Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cold-war media rhetoric does disservice to media consumers

In a cold-war flashback, the media in Russia and the U.S. seem to be offering competing narratives about the uprising in Ukraine.

This was brought to my attention by one of the best students I have ever had, Iryna, a Ukrainian who is currently studying abroad. Iryna participated in a peace journalism training several years ago. She wrote, “When I watch the news reports about the events and how they are covered by the media in other countries, I often remember our discussion about peace journalism in Peace Camp. While Western media mainly focus on the overall situation often presenting the information from both sides of conflict, Russian media continuously go with the official version of Ukrainian government and declare all Ukrainian protesters to be "terrorists", and cut out particular segments of the videos or photos where the protesters are fighting against the police, completely cutting them out of context.”

While there is no study yet about the Russian vs. Western coverage of Ukraine, a quick glance at several websites confirms Iryna’s observations.

On the official website of Pravda, a semi-official Russian newspaper/website, articles about Ukraine do toe a discernible line, one that often places blame squarely on the protesters. The story “Civilians killed, death toll grows” uses the inflammatory language “extremists” and “radicals” to describe the protesters. While it does contain one sentence about “alleged” police shootings, the bulk of the story is from Ukrainian officials decrying the violence. Pravda’s coverage includes a story titled “Kiev sniper shoots 20 law enforcers.” This would seem consistent with Pravda’s effort to paint all the protesters with the same brush—murdering radicals and extremists.

A Pravda editorial, “Ukraine-Some questions,” clearly articulates a slanted viewpoint. “Western media outlets demonizing the Government, busloads of thugs being ferried around the country, we see the US Secretary of State speaking to the "Opposition", namely armed criminals and agents provocateurs, hooligans and an ex-boxer. What is going on? Shall we believe the western media outlets which speak about a fight for freedom, or shall we speak to Ukrainians - real, balanced Ukrainians, patriots, not wannabe (or)… common criminals, murderers, torturers, thieves - and Islamist fundamentalist elements?”

Others in Russian media are also taking a belligerent tone. In the Russian paper Vedomosti, Vasiliy Kashin writes, "Attempts to implement neo-imperialist plans in this strange country or, on the contrary, to show 'liberal solidarity' are extremely dangerous…."  ( Feb)
Bias is just as evident in the western media. A BBC new analysis, “Why is Ukraine in turmoil,” asks, “Those on the streets say they are struggling over the future development of the country - will it be a country based on the rule of law, or Russian-style oligarchy and closed interests?”  In BBC news reporting, those taking to the streets are called “anti-government protesters”, and never extremists, thugs, etc. While Pravda coverage seems to center on protester misbehavior, the opposite is true of BBC coverage. For example, “At least 21 protesters have been killed by security forces in Kiev following the breakdown of a truce agreed on Wednesday.”

CNN’s narrative has a similar tone, and repeats the mantra ”anti-government protesters”. The focus of the story “Truce Crumbles” (20 Feb) is on protesters fortifying barriers and “dodging” sniper fire. Later in that story, however, CNN did report that protesters were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. In an analysis piece “20 Questions”, CNN blames the unrest on “Russia's opposition to (closer EU ties). Russia threatened its much smaller neighbor with trade sanctions and steep gas bills if Ukraine forged ahead.”

Also, American syndicated columnist George Will writes that the Ukraine uprising is ‘the final episode of the Cold War’ in which the Kiev protesters are repudiating the trans-national Marxism of the old Soviet Union. He calls Russian president Vladimir Putin a ‘little, strutting Mussolini.’” ( Feb).

This cold war rhetoric does a disservice to both western and Russian audiences, leaving them with a one dimensional view of the conflict (and of each other) that lacks depth and nuance. Peace journalists shun the rhetoric in these antiquated narratives and stereotypes, eschewing “popular wisdom” while seeking balance and perspective. A peace journalist recognizes propaganda from any source, and seeks cleanse it with facts. Journalists covering the Ukrainian conflict would do well to apply the principles of peace journalism to their reporting and commentary.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Call for Papers: The Peace Journalist magazine
The Peace Journalist magazine is looking for submissions. The deadline is March 7. For more details, including what to submit and how, click here.

Knox case coverage reveals single sided media

A student told me about a professor who, on the first day of class, held up a book with a blue cover. He told the class, “This book is green.” The class, seeing the blue cover, disagreed, but the professor persisted. After a few minutes, the professor spun the book around to reveal a green back cover.

Media consumers worldwide are a bit like these students—seeing only green, they have a hard time imagining a different perspective. As Americans, this means that we have difficulty seeing things from an African or Asian perspective, and vice-versa. This phenomenon underlies a key precept of peace journalism—that reporters should offer context while presenting multiple perspectives.

An example is the media furor over American Amanda Knox, convicted of murder in Italy—a conviction upheld in Italian courts last week. The differences in how European and American media are covering this case reveal the media’s power to reinforce rigid perspectives.

There is ample evidence to reach a conclusion that a majority of the U.S. media have taken Knox’s side. “To some Americans, especially those in her hometown of Seattle, Amanda Knox seems a victim, unfairly hounded by a capricious legal system in Italy that convicted her this week in the death of a 21-year-old British woman.” (AP, Feb. 1, 2014) Other headlines scream “The Italian Justice System is Insane—Amanda Know is Completely Innocent.” (Slate, Feb. 2, 2014). Much of the U.S. coverage focused in how Knox plans to resist extradition. “I'm going to fight this until the very end. And it's not right, and it's not fair and I'm going to do everything that I can," she told ABC News' "Good Morning America" last Friday.” (Chicago Tribune, Jan. 31, 2014).

Jump across the pond, where “The tone of some British newspaper coverage reflected skepticism about Knox's protestations of innocence. 'Shameless in Seattle' was the front-page headline on Saturday's Daily Mail, which referred to Knox's "brazen TV charm offensive to escape extradition…The Rome daily La Repubblica wrote Friday that the third verdict confirms that the case "from the very beginning has been judged more on the basis of sensation than actual evidence." (AP, Feb. 1, 2014).

What’s noteworthy from a peace journalism perspective about the Knox coverage is this: Europeans are getting a steady diet of the guilty, spoiled rich American angle, while in the U.S., we’re hearing primarily about how the decrepit Italian justice system is persecuting an innocent young lady.
What’s unfortunate is that this “our side-their side” media model is replicated worldwide in matters much more serious than the fate of one young woman. If you’ve ever seen or heard the hatred spewed against “the other side” in Middle East media, for example, you’d never wonder why conflicts there seem so intractable. In some places in Africa, radio tirades against “them” help reinforce traditional hatreds. In the U.S., bile disgorged by Fox and MSNBC make political compromise much more difficult.

The peace journalism solution asks for a more balanced, thoughtful media that provides context and perspective, and, most importantly, voices from “the other side” that can allow us to consider the possibility that our adversaries may have legitimate concerns--in essence, to help us understand that it's possible for a blue book to also be green.