Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reflections on world citizenship

I had the distinct honor of being recognized last night as the World Citizen of the Year by the United Nations Association of Greater Kansas City. This was my acceptance speech:

Mayor James, distinguished guests:

Ever since I received word that I had won this most prestigious honor, I’ve been busy trying to figure out exactly what a world citizen IS… I googled “define world citizen” and got 3.7 million hits! Many of the definitions were really bad….like the one that was 139 words long that started with…”The term 'world citizen' can be better understood with a negative definition than with a positive one…” Gobbledygook… I did find one that I like, from Farleigh Dickinson university president Michael Adams. He said, “A world citizen is someone who appreciates the interconnected nature of our planet. A world citizen is committed to acting on behalf of humanity everywhere.”

If that’s true, that a world citizen works on behalf of humanity, then I’m most honored to wear the label world citizen.

Now that we have a working definition of world citizenship, perhaps a better way to bring this concept into focus is to spend a moment examining some inspirational folks who exemplify the principle of acting on behalf of humanity. Some of these world citizens you already know—celebrities like Bono and Sting and Angelina Jolie, and philanthropic rock stars like Bill and Melinda Gates or the Hall Family. Most world citizens, however, are just like you and me…people doing what they can to make a difference. Many, like Clara Sinclair, gladly toil in anonymity. I’ll tell you more about Mrs. Sinclair in a moment. Others, like me, have been fortunate enough to be honored for their global citizenship.

One such world citizen honoree is a nurse--Lisa Fernandez , whose world citizenship is reflected in Nicaragua.

Lisa made her first trip to Nicaragua in 1999 when she delivered 52 wheelchairs to children in areas devastated by Hurricane Mitch. When she returned to her home in Wisconsin, she founded The Wisconsin/Nicaragua Wheelchair Project. Her wheelchair project partners with Familias Especiales - an NGO in Nicaragua that serves handicapped children and their families. Familias Especiales provides a full service shop where wheelchairs and other mobility devices are repaired, fitted, and distributed free to needy Nicaraguans. Since its founding, Fernandez and her partners have distributed over 11-hundred wheelchairs. Lisa Fernandez is a true world citizen.

One more world citizen honoree is Dr. Denis Mukengere, who is the founder of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As child, Denis accompanied his father, a Pentecostal pastor, while visiting sick members of the community. This inspired Denis to become a doctor. He decided to specialize in gynecology and obstetrics , since the need for good OB-GYN’s is especially acute in the Congo. In 1998, in the middle of a civil war, he began the construction of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, which has become known worldwide for the treatment of survivors of sexual violence and women with severe gynecological problems. Dr. Denis Mukengere is also a true world citizen.

My contributions as a world citizen are certainly modest in comparison to these heroes. I’ve taught abroad in about a dozen countries, and the focus of my work in the last 6 years or so has been peace journalism. Peace journalism is the idea that journalists can make choices that improve the prospects for peace….These choices include what journalists report, how they frame their stories, and the words they use…The idea is that journalists can either inflame conflict and violence or create an atmosphere more conducive to peace.

My peace journalism work started in 2007 with seminars in Azerbaijan and the Republic of Georgia…I’ve been lucky enough to teach peace journalism to young people through People to People International in Jordan and Turkey. My biggest project—10 months long—sent me to Uganda, where we taught over 30 seminars and traveled 14-hundred kilometers. Our message—that journalists must not fuel sectarian fires…that instead, they must use their influence to help Ugandans improve their communities. We succeeded in meeting our principle goal—to prevent media induced or exacerbated violence around the time of the Ugandan presidential election in 2011.

I have written about my Ugandan mis-adventures in my new book, Professor Komagum… Komagum, by the way, is an Acholi name given to me to some journalists in Gulu, Uganda who attended my seminars. Komagum, I was told, means lucky. I do indeed feel lucky to have these opportunities to exercise my world citizenship, and lucky to have had outstanding personal support from family…and tremendous professional support from Park University, whose delegation is led tonight by our president Dr. Michael Droge. All this support has made all of my peace journalism work a reality.

Of all my supporters, however, one definitely stands out…Mrs. Clara Sinclair, who I mentioned earlier. I got a nice letter from Mrs. Sinclair a few months ago praising Park University for establishing a Center for Global Peace Journalism, which I direct. Mrs. Sinclair went on to say that she is a proud Park graduate, class of….1942. She writes, “I was deeply concerned about the coming war. I had come to the realization, as a child of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, that killing was wrong…Our college president, Dr. L. Young, shared out concerns. Several speakers on non-violence and pacifism spoke to the student body….Much of the inspiration of my life came during my days at Park. I am glad to know that such an effort toward world peace still continues at Park.”

Here’s the kicker…what makes 92-year old Clara Sinclair a true world citizen in my eyes. Mrs. Sinclair writes, “My concern for peace continues. Each Saturday morning, I stand on the corner of a busy intersection near my hone and hold a sign that says, “War is not the answer.”

Thank you, Clara Sinclair, Lisa Fernandez, and Dr. Dennis Mukengere, for showing me what it truly means to be a world citizen. I will do my best to liveup to your high standards. Thank you.

Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn and order my book about my adventures teaching peace journalism in Uganda at .

Friday, October 19, 2012

Wrapping up peace journalism seminars at BronxNet

We finshed the second of two great peace journalism seminars at BronxNet yesterday. The participants--university students and BronxNet TV interns--were terrific, and did an especially great job collecting peace journalism-themed soundbites. (See previous post for soundbites about forgiving Osama Bin Laden. See post below for soundbites about how negative media coverage is impacting the electorate in the Bronx). It's been a great experience, and we're already making plans for my return.

P.S. You can still reserve an autographed copy of "Professor Komagum", about my (mis)adventures teaching peace journalism in Uganda, by clicking here. Hurry--autographed copies won't last long.

Public access TV producers shatter stereotypes

Quick—when you think of public access TV, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? If you’re like me, it’s silly Wayne’s World-esque teen garbage, or perhaps ranting lunatics, maybe neo-Nazis. Here at BronxNet, however, this stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although there are music and sports programs, many of the programs provide valuable information to and an outlet for underserved communities. BronxNet public access TV programs include African Union, Sights of Brazil, El Show de Olga Rosa, Honduras NY, Albanian Culture in the Bronx, Young Thinkers, and Face to Face Africa. These shows, which are also archived and streamed live online, often focus on giving those in the community a voice, and reflect, in a positive way, the grievances and accomplishments of their constituents.

This kind of public service television finds in peace journalism a natural partner. Peace journalism, like BronxNet access, seeks to open dialogues, especially about issues like peace and cross-cultural understanding. Both peace journalism and BronxNet access aim to give a voice to the voiceless in disadvantaged communities, and both strive to develop communities by identifying vital issues and bringing to bear media resources to build coalitions to tackle problems that plague communities.

Twice this week, on Wednesday and Friday evenings, meetings were held at BronxNet to introduce public access TV program producers to the concepts of peace and development journalism. Given the natural partnership between the two, it’s no surprise that the peace journalism presentation was very well received. These meetings included brainstorming sessions about how to best increase peace and reconciliation content in existing access programs as well as discussions about possibly creating new peace-themed programs. One idea, for example, would create a show that would bring together the Latino and African-American communities in the Bronx to help these communities find common ground.

Meeting participants also discussed community development organizations that they might partner with to deliver positive, important, and peaceful messages that would help develop the Bronx community. The producers gave one example—a soup kitchen near Yankee Stadium—as a potential partner. Public access TV producers here in the Bronx, and media savvy peace and development minded activists anywhere, can embrace the principles of peace journalism as a way to more effectively deliver their messages of non-violence and reconciliation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bronx students initiate important peace discussions

My students today are asking New Yorkers if they can forgive Osama Bin Laden.

Editing peace soundbites at BronxNet
This seemingly bizarre, and possibly dangerous, assignment is part of a peace journalism seminar I’m leading in the Bronx. The seminar, offered by the Center for Global Peace Journalism in conjunction with Lehman College and BronxNet, is teaching students about peace journalism, and the notion that media should always consider the consequences of what they report and how they report it.
Toward that end, we discussed today a peace journalist’s responsibility to both give peacemakers a voice and to lead community conversations about peace, development, and reconciliation. Reconciliation, for purpose of my presentation today, was broken down into concepts like vengeance, justice, truth, and forgiveness. At the end of a brief lecture this morning, I sent students out in the field to record soundbite montages on peace issues. One group chose to ask the question, “Do you forgive Osama Bin Laden?” While the soundbite montage is half yes and half no, the students reported that the vast majority, off camera, said that they could absolutely not forgive him. (See video embedded below).
Getting ready to shoot soundbites

I never suggested that Bin Laden should be forgiven, but only that a media-generated dialogue about this matter would be a healthy thing.

Two other groups of students asked passers-by about the impact of sensational crime coverage and the role of media in promoting peace. (To see that video, click here).

The point of the soundbite exercise was to get the students/BronxNet interns to understand the importance of initiating discussions about peace and reconciliation issues, even if those discussions are uncomfortable.

This exercise was the capstone project in our two-day peace journalism seminar, which was co-sponsored by BronxNet and Lehman College. I feel good about what we accomplished in such a short time, and was gratified by the post-seminar thanks doled out by the grateful students.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Inquisitive Bronx students ponder Peace Journalism principles

Just finished day one of a two-day workshop held by the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in conjunction with Lehman College and BronxNet. The mix of university students and BronxNet TV interns was engaged and inquisitive. We discussed how PJ connects to both electoral journalism and crime coverage. Next up for this group--a sound bite montage reflecting some of the principles of peace journalism that we discussed today.

Later this week, we'll hold a second two day workshop for students and interns, and also two shorter seminars for BronxNet program producers. Details will be forthcoming.
Top: BronxNet Director Michael Max Knobbe welcomes students to the workshop. Bottom: Students hard at work deciding whether a published story is representative of peace journalism.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Headed to the Bronx, but not for baseball
I'm on my way to the Bronx, NY this weekend to teach Peace Journalism seminars next week. The seminars will be held in conjunction with Lehman Community College and BronxNet, a local cable TV company. As with my other workshops, they will feature both theory and practice. Stay tuned to this site for more about this project, including stories, photos, and videos.

Get your sneak preview of Professor Komagum
For a limited time, you can buy an e-book sneak preview (the 1st 100 pages) of Professor Komagum: Teaching peace journalism and battling insanity in Uganda. Click here to buy your sneak preview e-book. If you prefer to reserve an old fashioned printed copy, or if you'd like more details about the book, click here.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The October Peace Journalist magazine is now available

The latest edition of the Peace Journalist magazine (Oct 2012)  is now available. Click here for free download. This edition features articles by world-reknown journalist/educators Jake Lynch and Al Tompkins. Enjoy!

Connecting peace, electoral journalism

The following is a piece I wrote for the October Peace Journalist magazine.--SY

Elections are inherently divisive, controversial, and provocative. In much of the world, violence during and after elections is almost expected. For example, post-election violence has recently scarred Nigeria, the Philippines, Kenya, Myanmar, and the Ivory Coast, among other places.

Even in places like Western Europe and the United States where violence may not be tied to elections, one could suspect that increasingly bitter and shrill campaigns and elections polarize societies politically, squeezing politicians into increasingly tight corners on the far left and far right, thus making these countries more difficult to govern.

As peace journalists, we should be analyzing our role in covering these elections, and asking ourselves if the language we use and the way we frame our stories is contributing to, or instead, mitigating, the bitterness and divisiveness.

The connection between inflammatory media and post-election violence has been established in numerous places around the world. One notable example is Kenya after the 2007 elections when violence took 800-1300 lives and displaced 200,000-600,000 people. (Numbers vary, depending on the source). This violence was partially media-fueled. Indeed, one journalist/manager from a Western Kenyan radio station is on trial at the Hague for allegedly inflaming the deadly violence.

The link between media and politically polarized Western governments is discussed in a study published last month by Washington State University in the U.S. In the study (4 September, 2012), researcher Douglas Hindman “suggests intense media coverage of highly polarized and contentious political issues tends to reinforce partisan views, creating ‘belief gaps’ between Democrats and Republicans, which grow increasingly pronounced over time.” Admittedly, the researcher in this instance is focusing on the intensity (volume) of coverage, and not specific characteristics of how partisan issues are framed. Nonetheless, it’s not an enormous leap to theorize that the tone of the coverage, and not just the intensity, also reinforces partisan, compromise-resistant views.

Given this, is the negative tone of the coverage of the U.S. presidential election contributing to increased political rigidity? A Pew Center study (23 August 2012) finds that “72% of this coverage has been negative for Barack Obama and 71% has been negative for Mitt Romney.”

It seems intuitive that this incessant negativity would have a polarizing effect. However, a colleague of mine correctly points out that it’s quite a distance between cause and effect here. Does negative, narrow coverage cause political polarization, and cause electoral losers to not accept the outcome of elections? That’s yet to be proven.

Still, a demonstrated link between irresponsible media and electoral violence combined with this suspected link between media and political polarization certainly provide reason enough for peace journalists to report prudently around election time. Keeping in mind media’s power to inflame passions and potentially to exacerbate political divisions, we have devised a list of electoral journalism do’s and don’ts for peace journalists.


What a peace journalist would try to do in an electoral situation, using the 17 PJ tips (McGoldrick-Lynch) as a foundation.

1. AVOID portraying races as only between two candidates with two ideologies. INSTEAD, give voices to multiple candidates (when those candidates are viable), to multiple ideologies (not just the extremes), and to multiple players involved in the process, especially the public.

2. AVOID treating the election like a horse race. Polls and surveys are fine, but they are only a part of the story. INSTEAD, concentrate on issues of importance as identified by the public and articulated by candidates and parties, including platforms/manifestos.

3. AVOID letting the candidates define themselves through what they say. INSTEAD, seek expert analysis of the candidate’s background as well as the veracity and logic of the candidates’ comments.

4. AVOID airing inflammatory, divisive, or violent statements by candidates. INSTEAD, there are two options: A. Edit these comments to eliminate these inflammatory statements; B. Publish or broadcast these comments, and then offer pointed analysis and criticism of what is being said.

5. AVOID airing comments and reports that encourage sectarianism and divisions within society—race-baiting, for example. If these comments must be aired, then follow up with commentary pointing out the candidate’s attempt to divide and distract voters. INSTEAD, insist on the candidates addressing issues that highlight common values and bring communities together.

6. AVOID letting candidates “get away” with using imprecise, emotive language. This includes name calling. INSTEAD, hold candidates accountable for what they say, and use precise language as you discuss issues.

7. AVOID framing the election as a personality conflict between candidates. INSTEAD, focus on the candidates’ positions on issues of importance—schools, health care, roads.

8. AVOID unbalanced stories. INSTEAD, seek to balance each story with comments from the major parties or their supporters. Balance includes getting input from informed citizens.

9. AVOID letting candidates use you to spread their propaganda. Identify and expose talking points. INSTEAD, as you broadcast their statements, include a critical analysis of what is being said.

10. AVOID reporting that gives opinions/sound bites only from political leaders and/or pundits. INSTEAD, center stories around everyday people, their concerns and perceptions about the candidates and process.

Whenever I have presented this list at peace journalism seminars, the participants have been receptive to the idea that they have a larger responsibility to their societies. This responsibility includes both helping to inform citizens so that they may intelligently fulfill their electoral duties and framing stories so as to short-circuit violence and not exacerbate political polarization.

Journalists understand that implementing these ideas in our highly competitive media environment, one that values tension, conflict, and sensationalism, will be at best very difficult. Despite this, the journalists I’ve worked with all believe that practicing responsible electoral journalism is worth the effort.