had television were the government so I worked for, in essence, not the government, but government controlled television.
So, then I left South Africa, which was due in part to my frustration with the lack of print in South Africa, it was very vibrant in terms of what it could be in spite of these problems that we had with laws that made it very restricted. However television was very different because television directly impacted these fields by the government. There was not private television. So jumping ahead, these frustrations made me leave journalism. When I got to George Mason via a master's degree in journalism at American University, I met up with Jim Laue who when it came time to write a dissertation, I said I'm going to write about business and conflict. To make a long story short, Jim said, "You've got to be joking," he said, "Bring together your background in media and journalism with your new background in conflict resolution." The idea that I came up with was again, and this is somewhat why I give you this background, was somewhat based on my experience with Nightline reporting of the conflict in South Africa. What I realized having studying mediation and third party intervention was that Nightline had a format where Ted Koppel was very often sitting between two or more parties in a dispute, which to me looked very much like a third party intervention, if you will, mediation model. If not; it was at least a facilitation model.
Q: A media mediation model?
A: And this idea of media mediation and to what extent it is, then became the focus of my dissertation. My dissertation topic was then really about the comparison between the conventional mediator as we know it in the literature, and the media moderator, Ted Koppel, and the question... I don't want to go into it too much. That's not really what you asked. But the interesting thing for me was that I could show by looking at the tasks and roles of third party mediators as the literature describes it since 1952. In fact, Walden Glen wrote an article in which they looked at all the roles of the third party since 1952 and I could use that as the a basis of a content analysis for the programs in South Africa well as the follow up show that Ted Koppel then did 3 years later in Israel. Remember in South Africa they only had Pik Botha and Tutu. Whereas in Israel they managed to have three representatives on the Israeli side, a fourth one pulled out, and 4 from the political spectrum from all the different political parties in Israel and that was a live town hall meeting where as the one in South Africa was a taped debate.
Nightline says in their book that Ted Koppel and Gibson wrote about the first 15 years on Nightline that was based on the experience of South Africa they did what they called "South Africa 2," which was the live town hall in Israel. So when I content analyzed both those shows, looking at specifically the moderator, Koppel, and what he did, the major finding was if you look at all the things that mediators do, starting off with who wants to speak and asking just for information questions and then slowly moving into much more challenging questions and reality checking that I could see that all the things that a mediator and/or a facilitative model of mediation do to be found back in the work that Koppel did in those shows. There was one difference. The difference was that in the field of conflict resolution is that we have the ethic of staying with a conflict until it's either resolved or the party has really asked us to leave.
Whereas, journalism really has a hit and run approach to how they deal with media and conflict. There's an event, something happens, South Africa has been a long ongoing conflict but there were things that happened in South Africa. Ted Koppel went to South Africa in 1985, and that was just after the tricameral parliament was created after a referendum in South Africa and a huge backlash of black South African violence. It was an event that sent him to South Africa, right, which sort of foreshadows something that I will talk to you later about and that is that there is no real reporting of process in the way that we report these things. The only difference then is what I showed in my doctoral dissertation was that the moderator Ted Koppel does all the things in terms of media of skills and techniques up to laying down the ground rules to keeping in charge, using a little humor here and there.
There's a whole long list of things that are all very similar, but the only difference is that when we do it in the field, we are ethically bound to stay with it. Whereas the media do the show for an hour or two and then they say we're going home and go to the next conflict which is normally again built on an event. In one of my later interviews with Ted Koppel for this project, I asked him about that and he said, "To cover the event in South Africa, it cost about a million dollars a day." That means that the media are a business.
Media, I always have to remind people takes a plural of medium from my journalism days which were my school days when it got hammered into me and you have to do a lot of what are more sort of popular, fluff media stories. This includes Nightline which is known as the most serious journalism shows in America, right, even they have to go do that to satisfy the fact that they make a lot more money and attract a lot more viewers on programs of which examples don't jump to my head. But in order to do the South Africas and the Israels and the Chechnyas and the major conflicts in the world and especially to cover them there, and they've been to Israel several times and they followed up in South Africa in 1990 and haven't been back since for any extended periods. In order to do that because it's so costly, they must have to do a lot of other things first.
But the gist of the story, I might've gone into much more detail then you wanted me to, is that I can show even for serious journalism, it's in the interests of the, if you will, financial organization of the business. For example, South Africa was a big conflict. Israel at the time when they went there in '88 was a big dispute, it still is, but that attracted viewers and they could justify it that way. From a business point of view, they could justify covering these conflicts. And more from a social science point of view, Ted Koppel had many of the skills and abilities of the third party and actually used many of them. However, he felt no moral obligation to stay connected with that. Once he's done with it, he leaves. What's interesting though is that the programs in South Africa had a real impact on the conflict itself. Where I really couldn't show the same in terms of Israel, I could show that
in terms of South Africa and the reason that I could show that in terms of South Africa is that I studied three levels of impact.
One was the actual shows themselves, the transcripts, what was said on those shows and how do people react to that. Then I did a series of interviews of people with the people who were on the shows and then I looked at all the media coverage on the shows themselves. So media on the media and so having triangulated my research in that way, one of the things that I was very interested was that you could show from all three of those how Nightline, because the one thing that was so important in both of these cases is that in the absence of real third parties, media organizations and journalists become third parties and there was no official ongoing process of negotiation or mediation or facilitation between the parties with a third party at the time. So when people saw this, they said, "My god! If the media can do this, why can't we do this? If somebody can sit here and look like he's mediating this case on television," they didn't use exactly those words. But if the parties can talk to each other on television why can't they do that in real life? Why can't that be arranged? So it became in a sense a model of what should be in South Africa. From that point of view, I think it shows a huge impact, and you could see that in what people said to me in their interviews. You could see that in one or two references that was made on the show itself. And you could see that a lot in what the print journalist wrote about this which became really a television event. And people have said to me, "You know, yeah, but it's Nightline and Ted Koppel. There aren't many examples of that."
I really completely disagree with that and the reason I do... I have two reasons. One, the model of the journalist moderator sitting and interviewing two parties in a conflict is repeated a million times a day over the world, on radio, on television and it's also repeated in print in an indirect way. In print, you don't have the people it right in front of you, but in print you go to these people and say, you speak to party A, you speak to party B and then you call party A back and say well party B says such and such. So you can see that same dialectic between party A and B and how in a sense the journalist either pulled comparisons or huge differences between them. Maybe the big difference is that journalists and the media kind of thrive on differences whereas we as third parties and peacemakers and facilitators and mediators certainly thrive on trying to point out points of agreement in the facilitative model. Therefore the reason I think that it is really important to look at that way is that model is repeated everywhere, in small towns, in large towns, in radio, in TV,, and I think the model exists in print as well. So moving just a little ahead, I really don't feel like I'm getting to your question about what do I do now?
I am very interested in people that do conflict resolution type work but who are not officially so designated. It spans from mothers, preachers, nurses, policemen, and journalists... I've written in the textbook that I've just shown you a piece on informal third parties and I mentioned journalist in passing and it was really on being managers or bosses in an office that have to be informal third parties all the time. And there's some written on all of this.
So, my interests is in the informal third parties and also in the fact that journalists like all those others not by virtue of being formal mediators or formal 3rd parties, but by virtue of their position or profession get thrown into a situation where they are A versus B. Two ideas and two people in conflict.
A real dispute, and it could be over an idea or over a bridge being built or a real war; it could be all of those things. At the moment I am ending off a series of interviews and starting to write an article on something that is related to this. I'll give you an idea and that is my series of interviews with public radio specifically talk show hosts that again, find themselves, the Diane Reams of Washington and the Mark Steiners of Baltimore, you find them in every big city and even in smaller cities all over the country. And they do what I deem serious talks over a conflict.
Over my interviews with them, I find that most of them agreed that at least for 50% and sometimes for as much as 85% of their time, they agree that what they do is to bring people around to the microphone that disagree about something. Again our definition of news is conflict. So then they have discussions with those people and what I found fascinating, there was one gentleman who I interviewed in Seattle. I actually spoke with him in the Pointer Center down in Florida, but he's from Seattle, his name escapes my mind but he takes his hour-long show and breaks it into 3 pieces. The first twenty minutes are essentially positions; tell me about where you stand, the way you feel, why you feel like that. The second session is sort of talking about that, bringing callers in, its in a sense a reality checking. The third part is, so what are we going to do about this? In a sense, what's the future? What's the common ground? He's in a sense facilitating this conflict.
Q: Who's that?
A: I've forgotten his name.
Q: He does that deliberately?
A: He does it deliberately. He's not trained as a mediator or anything like that. He just came up with this as the way he's going to do the show. He came from nowhere; he is barely a journalist. He became a talk show host, and that's how he runs his show. So from interviewing these people, you get a whole range of them involved in sort of third party situations. Many of them say that we want to make people understand the conflict in itself, although they don't see that as the first step towards, what do we do about this? You'll hear that I talk more about radio and television because that's my background but I'm now involved in, one of the things I think we need to do more is we need to look at case studies.
There are very few studies of how the media covers conflicts. They are very much written up by journalists in terms of what was the unethical thing to do et cetera and that's important in itself. However one of the things that we never really find a way to do is to look at the impact of all of that, which is hard to do from a research point of view but there are few case studies looking at approaches to conflict and media. The area in which more is occurring at the moment is with war, because that's more interesting. For instance, I've really tried to follow the current Gulf War in terms of what is said about the role of the media, and it's interesting that many of the things that occurred in the first Gulf War got repeated in the Second Gulf War and also got repeated out of 9-11.
Q: In terms of reporting?
A: In terms of the issues that came out of the role of the media, both good and bad. I will give you one of them. In the first Gulf War, CBS' Dan Rather was criticized for, remember correctly, his saying "We" do this and "We" do that, and then people said, who's this "We?" Are journalists taking the side of the government and then they went to the US government. Which interestingly shows you the whole underlying debate of where are the media supposed to be situated when it comes to a conflict? It's relatively easy to answer that question when you deal with local conflict and with domestic examples but the moment we go over seas, it was no accident that the BBC was much more neutral in it's coverage of the Gulf Wars then was Washington and American journalism, because they were more outside of it...
Journalists get forced to a degree to go to where the public mood is. The public mood in the current gulf war was after 9-11, if you will, patriotic. The tough questions and the difficult things that journalists under other circumstances might have pointed out which might have put them in a much more neutral position or a much more critical position, did not occur for those reasons. When you came to 9-11, I'll give you another example, what was interesting was that within 24 hours, it was a huge emotional shock. What you also saw there was that journalists are humans and the conflict impacted them in a very emotional, psychological level. They were impacted very quickly because some of them assisted people who were in horrible situations after 9-11. Some of them saw terrible things and were personally affected by that. And that by the way is an area that we hardly ever study, is how journalists all over the world who cover horrendous conflict who get affected by that, how they leave the profession because of that and how it impacts them professionally in their reporting. It's not written about a lot but they wore flags after 9-11. And after about 48 hours, corporate networks said, remove the flags and it was apart of the same phenomenon of Dan Rather not being able to say "we," because journalists are supposed to be neutrals for lack of a better term.
A: Right, in the middle. No opinion, reporting other people's views, et cetera, et cetera. So if you wear those flags, how can you be objective reporters if you are so associating yourself with a country for the moment? It's natural and understandable that they wanted to do that but that's why it was taken away.
Q: Perhaps that's more honest, right, because how could you not want to do that? After them being so affected personally, if you were.
A: Right, but the problem with that is you get so sucked in and you become, to use a term that was used in the 2nd Gulf War, you become so embedded, with all the nuances of that word, that you can not be playing your objective and again the word neutral is a bit of trouble for us in the field, but it's also trouble for journalists.
Q: I heard the other day, I think it was on the Diane Reeves Show the other day, someone talking about how the French were terrible at covering the conflict in Algeria and the British were terrible at covering the Balkan Islands.
A: I heard the same interview.
Q: So that's where you're sort of going with that one?
A: Here's the theory about that. The closer you are to the conflict as a reporter, the harder it is to be neutral. I saw that also following a parallel again of third party intervention because as someone who did some free lance reporting for Radio South Africa from here it was much easier for me to say the tough straight stuff about things that were happening in America then it was for the American reporters to do so, same with the BBC. I mean everyone agreed, if you wanted the scoop the straight scoop on 9-11, you had to listen to the BBC, because they were not that affected. They were also able to say things because nobody was going to accuse them and this was one of the other big things that has become a huge theme in conflict reporting over the last couple of years, especially after Gulf War I is that patriotism enters the picture. You're not a patriot if you don't report things a certain way. That's where the whole idea of patriotism and journalism is going to have a huge debate. Where people like me would argue that you are actually the real patriot if you do your job as a professional journalist, which is to be a professional cynic. Therefore, professionally, you need to ask all of the difficult question
and never accept anything as gospel until you are able to see that it's gospel and see that it's so.
Q: Well, you've answered a lot of my second question, which is what's the relationship between journalism and conflict. Are there other points to be made on that question?
A: Yes, the reason that I think the relationship between journalism and conflict is so important is because everything that we know about conflict other than the conflicts that we are involved in ourselves, we get through the media. What do you and I know about Northern Ireland unless you've academically studied it or read it out of the media or perhaps know somebody from there. Most people get their information about conflict from the media. That is the first thing for me on the relationship between journalism and conflict. If we then accept that in a democracy, we the people should have an impact on how a conflict is resolved or a say in it or let our elected officials know what we think or lead them somewhere or expect them to do something. All that is based on is our knowledge of the case itself, which we got from the media.
So the ideas that we get from the media, how the media frames these issues, and how they for instance get the parties in the dispute; all of that we use to base our ideas of management of transformation. Or how it could be transformed or ended. All that we base on the information that we get from the media, therefore how they report conflict directly impacts everybody because I would go as far to saying that 8 out of 10 times we frame our knowledge from what we got from the media. One thing that I found very interesting was that when I lived in South Africa was that now and then Time magazine would report on South Africa and make a big boo-boo. What scared me was if they got a fact really wrong was not so much that it would change the world, but I said to myself, I got lots of my information about the world from reading Time magazine every week, so if they just make one or two big errors in every story that I read every week, as they make it on South Africa every now and then, how distorted does my view of that conflict become? That was always a fascinating question for me.
Q: I have something to say about that actually, I was reading in the Nation the other day and someone was complaining about the correction section in the NY Times because the fact that they have a correction section presumes that the rest of the paper is right!
A: I read the same thing. So you know, therefore, ultimately, how media frames conflict, who they talk to, who is defined as the parties, whether they report the conflict only as an event, or as a social process all helps to frame the conflict. Whether they report it as a social process in terms of something that escalates or de-escalates. All those factors, I think play a role and explain to us the importance of the relationship between journalism and conflict because we base our understanding of this on the way they report it. Then the other thing that I think, and I'm sort of going ahead of myself, but in all of this what is so important is to replace conflicts in journalism with something that I would call the story framework. Journalists talk about stories and then the question or the point that I want to end this discussion with is what is a story and how do we make conflict processes other than just conflict events as it is. At the moment, our definition of news, is an event that happens that we can report on. But when you go to the doctor and if you put a heart monitor on somebody, you see that blip going up and down. Especially for people with abnormal hearts, it's not a blip that's repeated, it's up and down, hills and valleys.
You can take any conflict and you can clearly see that the stories that appear in the newspaper when there's the big mountain and when there's the small little blip down here that is maybe when the background negotiation or anything occurs that is not new. So one of our greatest challenges is to see how we can make it so if we want to say how journalism should be done in a way that it makes for a better society and helps us resolve disputes et cetera. Which by the way journalists say is neither their role nor their tasks, which is another problem.
If we want to do that then we have to get to a situation where the valleys, where the negotiation and the background talks and much of the process of conflict and where conflict resolution especially occurs we have to figure out how to make that a story. So there are a number of other things that we must remember if we talk about the
relationship between journalism and conflict. One is that conflict is a commodity; it's something that journalists, for lack of a better term, compete over. I was fascinated a couple of years ago when Somalia occurred and there was this clan fighting.
The US government decided to get involved with some troops and also decided that it was going to send and I've forgotten his name now but it was going to send an Ambassador, I have forgotten his name, over to Somalia to basically facilitate, mediate between these clan leaders, early on in the process. But it was announced on something like a Friday night, I might have my facts wrong here, but by Saturday morning, both Ted Koppel for ABC, and I've forgotten whether it was Dan Rather or NBC's Tom Brokaw, were on the ground in Somalia, interviewing those clan leaders, asking them questions. In my mind this framed that conflict for the public even before the real mediators got in there and started framing this conflict, which I just thought was fascinating.
The media in essence framed that conflict before the real people who were going to frame it and then tell us about it. Ted Koppel went to the Hill, to Congress and answered much of the criticism of the media and one of the responses he said was, "Gentlemen, it's very simple, either you frame it or we frame it, your choice. If you don't tell us what's going on and we report that or if you leave a vacuum in any situation the media are going to come in and they are going to frame it. And they are going to tell people here's what we think is going on. So if you want things to be framed in a way that you think is right, then you get out there and tell us. If you don't it, then we're going to do it, that's just a natural phenomenon."
So the other issue, as a part of that, is that news organizations compete
and in that situation what we hear is just kind of ???. But even the network says, 'We're the network that broke the story, we were first on that.' They never brag to their people were right, it's not a matter of who did it the best. Rather it is we were first. They never say, 'we were the people who assisted understanding.' No; just 'we were the people who were first.' So there's another little dirty secret about journalism that affects conflict reporting a lot and that is that media organizations are businesses. I've talked about that a little. I think that South Africa is a fascinating ongoing story and there are still millions and millions of people without homes in South Africa. There are still race relations' problems in South Africa, et cetera, that no longer makes the news really in America, because that again to my analogy of valleys and mountains, valleys and hills, these are valleys.
I just saw a story in the New York Times over the weekend covering the predicament of so-called colored people in South Africa involving people of mixed race in South Africa who were designated so under apartheid regime, they were deemed "not as white people." And now as someone quoted in the story, "We weren't white enough under apartheid, we weren't black enough under the new South Africa" because black South Africans now, they feel that black South Africans don't want them, they fall kind of in between these two groups. My point is really that that kind of story in depth, you hear now and then but South Africa has disappeared because, yes it's a costly story, but it's also because of how we define news.
Now we've moved on, and I also want to mention pack journalism, journalists are like a pack of hounds, there's a conflict and we go there and report, report, report, and then when the shooting or the events that can be dramatized are gone, we move on to the next one and we leave this one behind. But that's not really answering your question at the moment. Getting back to your point about journalism and conflict and the relationship, I think another part of the relationship is that every conflict that is all-important in a community or internationally are played out in the media. The media becomes the arena and I hate the word but for lack of a better word, battlefield, in which parties play out conflicts. The decisions might be
made by Track I or official decision makers in government and elsewhere, but everyone still tries to upward shift or a little power positioning through the media especially because they want public opinion on their side. So one of the important parts about the relationship between journalism and conflict is the fact that every conflict gets played out in the media in some way shape or form
Q: Which means that the media actually creates the reality that it's reporting in some sense, it's not just the media reporting on reality, it's sort of a cyclical relationship?
A: Well, that gets back to Koppel's point about either you frame it or we frame it. So, as I've mentioned the reason that conflict is played out in the media is that the parties want to reach the public opinion through the avenues that the media offer them.
Q: So 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.
My assumption is that journalists have impacts on all conflicts and they should understand that and try to minimize that impact as much as they can and you see that in the fact that parties act and speak in a way that will either excite journalists or get them to write about it. In other words, we, people who are the fodder for the media, we're not stupid. We understand that we have to present the information in a way that will excite them and get them to write about it. Obviously we try to use them to engage them in a way that will further our side of the dispute. Most journalists understand that but again, it's a form of social intervention. The parties and the actors in the conflict are socially intervening with the media and trying to get them to do something.
There are many examples of how the media impacts conflict where this is more visible and that was the case during the Cold War. I believe it was ABC who put cameras on Vesalius Square, which I think is in Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. More importantly there are examples of journalists who have done things such as, it happened in South Africa too, where you send a TV crew of people somewhere and then an uprising or a riot will occur because they're acting out for the camera. Journalists have said that they've seen this happen in Israel and Palestine, as well as, in South Africa during the apartheid years, and many times during the break up of the Soviet Union.
Q: So you're saying where they're wouldn't have been cameras; there wouldn't have been a riot.
A: That's right, but sometimes the riots happen and then the cameras come and report on them. But people also understand that to further their side of the dispute to make, for instance, think of Solidarity, part of Solidarity's success is and part of apartheid's success or the end of apartheid or the black movement in South Africa
was to get the international media to become part of them and allay their cause. To say here is a social injustice and to keep on saying here is a social injustice and to keep on showing the horrific things that happen because of the social injustice. So in the case of the camera, people then realize, we have to feed this animal. So whenever they come even if there isn't a riot for the moment, we'll create one. We'll start throwing stones just to make sure that we can keep on with this movement of influencing people through the media. I always describe it as being in part the empowerment issue through the media.
The media empowers parties, especially when it comes to great issues of morality like apartheid, or communism. That is why I think of Solidarity and the black movement in South Africa because the race issue and the apartheid issue were so successful in getting this. They had to do something because news is something important but they did some things that were very, very risky to them in both cases. We now know what happened in South Africa, how many black people disappeared et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So there was a lot of risk involved for them. We also know the Soviet Union at the time took people in places like the Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia at the time. So they did things, they were reported on. But what happened in essence is if you see this as two circles that despite their number, the South African government was small in number but they were powerful in having the military, having the coercive force, et cetera, whereas, black South Africans were large in number. If you were to show a diagram in terms of their power at the time, they were much smaller.
However, when they started doing all the things that would start through the unions and all the organizations that they created to make their case known, then the international media, in terms of the coverage that they got, helped them. Slowly you can show on the graph how they got bigger in terms of world perception and powerful and how the media assisted in that to the point where the apartheid government was ready to negotiate with them. I'm not saying that that was all done through the media, there were many other factors, but the media was one of those factors, especially in the way that they got to the international public through the media.
So just one or two other things, still addressing the point about what do journalists know about conflict and conflict dynamics. We started our conversation by talking about the media's facilitators or as mediators of conflict and I think that's a real troublesome area. I think people in the conflict field should be very careful about how they use those terms and should actually sort of steer clear of media as mediators. The reason that I think of that is that it is a really off-putting concept for journalists because journalists have very clear definitions of their roles and journalists definitely don't see themselves as mediators or as facilitators of conflict.
For example, just as Johann Galtung
uses the term peace journalism which as much as I have a very hard respect for Johann Galtung, it is also a term that I find troublesome for the same reason that journalists would say creating peace is not our job, it's not our role. How you engage journalists with these arguments because they will have rejected them outright. Which is why I think the point of engagements with journalists from our field, from a social science or a conflict resolution perspective is not that but it's conflict analysis. Journalists have straddled both those things - conflict resolution and journalism - agree on that we are both analysts of conflict. And I think it is your idea, your next question if I remember correctly because you gave me some of these, is what should journalists know or where are we going to now?
Q: Whether journalism escalates or de-escalates conflict?
A: We, journalists and conflict resolvers, agree that we both have to analyze a conflict and therefore what social science has to offer are lessons about conflict analysis which again can be given to journalists if that kind of material is offered in journalism school and it's not. My argument is that it should be because 80% of what they do is conflict reporting.
Q: So that's it then, if I'm a journalist and I'm doing my regular journalism thing without any understanding of this conflict resolution field you would tell me you need to learn about conflict analysis and you need to recognize that you are a party to a conflict or that you at least have an impact on?
A: Yeah, I wouldn't say that you are a party to a conflict but you at least have to understand that you are a part of a social process and what you write will have an impact on it. It's like a system that you interact with, you write something and that information gets fed back into the system. The only way that I think it would be right to say we just do the facts is if you were to write about something that happens in DC and you go publish it in another part of the world where the people who you reported the story on do not read the story. Because every thing we do about reporting on something that's a social interaction and we report on that and that information gets fed back into that social interaction.
So therefore we have an impact. You wanted to talk if I remember about can the media directly contribute to conflict resolution or escalation. And then I would say, journalists escalate conflicts all the time and sometimes it's inevitable and sometimes it's done in a way that should've really been prevented, but I think the process of journalism itself escalates conflict. And I get back to that A versus B, I talk to you, I take that information, I speak with somebody else, they tell me things and I come back and I check it off against you. So you know, I'm feeding this fire just by playing you off against each other. And that in essence is journalism.
Q: Which may not be a bad thing right? You may want a conflict to escalate?
A: You might say that. There is the theory of conflict ripening and journalism contributes to the ripening of conflict. I think one could argue that.
Q: You mentioned empowerment earlier and certainly if a party in a lower position were to be empowered, then a conflict would escalate.
A: I think one of the other things that's fascinating about conflict is that just like mediators empower people by bringing them to a table, even if you and I think of students and professors, that's an unequal power relationship. But if they have to go and negotiate something with the dean, who is acting as the mediator, and to a degree the student is now being escalated to another party and the faculty member has lost some of his power because they are now equals in front of the dean with whom they have to negotiate.
I think one of the most important roles of the media is that they convene people in front of a microphone or they convene them as parties A and B in a story. In that sense they bring those conflicts forward and they empower people by writing about them as equals. But it's a huge area of danger. For example, the BBC, have been accused of this. Let's say there's a small African country that barely gets into the news and there is a rebel war. Now, it's happened in cases that one of the hardest things to ask, what is it the rebel group wants? Sometimes the rebel group is fairly unable to tell us what they want; all they really want is those bad people out of there. Why are they bad they can't really tell us, what they would do that's better and why they should be in government they can't really tell us either. That is a problem in terms of defining why you are better or different. But that's not really the point I want to make.
The point I want to make is let's say there is this rebel war somewhere in Africa and this rebel group had a skirmish or two with the government whatever the government was and then they fled into the bush, but they've got some help from somewhere. They've got some satellite funds, so they also understand how they can further their case through the media. And the BBC world service plays a big role in Africa, right, so they now get onto their satellite phone and they call bush house in London and they speak to the BBC and they get put on and they get interviewed. What occurs in that case is that you've escalated a very small group that probably really doesn't have the right to be deemed an equal group or people with right on their side within this specific situation. But putting them as the opposition against the government group, you've escalated them in a way and furthered their case in a way that distorted the whole conflict itself.
You've legitimized them without really understanding if that was a legitimization that was legitimate in terms of their number and their cause et cetera, et cetera. I've seen the same things done by very serious, very good journalists, people like Nightline. I remember watching years ago a Nightline on South Africa where they showed ____ , the Afrikaaners Resistance Movement, people with very right wing tendencies and their insignia on their shoulders is a version of the swastika of the Nazis. As somebody who lived in South Africa, I've always thought that the conflict in South Africa was distorted by the fact that it was made a black/white issue and that whites like me who were anti-apartheid who thought that country should be changed were oversimplified in media. That is one of the big things is that we are always oversimplified.
We always oversimplify because we have problems with space and air time et cetera. So we have to over-simplify and that I think that has a very negative impact on how we cover conflict. At the same time, there was not a case of over-simplification. It was over-simplification in the sense that all I wanted them to say was, "Yes there are such people in South Africa, but they are maybe .5% of the 1%." In other words, unless you explain exactly by a numbered figure or other ways of impact, how the ARM was what percentage in size and impact and influence in white South Africa, you're really distorting the situation. You're offending somebody like me very much. Because people like me who are anti-apartheid, who are very unhappy with the situation in South Africa, really such people left the country. We are offended by that kind of conflict reporting because we felt that it distorted what was happening by not giving simple facts about how large this group was.
Q: The white anti-apartheid group?
A: That's right. I am talking about the white racist group. If you don't say what their size of impact is, but you just show nice pictures of them et cetera, et cetera, then you not only do injustice to the people who don't share that view, but you are really distorting that conflict of the view of everybody who watches that conflict who don't have that view that I had. The lesson there is that whenever you show dramatic pictures of people who are on one side of the conflict you have to provide context in terms of size, number, and impact. Otherwise you're distorting. You know saying we have a satellite phone and we call the BBC. And unless they put perspective as to our size and our number by interviewing us, they have elevated us and given us power that within that conflict we don't have. You have to be very careful therefore how you cover conflict is my point.
Q: If it's 1994 or 1995 and I hear about the Zapatista Revolution in Mexico and I think the whole country is in an uproar and I go to Mexico and I don't ever see a Zapatista, a conflict, or a gun fight except in the 100 yards of the country where there is a conflict, that's can easily be reported?
A: I mean for the same reason that there is always... People think of Africa as one big game reserve. Lions in the street, I don't think it's that true anymore, but 20 or 30 years ago I think it was more true because there are a lot of things the media distorted, not purposefully but just because the medium distorts. Think of the television pictures of a riot. The pictures do not show you what happens outside the picture. It only shows what's in the picture, like your example of the Zapatista. So unless you give the context of "this is what's happening in this region" how widespread it is etc. etc., you may think the whole of Mexico is now one big riot. So you have to tell people what happens outside of that frame or put that frame into the perspective of the larger. I think that is something that much of television can be accused of in terms of more brevity, space, what have you et cetera. That is not always provided.
I mean think of the huge impact that, as horrible as 9/11 was, people who haven't been to America don't understand what Manhattan looks like. You know they think the whole of New York; the whole of America is blowing up.
You really have to provide context otherwise people just don't understand. It was psychologically the whole of America, we were all very much impacted, but physically it was not. And I think that's the distinction I'm making. The other point very quickly is pack journalism. The media jump on a conflict and then examples, the only thing that took Gary Condit off our screens was 9/11. We had Condit all the time till 9/11 came-it was a bigger conflict story. At the moment we have Kobe Bryant and we have had Scott Peterson for the last two-three months, this young man who was accused of murdering his pregnant wife in California. My point is simply that so all other conflicts that are worth talking about. Again, it is what is a story?
Something else that was in the news for 2 days, 6 weeks ago are the riots that happened in Benton Harbor, Michigan. It became news for a day on the networks and when the police came in from all over Michigan and the riots stopped, nothing more about that was really reported. What was fascinating for me when I talked to people in that area about the reporting about Benton Harbor was how long the national media got the story. People said things like "It's very strange about what's happening in Benton Harbor Michigan because they've never had riots before." There were riots in Benton Harbor in 1960, 66, 67 and 90, four times before. They might not have been for the same reasons but they were there. I think then of course there's the example of the current Gulf War.
We've sort of talked about this but the current Gulf War; I think was a great example of where American journalism failed us, the public. In the sense that in the aftermath of 9/11 and we've sort of talked about this, to a degree they deferred to the government on whether this war should occur or not. Now to a degree I think the vehement criticism of the 16 words that should or should not have been in the speech made by President Bush is that American journalism is playing catch up. It's sort of a guilty conscience over the fact that they didn't really do what is a major role of the media in all conflict reporting is reality checking. Is it really necessary for us to go to this war? Are there really weapons of mass destruction? What's the motive behind this? And I think we're slowly coming to the realization that again, the British Press and the European Press did a much better job of this than did the American press at the time because they were further away from the conflict and so they could be less patriotic and more neutral and objective or be forced to be. That is another story in terms of international view, and stories which is the whole argument about "do the media have the strength to go against the main stream public view at the time," which might be abused by politicians? Connected to the business parts of that because the worst thing that can happen to a media organization is to do the right thing but to pay the commercial price for doing the right thing. That's a part of our tragedy of conflict reporting. Then you would ask the question about, what role would journalists have in terms of conflict resolution?
The point that I want to make about this is that good journalism contributes to conflict resolution. What we shouldn't do is try to push journalists and journalism into working towards being conflict resolvers because they don't see that as their role and therefore I think discussions about this would get rejected. However Geneva Overrosler, who was a former Ombudsmen for the Washington Post and now I believe teaches at the University of Missouri in their journalism school, wrote a very interesting piece about the 5 "Ws" and "H"- who, what, where, how, et cetera. She said one of the things she finds missing from conflict reporting is for instance, a "C" and a "S." The C is did you report about "common ground" and the "S" is did you report about "solutions?" So it's not that I think that journalism today in terms of reporting conflict is so wrong or so bad, it just doesn't necessarily ask all the questions. If you ask questions about what is the common ground and to what extent can you work on that common ground to move forward, and what are possible options for solutions, are you willing to work with those or why not? Et cetera. Those things normally don't become the leads of stories. Again that gets back to my point about what is news and why is that part of the conflict resolution story not news? Then what often happens is that media organizations would say what you want from us is feel-good journalism. I don't think that's feel-good journalism; I think that is just a more complete set of questions about a conflict.
Another example of the idea that Geneva
Overrosler played with that I picked up maybe ten years ago was that in talking to their readers, the Christian Science Monitor in Boston asked about what do they think about their stories and a lot of people said that, we don't like reading your stories because it's all doom and gloom and terrible and it's like the world's going up in flames and it's horrible. At the same time you hear psychologists these days tell people that if they want to feel better and heal, that people should stop using so much of the media. And I've heard people say I don't read anymore, I don't get a newspaper anymore because it's this doom gloom and I can't do anything about it. So conflict reporting disempowers psychologically, it makes us feel powerless, for the reader and for the user of the news.
What the Christian Science Monitor came up with at the time - and I don't know if they still do this - was to make a rule for their journalists and that was for every story that towards the end of it, must have something about the future, what's being done about it, how this is being taken care of, so as to do away with that feeling of powerlessness. To give people a glimmer of hope that someone's working on this. That yes, it is a problem, that conflict's a natural part of life, but we're working on it, which I thought was very interesting.
Q: Now, you've talked a lot about the effects that journalism and the media has on conflict and I was going to ask you how journalists could avoid having an impact on a conflict, but I guess my first question is should they try to mitigate the effects that their story will have on a conflict?
A: I've become uncomfortable with the discussion about media and conflict because it occurs mostly from the conflict side. Journalists to a degree are not that interested in this debate and feel that we want to put some social science garble out there and expect them to use it, buy into it, make use of it. My feeling is that therefore, we've got to be very careful when we say things like should reporters be careful about making things worse, et cetera. Yes, they should, but they must be aware that what they do has an impact, but you can not ask journalists to be conflict resolvers and to contribute to making peace, et cetera, et cetera. This is because they have a different job to do and they do it under difficult circumstances, deadlines. So, it's more creating an awareness for me that there are angles of the story that can be reported that would be in the long run helpful like what has happened when there is no fighting? Who is behind