Saturday, July 30, 2011

Of Miscellany and Men

Hooked up—I just ran my Facebook account through a website run by Western Union that calculates how connected you are. I found out that I have 52 international Facebook friends in 26 countries, and that if you map the connections between my friends and I, it would cover 553,000 km. On something called the world index, I am the 1,352nd most networked person. Of course, that probably means that 1,400 users have gone on this site to analyze their connectedness.

The coolest thing is that I actually have met and know each of these international FB users. My goal is to eventually have 100 international Facebook friends.

A Ugandan tragedy—The maternal mortality rate in Uganda is shameful. While I was over there, I talked to many women about this, and they relayed to me the very understandable fears that women have about not making it out of childbirth. The New York Times, in an excellent piece published today, examines this tragedy.

Peace Portal—I have entered a contest on a Dutch website called the Peace Portal wherein the winners have their articles published as part of a book on peace and peacemakers. The piece I wrote is below. You can go to the Peace Portal website to vote on your favorite article.

Project brings Peace Journalism to Uganda
By Steven Youngblood

This is great, but it’s not enough.

As I taught Peace Journalism in Uganda for five weeks in 2009, I kept hearing this mantra repeated. The journalists in my seminars said they liked and needed what I was teaching. However, the reporters emphasized that Uganda needed many more peace journalism lessons as the 2011 elections approached.

At the urging of the journalists, we put together a proposal for a comprehensive Peace, Development, and Electoral Journalism project for 2010-2011 in Uganda.

If approved, the project would require that I teach radio journalists to understand and practice Peace Journalism, a term coined by journalists Annabeth McGoldrick and Jake Lynch. I define Peace Journalism as when editors and reporters make choices that improve the prospects for peace. These choices promote the positive development of societies recovering from conflict while they create an atmosphere supportive of peace initiatives and peacemakers and conducive to reconciliation. For the radio journalists, PJ means among other things avoiding the use of inflammatory, inciting language.

Our project, consisting of three major parts, was pitched to the U.S. Embassy-Kampala and USAID, and approved shortly thereafter. The $270,000 effort consisted of holding 30 seminars across Uganda for radio journalists and managers, launching a Public Service Announcement campaign with a “no election violence” message, and organizing Peace Clubs, groups of Ugandans working with media to ensure a violence-free election.

The principal goal of the Peace, Development, and Electoral Journalism project was to prevent media induced or exacerbated violence during the 2011 election cycle.

The project was needed because of a legacy of violent elections (Kenya, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe) and of hate radio in sub-Saharan Africa. Hate radio, the use of the airwaves to encourage sectarianism and/or violence, was used as a destructive tool during the Rwandan genocide (1994), during post-election unrest in Kenya (2008), and even during riots in Kampala (2009). Many believed this volatile mix of campaign/electoral turmoil and hate radio, combined with the fact that Uganda is still recovering from a 20-year civil war, made the 2011 election a potentially dangerous one. It was against this backdrop that the PJ project began.

The project, which ran from February 2010 to April 2011, was highlighted by 30 seminars, 25 for journalists and the remainder for radio station managers. At the journalist seminars, we discussed the basics of peace journalism (frame stories to discourage violence, give peacemakers and everyday people a voice, avoid inflammatory language). The radio reporters also produced peace-themed radio reports and PSA’s which aired on their local stations. The seminars were held throughout Uganda, as evidenced by the 9,222 miles that Project Assistant Gloria Laker and I traveled during the project.

Our sore backs and chronic fatigue did not go unrewarded.

By any measure, the project was successful. Ugandans in 14 towns formed Peace Clubs. These clubs joined forces at a summit in Kampala in March, and formed a national organization to promote peace. The Public Service Announcement project also succeeded in getting peaceful messages broadcast on dozens of Ugandan radio stations.

Most telling, there were no incidents of media induced or exacerbated election violence in 2010-2011. The strongest evidence of a dearth of media induced or exacerbated violence can be seen in results from a survey we conducted of 40 radio journalists/presenters and 20 radio managers during the first two weeks of March. Among other things, those surveyed were asked if anything (news, talk program, panelists, telephone callers) broadcast by their radio station encouraged or incited violence. All 60 responded no.

Can our peace journalism project take credit for this lack of media induced violence? The journalists who attended our post-election follow up meetings weren’t hesitant about crediting our project with preventing violence. The journalists said the workshops lead to more responsible and balanced reporting that carefully avoided inflammatory language or irresponsible, sensationalistic stories.

The survey results confirmed what the journalists told us. Respondents were asked to rate the effectiveness of the peace/electoral journalism trainings for radio journalists, announcers, and managers (on a 1-5 scale) in preventing broadcasts that might encourage or incite violence. Five is very effective, and one not at all effective. The average for this question was 4.38, somewhere between effective and very effective. Those surveyed were also asked to rate the effectiveness of the peace/electoral journalism trainings in improving the professionalism of election coverage. The average was 4.33.

The project succeeded because of the dedication of Project Assistant Gloria Laker and the Ugandan journalists who committed themselves to improving their professionalism and making their communities a better place.

It’s our hope that this peace and electoral journalism model can replicated elsewhere, since it proved to be such a powerful tool for peace and reconciliation in Uganda.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Peace Journalism to be put to the test in Norway

It’s easy to say that you’re all for peace journalism—not inflaming or exacerbating conflicts while nurturing an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation—when all is well. The challenge is to practice these principles in times of violence and crisis.

Such is the case now in Norway, which is recovering from a series of deadly attacks. I have a Norwegian friend who I just heard from via Facebook. She wrote, “Thank you all so much for your kind thoughts. As of now I don't know anyone who has been hurt but the situation is quite chaotic and they are still locating people. My hope now is that Norway will continue to be the country it was before the attacks and not restrict its people's rights permanently.” She’s right--the bombers and shooters "win" if Norwegians lose their rights. (

Yet, the loss of basic rights becomes almost inevitable if the media whips the public into an anti-terror frenzy in which citizens demand action—any action—to make them feel safer. The USA’s post-9/11 Patriot Act comes to mind.

Fortunately, at least so far, several Norwegian media outlets seem to be getting the message. "As we rebuild the government quarters and [Labor Party youth wing] AUF builds up its organization, we will also restore a Norway based on openness and trust," said a day-after editorial in the daily newspaper Dagbladet. The editorial went on to say, “"We shall not have a Norway with new restrictions of freedom of movement, more uniforms, and thus also more interventions in the lives of all those of us who don't want to understand the language of terror." An editorial in the newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv commented, “We need to prove that terrorists are wrong and that we are right. We can only do so by preserving our open and democratic society." (

These comments are hopeful signs indeed. The hardest part will come, I suspect, in the coming weeks and months, as recriminations begin and pressure mounts to do something. It is then that the need will be greatest to practice responsible peace journalism. This means not rushing to judgment. (There were already erroneous reports about the perpetrators in the first hours after the incident). It also means not demonizing the murderers and those with whom they associate. Reports say the youth camp shooter was a conservative Christian. The media must be careful not to paint all conservative Norwegian Christians as fanatics.

Peace journalists should thoughtfully analyze the violent incidents, carefully taking into consideration the consequences of their reporting on society. Should media give voice to those seeking retribution? If they must, at least balance the coverage with moderate voices, like those of my friend, who can see the long term negative consequences from reflexively enacting rules and laws in an atmosphere tainted with anger, revenge, and fear.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Media frenzy encourages mob justice

Would anyone be surprised if some crazy gun-toting vigilante killed the most hated woman in America?

I am not predicting this, nor am I advocating it. In fact, I sincerely, fervently hope it doesn’t happen.

However, if mob justice does prevail, a good portion of the blame should rightfully fall upon the media, and especially the inflammatory rhetoric that has aired, and is still airing, on HLN. Especially noteworthy for its wallow in the gutter is the nightly program hosted by Nancy Grace. During the most hated woman’s (MHW) trial, HLN, and especially Grace’s program, devoted increasing time and energy to the proceedings, resulting in the 29-year-old network’s best ratings months ever in June. (Reuters, July 6, 2011)

Grace’s shrill, biased coverage of the trial and verdict have created an atmosphere conducive to vigilantism. For example, after hearing the verdict, the HLN evening host said, "somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight." Later, lightening struck a tree near the area where the MHW’s daughter’s body was found. Grace wondered aloud on her show if the lightening bolt was a message from an angry God.

Al Tompkins, a senior instructor at the Poynter Institute, a training center for journalists, said of Grace’s show, "It's just unforgivable the amount of vitriol that has come from her show that has now permeated the entire channel. There was no room for them for anything other than a guilty verdict…I'm not sure whether she considers herself to be a journalist," Tomkins added. "What she's practicing is not journalism. It has a lot to do with advocacy and maybe even a vendetta." (Reuters, July 6, 2011)

MHW’s release from prison and every move she’s made have been scrutinized, analyzed, and publicized by HLN and almost every other media outlet. This unending scrutiny, no doubt fed by the desire to maintain pumped-up ratings, has created a kind of manic atmosphere where anything, including vigilantism, is possible. For example, in mid-July, some Internet sites reported that a MHW look-alike was attached in Oklahoma. However, those erroneous reports were later debunked by KTUL-TV among others. It was just a false alarm—this time.

I haven’t seen a survey yet, but I wonder if most Americans would be happy if mob justice did prevail in this case. I hope I’m wrong. I hope we are better than that.

What the coverage of MHW’s case has made clear is the need to spread the word about peace and conflict sensitive journalism here in America.

As a peace journalism professor and trainer, one of the principles I teach journalists is that they need to always consider the consequences of their reporting. In a wartime or post-conflict setting, this means that reporters should understand that their words could inflame violence or impede reconciliation. In this situation, those in the media must consider the possibility that their reporting could lead to mob justice. I’m not suggesting that the trial and verdict shouldn’t have been reported, but I am saying that no thought has been given to the inflammatory nature of how the story was reported.

If the media had been practicing peace and conflict sensitive journalism, it would have balanced the coverage by not being so blatantly anti-defendant. and eschewed the kind of inflammatory, shill language that became the norm on Grace’s show and on many online sites.

It’s not too late to repair some of the damage. HLN and others should air voices that speak out strongly against vigilantism and emphatically in favor of respect for the rule of law.

Freedom of the press doesn’t mean freedom of responsibility from one’s actions as a member of the media.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Unplugged; unhinged; unreachable

I am officially not working. This is the out of office message that I left on my email: "I am on vacation, which means no writing, Internet (laptop), lecturing, cellphone, blogging, or else there will be wife-related ramifications. I'll return July 18, ready to re-engage. Probably. Thank you." I am sincere about the wife-related ramifications, which are too awful to fully contemplate.

When I return, the hard work starts--lesson plans for my new digital media course at Park University, and trying to get an agent/publisher for my book Professor Komagum: Finding peace and losing my sanity in Uganda.

Former student fights emotions amidst Joplin destruction

From the Parkville Luminary

There’s a macho code among reporters that you’re supposed to be tough and aloof. Tough means showing no outward signs of emotion, and aloof means not getting involved in the story in any way. To do less means you’re not objective, which is supposedly the worst thing you can label a journalist.

Even though I’ve covered tornadoes, floods, murders, and vehicle accidents in Missouri and famines, dysfunctional orphanages, and refugees abroad, I’m still trying to figure out my proper role as a journalist, and as a compassionate human being, in time of hardship, disaster or war. I’m probably not the best role model in this respect, since I usually find myself getting entangled helping those about whom I’m reporting (like orphans or hungry school children, for example).

To get a better perspective on this issue, my Park University students will be fortunate next year to hear from Park alumnus Nima Shaffe.

Shaffe, who graduated from Park University two years ago with a broadcasting degree, is a reporter for KCTV-5 in Kansas City. He has had the opportunity, some might say misfortune, to experience tragedy first-hand during the last few months. First, he was in Alabama, covering the devastating tornadoes there. Then, more recently, he spent a week in Joplin chronicling the death and destruction there for KCTV’s viewers. (Photo--Nima Shaffe, "borrowed" from his Facebook page).

For Shaffe, one Joplin story stood out above the rest. He said, “We had just walked in when a minivan pulled up and the family got out of their vehicle and pulled a dog from the back of van. The dog had been impaled. It was draped with a number of blankets drenched in blood and before the family could even pick the dog up out of the back of the van I glanced as the faces of the staff of the clinic and not a dry eye was to be found. Even the doctor was crying. It was a tough moment and even harder after I found that the dog had died. I walked out of the clinic and just asked if I could give the owner a hug. This was her child--her one and only baby.”

Shaffe wasn’t the only reporter dealing with his emotions. Covering Joplin, it was difficult not to break down and cry, like the Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes did on national television. Shaffe said, “Last night watching the reporter for the Weather Channel was heart-wrenching. How do I explain utter devastation? How do I explain these people are in their hardest hour?”

The young KCTV reporter is unapologetic for letting his human side show through. “We (journalists) are people to and we have emotions, thought processes and feelings like everyone else,” said Shaffe. “Showing emotion, relating to the viewer, and sharing your personality engages the (audience) and allows for a journalist to soar. How do you not get emotional when you hear someone say they pulled on the arm of their best friend who was buried underneath some rubble? Hard not to.” In covering the tornado, Shaffe said he learned that it’s acceptable “to relate...respond...and share emotion. It's not something I do all the time but this time it was especially hard to keep my emotions back.”

Witnessing a tragedy of this magnitude would leave most of us shaken, some of us to the point that it might even make us question our faith. Not Nima, who is one of the most upbeat, positive people I’ve ever met. He can always find the silver lining. He wrote on his blog, “I logged onto my KCTV5 Facebook page and saw that I had 11 messages all from people who just wanted to help out and some who actually wanted to donate large sums of money to the cause…I was amazed, humbled and appreciative. God is good. You are too.”

He credits his ability to cope with these trying circumstances in part to his education at Park University. “My experience at Park enabled me to really hone in on the real story and the real focus when I was in Joplin. As a former student leader having served in multiple student leadership positions, I had to come face to face with people everyday, some in the best circumstances some in the not so good circumstances. At Park, I was afforded the luxury of soaring to new heights…”

Journalists are often justifiably criticized for their lack of humanity. I’m guessing this will never be an issue for Nima Shaffe. I hope his education at Park played a role not only in making him a good TV reporter, but in instilling in him a strong sense of humanity.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Author prepares to make dozens of dollars from Peace Journalism book

I'm almost through editing my book Professor Komagum: Finding peace and losing my sanity in Uganda. It's about my peace journalism project and life in Uganda. For more info on the book, and the beginning of my search for an agent and publishing house, click here.

Getting over reverse culture shock back in Missouri

On my first day back in Parkville after 10 months in Uganda, I backed out of a parking space and wheeled the car into the proper position on the left side of the road. A patient driver coming my direction just stopped, no doubt perplexed by my odd behaviour.

This must be what experts mean when they talk about reverse culture shock, which is loosely defined as difficulties re-adjusting to one’s native culture after living abroad. For me, reverse culture shock manifests itself mostly in my new penchant for driving on the left side of the road (like they do in Uganda), and for using odd British phrases and spellings (like the superfluous ‘u’ in ‘behaviour’ in the first paragraph).

While back home in Parkville, I’ve truthfully driven on the left side only a couple of times, and then for only a few seconds. Most of you have been patient with me, although I’ve gotten a couple of nasty honks as I’ve hesitated in mid-intersection thinking about whether to veer left or right of the median. Also, in left-hand driving countries, the car’s controls are switched around, too, meaning that the turn signal is on the right side. Thus, if you see someone signaling a left turn on Main Street by running his wipers, you’ll know it’s me.

I’ve also returned home infected by odd Ugandan/British takes on the English language. Uganda was a British colony, and thus unfortunately adopted British vocabulary like bonnet (hood), boot (trunk), lift (elevator), and pudding (not really pudding). Additionally, Ugandans will usually say “ummm” to acknowledge agreement. I admire this because it’s easier than saying “yes”, although to Kansas Citians, it sounds like you’re angry, deranged, or Frankenstein. I caught myself “ummm”-ing at a business meeting a few days after my return. After hearing my grunts, those meeting with me were probably waiting for me to blurt out something like “idea bad” or “me like synergy”. Also, Ugandans say “sure” when they mean “really?” or “are you kidding?” I haven’t used this yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Finally, there’s having to re-learn how to spell without the gratuitous British ‘u’ (e.g.-“labour”) or the missing ‘z’ (“agonise”).

While I’ve been combating reverse culture shock, I’ve also experienced an epiphany of sorts. Yes, it’s a sappy cliché: my lengthy stay overseas has instilled in me a renewed love and appreciation for America generally and Parkville and Park University in particular. My list of “things I now appreciate much more than before I left” is a mile long and growing. This list includes:

Roads—I’ll never complain about a few potholes again. Our roads are really, really good, even though it sometimes takes a millennium to get them fixed. I thought I would easily dodge construction on the White Alloe bridge near Park University. I did manage to avoid that mess, but by only a few weeks.
Bed—There is not a bed in Uganda as soft and comfortable as my bed at home.
Draft beer—There is no draft beer in Uganda. I will never whine again when a tavern runs out of my favorite draft beer. You say you have only Miller on tap? No problem!
Health Care—I fretted constantly while my wife and son were with me in Uganda about what I would do if they became seriously ill. I will never again take for granted having an ambulance and sophisticated emergency medical care only five minutes away.
Security—Uganda was in turmoil our last month there as protests expanded and become more violent. My project assistant was tear-gassed and nearly shot while trying to run errands recently. Naturally, we took every precaution to stay safe short of never leaving the apartment. Our forays into the community began to worry me more and more. I have a renewed appreciation of Parkville’s safety and serenity. (At least, it’s safe and serene for those of us who aren’t hot dog vendors).
Park University—I’m more appreciative than ever of my colleagues at Park who have encouraged my work and warmly received me upon my return. How many universities would be as supportive of a faculty member whose projects frequently take him away from campus for months at a time?

So, if you see someone with a contented, appreciative smile on his face driving on the left side making a turn with his windshield wipers on, feel free to ask, “Do you know you’re driving on the wrong side?” If the answer is “ummm”, you’ll know it’s me.

--Follow me on Twitter: @PeaceJourn