Smashing The Mirror: Journalism For Purpose

The camera spins off-kilter. It points up and jaggedly zooms out as we see the bigger picture. A mass of dust, a cloud of debris surging on devouring a building, a lamp post and a car, ceaselessly moving toward us. The camera now jolts, crouching behind a car zooming out still further as the dust cloud bears down all around us. It is September 11th and for most reporters on that day ‘zooming out and getting the big picture’ extended only as far as the day itself. September 11th was the biggest picture, and every day after it was the story.

Two years shy of a decade on and journalists find themselves purveying over events since. The subsequent wars and the incalculable ruptures in global security have prompted us to begin to pull at threads, to ask difficult questions of our own responsibilities as ‘witnesses of histories’. Couldn’t we have done something during the wake of 9/11 to perhaps temper all the madness? Did we choose, in the end, to comply with the inevitability of a darker narrative?  The disturbing truth can be found in the questions that were asked and those that were not: ‘Who?’ Muslim Terrorists; ‘How?’ Hijacked Planes; ‘Where?’ Afghanistan. With the nature of footage satisfying the news value the immediate facts were all that were reported. The pursuit of truth may be a lofty term to describe the nature of journalism, but as we’ve seen since, if the pursuit of truth is the aggregation of detachment, of statistic and uninvolved newsmen asking, ‘how high are the flames?’ by the time the fallout or ‘the story’ had bled into Iraq and 7/7 it was hopelessly too late to ask ‘Why?’.

It was the framing of the line of questioning following 9/11 that proved too narrow. A claim made by Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, the current evangelists of the so-called Peace Journalism model and whose book ‘Peace Journalism’ consists of practical guidelines that seek to provide a genuine alternative to ‘war reporting’. Ethically informed reporting tuned toward gaining an understanding of the context of the conflict, the book argues, might have helped in avoiding unnecessary wars. The charge then is that this lack of context might have fuelled the lead up to the Iraq war when it could have helped prevent it. Lynch and McGoldrick recognises the catalytic nature of media upon conflict. They suggest that traditional war reporting presents a frame that is focused on the immediate, is invariably elite orientated and supports a dichotomy of good versus evil. Logically then, according to the model presented by Lynch and McGoldrick, journalism could be used to perhaps help settle disputes and foster peace by in turn framing a conflict in terms of non-partisanship, multi-party orientation and an avoidance of demonizing language.

This is a sizable estimation of the influence media has upon foreign policy but it is an idea that should not be dismissed as an over-estimation. Lynch himself concedes that news cannot itself tell people what to think, though it can be most effective in directing attention. In other words, the news media can tell people what to think about. Lynch borrows the phrase ‘cultural conditioning’ for this and maintains that Peace Journalism raises ‘unexpected questions’ by cutting across many narratives whereas ‘War Journalism only reiterates what we already think of as answers.’ Tim Weaver however, in a 1997 Crosslines article, warned of a number of dangers with journalists using their profession as a means for, what he sees as, political activism:

‘If this is accepted, then it means that facts may be set aside if they do not confirm the greater truth. But truth is a matter of perception until the facts are marshalled to support it. Ignoring or bypassing facts distorts the truth.’

Those disapproving of Peace Journalism argue that the higher cause should be the essence of the reporting itself – that is to report. Anything interfering with the old-fashioned sense of professionalism would undermine the reporter’s independence and thus their credibility as a trusted source of information.  The confusion lies, I believe, partly in the name. Lynch again himself concedes that ‘Peace Journalism’ was termed as to court controversy. The practical aim of the model is simply ensure that non-violent responses to conflict will be ‘given a fair hearing’ and not, as Weaver suggests, to ‘advocate peace’. The point therefore would be not to adopt a variety of potential peaceful initiatives but to explore them as viable solutions. This would then help the public to assess for themselves whether the idea of having only two possibilities – violence or inaction – as being the two only options.

There are a number of examples held up by Lynch and other academics as examples of conflicts that may have been avoided if a greater depth in public perception would have been present at the time. Iraq and the case of the non-existent WMD is one such case. This is an instance where official assumptions went unchecked. The presentation of Bush versus Saddam is cited as wholly indicative of war journalism and its dichotomy. The actual lead up to war became the story and therefore that was what was being reported. But why was the transition from Colin Powell’s initial UN presentation and an inevitable war with Iraq so sudden? Robert Fisk writing for the Independent (a paper Lynch sees as having many of the hallmarks of peace journalism if not in name) in 2002 wrote: ‘We are being set up for war against Saddam…but we will not – repeat this one a hundred times – we will not mention oil.’

NATO’s war on Yugoslavia in 1999 presents an intriguing case. Lynch regards this as a prime example of propaganda reporting. A war in which ‘military action was the last resort, where the Serbs were to blame, and that Milosevic brought the bombing upon himself by refusing to sign the Rambouillet Accord. The Rambouillet Accord was a peace plan devised by the international community that would have Kosovo win autonomy within Serbia. But as John Pilger, a lone dissenter among a largely approving press pointed out, the accord would also allow NATO forces unfettered access to the entire territory of Yugoslavia. This was a point of contention for both the Serbs as well as the Kosovo Liberation Army, neither of whom signed the deal. But those questions were never asked; Milosevic was the villain and was framed as such. So instead of focusing on why the peace accord wasn’t signed, the breakdown was presented as Milosevic ‘digging in his heels’ and leaving NATO no other alternative but to use military force.

The very concept of peace journalism, will invite criticism from the journalistic community if for nothing else other than the contention it holds for the existing structures of conflict reporting. Weaver’s argument that reporter’s compromise their journalistic integrity seems to holds some credence initially, but peace journalism as a practical approach goes beyond the individualistic notion of reporting. It suggests rather that the issue is the whole news organisation and that what is needed is a ‘…deliberate creative strategy to restore discourses and perspectives that are routinely marginalised’.

News coverage of conflict is grounded in the idea of using conflict itself as a news value. As a result the presentation of war has become a sensationalised device in order to boost ratings or circulation. As the world becomes smaller, engaging and exotic images are harder to come by. In his tongue-in-cheek short documentary Adam Curtis describes the effect this has on viewers as ‘Oh Dear-ism’, a term that suggests that compassion fatigue has us de-sensitised to images of violence around the world. From a journalistic standpoint then, this perhaps has us paint an ever-increasingly sensationalistic picture of the world in order for us to hold public attention. We have shifted toward focusing on how we direct attention rather than what we are directing that attention toward. Peace journalism could perhaps refocus this shift back onto the question of why. If that happens, perhaps we will then be able to present the world as a mirror of society rather than a dramatic melodrama of heroes and villains, losers and victors. For even the greatest of dramatists knew the value of presenting reality as a mirror rather than a cinema screen:

“When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror, for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.”

Harold Pinter – on Receiving his Nobel Prize in 2005

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