Journalists as Conflict Analysts

Jannie Botes

Assistant Professor, Program on Negotiations and Conflict Management, University of Baltimore

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

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.


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, etcetera. 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? Etcetera. 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.


The only other way in which one can address the question is look at what should a journalist as himself or herself do in terms of conflict reporting? The way I would like to address that is again referring to the fact that social science and the conflict management field has something to offer the media in terms of this. That is our skills in conflict mapping and in conflict analysis. One of the most interesting pieces I've seen about this was created by the conflict resolution network in New South Wales, Australia. That is available on the web. It's based essentially on the work of Wehr and others early on about conflict mapping or you know Chris Mitchell's work, the simple Spitzuro acronym on what are the sources of the conflict, who are the parties, what are the interests.

If you look at the work that Conflict Resolution Network did in Australia, they talked about clarify the facts, the players, the positions, the issues, explore the options. There are various what they call toolkits of analysis that we can offer journalists not to take with them and ask those questions all the time, just as conflict resolvers and mediators don't go to mediations with notes. We study, we read things, it's like driving a car, once we understand the concept of the conflict maps, you do that instinctively, it's like driving a car, you do it in your head and you do it automatically. But I think that's what we have to offer journalists in terms of doing that.

One of the few journalists that have already seen that and it's another form of conflict mapping, is Geneva Overrosler, who said, that we have to look at more than the 5 "Ws" and "H," we also have to ask questions for "C" for common ground and "S" for solution. Again, it's not that I think that journalism as it is today is so bad or so wrong, I just think in terms of proper conflict reporting that there are more questions that need to be asked. If all the questions that need to be asked then you cover those other things. Then the process of conflict and things like escalation and de-escalation, where are we and why are we and why are we falling backwards and forwards? Just think about how you can do a couple of very interesting stories about the Middle East for instance, because there is a conflict in Northern Island, forwards and backwards. What is the movement and the process of that and why is it going... and can you place the actors and the players and place that and frame it in a way so that you can do more and interesting stories.

I think this provides journalists with more anglesand more frames. More ways of doing stories. Then we who are interested in conflict resolution will say, "Well in that way, journalists don't always exacerbate conflict." Not that I think it always does that but has the potential of doing that, but you can also claim that conflict resolution contributes something positive. But I think its very dangerous and I think it's just not helpful for us in the conflict resolution and management field to think that we can push journalism and journalists into becoming our proxies in terms of resolving conflict. It's not their job and they'll resist us, they'll reject us.