Thursday, February 23, 2012

Syria presents ethical dilemma for peace journalists

Responsible journalists are supposed to be unbiased, to avoid advocating any agenda, and to not encourage violence—to never pour gasoline on an already blazing fire. However, the upheaval in Syria has left journalists questioning the wisdom of these traditional beliefs.

Syria, and revolts last year during the Arab Spring, present the ultimate conundrum for a peace journalist. This breed of journalist is dedicated to giving peacemakers a voice, avoiding inflammatory language and sensational images, and framing stories so that they do not encourage violence. In the case of Syria, however, even a peace journalist would have to acknowledge that violence, even war, may be the only way to stop Assad’s murderous regime.

So, under the circumstances, can a journalist, and especially a peace journalist, sleep well at night knowing that their coverage may be galvanizing the world to take up arms against Assad and his thugs? Does a peace journalist stop being a peace journalist if he is encouraging violence, no matter how well intentioned?

One answer might come from an examination of coverage from CNN and particularly Anderson Cooper’s show, AC360. The program has featured a number of sensational, brutal, bloody images from Syria during the last several weeks. One evocative image was a video aired earlier this week of a 2-year old boy who was wounded by shrapnel. The boy’s family attempted to treat him at a make-shift hospital, only to have him die in his wailing father’s arms. It was hard to watch the video without tearing up.

Later on that same show, Cooper openly labeled Assad and his regime liars for claiming that they were not attacking their own people.

These statements and images have been packaged with a very unambiguous agenda in mind. That agenda—to put pressure on the international community to act against the Assad regime.

The Syrian government, through its Syrian Arab News Agency, has released several propaganda pieces decrying what is says is the Western media’s biased agenda. One such article on the agency’s website said, “Political commentator Jonathan Steele criticized in an article in the British Guardian newspaper the foreign media coverage of the events taking place in Syria, accusing it of bias and suppressing the facts that "go against the dominant narrative about the Syrian crisis". Steele, the Guardian's former international affairs correspondent, said the western media coverage has turned into "a propaganda weapon" against Syria as all the key issues related to the popularity of President Bashar al-Assad, the Arab League observer mission and the US military involvement have been "distorted in the west's propaganda war…Most Syrians back President Assad, but you'd never know from western media." (SANA, Jan. 18, 2012)

Of course, this is transparent propaganda. Yet, a perusal of the BBC, New York Times, and CNN would confirm the propagandists’ central point—that the agenda of the Western media is unquestionably anti-Assad.

So, is the anti-Assad agenda undesirable, at least in terms of journalistic ethics?
In Journalism Ethics 101, we were told that we must always report from a coldly objective standpoint. Certainly, if anything we ever wrote revealed a bias or agenda, we were chastised by the old-school guardians of the profession. If those gnarly old-schoolers were still around, they would undoubtedly admonish CNN and Cooper for straying from “the facts” and not balancing each report with a Syrian response, even if that Syrian response consists of bold lies wrapped in jingoistic propaganda.

The old-schoolers are wrong. Since “the facts” are often in dispute, a journalist’s role is to sort through all the data and propaganda and decide what information one’s viewers and readers need to formulate an educated opinion about the subject.

On her last on-air interview a few hours before she was killed in Homs, journalist Marie Colvin and Anderson Cooper discussed their misgivings about coverage of the crisis in Syria. Cooper asked Colvin if she thought the bloody, inflammatory coverage was a necessary evil. Colvin replied emphatically that the coverage was vitally important so that the world could know and understand what’s happening to Syrians. Colvin died convinced that she and her colleagues in Syria were serving a greater good.

Colvin was right. The aggressive anti-Assad media agenda does serves a higher purpose—one designed to shorten and eventually end the suffering of the Syrian people. Feeding this agenda should make journalists, and particularly those dedicated to peace journalism, uncomfortable. Yet, the alternative—Homs ceaselessly burning and bleeding—is unthinkable.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn --

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Off to DC
Heading to Washington tomorrow to attend American Council on Education Internationalization Collaborative (I'm on the advisory council), and to meet with officials at the U.S. Institute of Peace. I'm very hopeful that our new Center for Global Peace Journalism can find some areas of possible collaboration with USIP, which has a robust peace media program.

Students improve, update Peace Journalism rubric

One of the trickiest things about PJ is content analysis. How can you tell if a story or an image (still or video) is adhering to the tenants of peace journalism? One way is by applying the rubric below. This is a revised tool that was expanded and enhanced by my excellent peace journalism students at Park University. Any feedback on this rubric would be most welcome.

Peace Journalism Content Analysis Rubric
Written/spoken reports
1=Never 2=Sometimes 3=Often


Inflammatory/emotional language used
Victimizing language used
Demonizing/name calling language used

Opinions treated as facts
Historical wrongs mentioned
Writer's opinion/position is clear (one sided)
Only "one side" interviewed/quoted
Story spreads official propaganda
Info/quotes taken out of context

Suffering/"criminal acts" by only one side shown
Covers mostly violence, not underlying issues

Blame assigned to one party

Peace proposals ignored or dismissed
Story dwells on differences; shuns similarities

Peace Journalism=14-19 points
Some characteristics of both peace and war journalism=20-29
War Journalism-30 or more

Visuals--video and photo
1=Never 2=Sometimes 3=Often

General topic is suffering
General topic is destruction
Subject—Military officials; Government officials
Image is culturally insensitive/mocking
Subjects are primarily military/political leaders
Subject is held in contempt by photographer
Editing: Video is raw/unedited; or still is edited
to change meaning of the original photo
Images taken out of context/don't reflect reality

Peace Journalism=8-10 points
Some characteristics of both peace and war journalism=11-15
War Journalism-16 or more

Friday, February 10, 2012

Thinking about Syria

I've done a lot of thinking lately about the situation in Syria vis-a-via peace journalism. As usual, I'm left with more questions than answers. How should websites and TV networks handle the inflammatory images from Syria? Are the consequences of not publishing these videos and photos worse than if they are shown? Do these images encourage peace or inflame war? Or, are they necessary tools in the overthrow of a tyrant? Stay tuned: I'll be writing at length about this soon.

Peace Journalism Center--Nuts and Bolts

By popular demand, I've pasted below some basic information about the just-approved Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University.

Center for Global Peace Journalism--Information sheet

The Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University promotes the concepts of peace and peace journalism, including advocating non-violent conflict resolution, through seminars and courses both in the U.S. and abroad, through its website and magazine, and through partnerships with like-minded organizations and individuals.

What we do:
The Global Peace Journalism Center is a resource for Park University students, Park faculty, high school journalists, professional journalists worldwide, and like-minded organizations.

1. The center launched a Peace Media and Counterterrorism program in Dec., 2011. The project brings together media and security officials in Uganda to establish frameworks of cooperation on anti-terrorism efforts. It is funded with a $150,000 State Dept. grant.
2. Center Director Steven Youngblood taught and coordinated a comprehensive Peace and Electoral Journalism Project in Uganda from July 2010 to November 2011. It featured seminars, a PJ reporting contest, producing peace-themed radio programs, etc.

1. The center will be publishing an e-magazine, "The Peace Journalist", in April and November, 2012. This semi-annual magazine will feature articles and multimedia from peace journalism practitioners from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
2. A chapter about the Uganda peace journalism project is featured in the just-published book, "People Building Peace 2.0" The story by Steven Youngblood was selected for the book as part of a "Stories of Peace" contest sponsored by the Peace Portal.

Looking ahead:
1. The Peace Media and Counterterrorism project will continue in May and June, 2012 as Steven Youngblood and Park Criminal Justice professors Ken Christopher, John Hamilton, and Carol Getty travel to teach in Uganda.
2. An official launch event for the center will be held in September, 2012 at Park University.
3. A peace journalism symposium will be held at a Park campus site to be determined in October, 2012.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn--