Little support for the phrase “Peace journalism” & different ways of seeing facts, justice & public interest

The phrase “peace journalism” was found wanting by organisers and delegates alike at today’s workshop in Belfast. Partly because the journalistic ethics that apply to conflict equally apply to peace (and every other situation), and also because Northern Ireland may be on a transition between conflict and peace, but it’s definitely not yet altogether post-conflict.

The main speakers (Deaglan de Breadun, Mike Gilson, Jane Morrice and Malachi O’Doherty) and panellists (Laura Haydon, Alex Kane, Lyra McKee and Julia Paul) all had differently nuanced articulations of the role of individual journalists (and media organisations more generally) in covering conflict and peace, and differing notions of what constituted truth, justice and public interest.

Worthy concepts of “impartial” or “unbiased” media as well as just reporting “the facts” are simplistic. Moral judgements on (not so) “absolute” rights and wrongs end up being subjective, but these kind of moral judgements are definitely made in newsrooms across the island. Journalists are clearly conscious of the possibility of censorship, and even self-censorship.

peacejournalism montageQuestions were raised about what a newspaper might feel is its responsibility – or opportunity – to report versus what commercially appeals to readers. Deaglan de Breadun adapted CP Scott’s “comment is free, but facts are sacred” to say “comment is free, but facts are expensive”.

Interesting analysis from Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson about the role of newspaper campaigns and commentary. Despite Peter Robinson and other politicians carping on about the media’s doom and gloom assessment of the Executive, the media can’t merely report progress and stay blind to how far we still have to go. He also made a distinction between the immediacy of online (and app) news versus the more measured approach the physical paper can make (sometimes delaying stories by a day to allow proper fact-checking and reflective analysis).

Discussion about what constitutes hate crime, journalists experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, and the “does my bum look big in this” school of peace journalism.

Late in the panel discussion the observation briefly surfaced that stories about women in conflict are often overlooked. At Monday night’s Platform for Change Haass event someone remarked that we conduct politics in a very masculine way. That could easily extend to say that our media is quite masculine, both in focus and approach.

The various sessions (many of which are available to listen back to) left me wondering whether the main question facing journalism in Northern Ireland is: probably: What is not being covered?

Hannah summed up the day well in her tweet:


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  • Sociological clap-babble.

  • I dont think either side of the Question made their argument particuarly well.
    Journalists have no responsibility to be on the side of Peace is an absolutist argument.
    So is the argument that Journalists have a bigger responsibility to Society.
    Rather than make an argument both sides were punching holes in the other argument…because it was too easy and as a result….there was no real nuance.
    Certainly I was sitting there thinking…”if I was him/her Id have mentioned this”,
    So a few open goals were missed.
    The three “morning” journalists….they were in the right order so to speak.
    Deaglan de Breadun made his argument in an understated way.
    Mike Gilson took it a stage further.
    And Malachi O’Doherty took it to another level.
    On reflection Deaglan was almost apologetic that he cant be on the side of the Angels and O’Doherty was almost annoyed that he was being asked to do so.
    The whole day was a reminder of a similar notion put out by the British-Irish Institute a few years ago at the Ulster Museum. (Slugger passim…March 2011).
    The Institute had invited the Norn Iron Creative people….poets, dramatists, artists etc….to discuss the notion that they had an obligation to write and paint “for peace”. This was a notion rejected by the artists with increasing vigour during the day….descending into knockabout double act with Gerry Anderson and Robert Ballagh. The faces on the organisers….conflict Resolutionists told the story.
    Holding that Conference exposed a naive attitude.
    It was entirely proper that Jane Morrice brought up Michael Buerk in Ethiopia as an example of a journalist properly intervening. That example had been in my head all day as had the example of the Chilian cameraman who was so detached that he captured his own death.
    But there seems some double standards.
    I dont want to be unfair to Malachi O’Doherty as I might have misheard.
    But he told an anecdote that an American journalist in Iraq had discovered a photograph album showing a family socialising with Saddam and handed it over to the British military.
    O’Doherty said he would not have done that.
    But to me the unasked question was….what about Norn Iron. Is there information that journalists individually or collectively know that they “should” pass on to the authorities.
    Or were they too ready to toe the (British) Party Line at MOD Briefings in 1970s and now forty years later saying…”I wish I had spoken up”.
    What role do Journalists have in Truth, Healing and all that stuff that they think politicians should be doing.
    Are they exempt? Like clergymen and women?
    Rather that quoting dead men as “evidence” do journos owe it to us to tell us what they know?
    Its all a bit ….Star Trek… was always a dilemna …dont intervene in other cultures.
    After lunch…panel discussion. As always much depends on the quality of the panel. And it was excellent.
    Blogger Lyra McKee is perhaps better described as “an investigative blogger” and thats a higher standard than the average “conspiracy theorist” obsessive slightly eccentric blogger with a political agenda.
    Thankfully there was such a blogger in the audience.
    Identifying himself as a nationalist who felt that there were three communities in Norn Iron…and that the third community who he had dubbed “letsgetalongerists” some years previously had largely escaped scrutiny …and bizarrely this community wanted journalists on their side.
    Asked to elaborate on who these “letsgetalongerists” might be….the blogger had a long list ….statutory bodies, academics, ecumenical school on the Antrim Road, conflict Resolutionists, the Titanic Quarter, justin Bieber and the MTV awards, William Crawley and his Sunday Sequence Show and Rory McIlroy.
    At this point, William Crawley surmised he might be dealing with a conspiracy theorist and avoided eye contact.
    At this point the Blogger understood what its like to be in the audience for Jeremy Kyle Show.

    Yet there ARE serious points here. We missed the bus on Post Conflict and social engineering and touchstone issues….Victims (we missed that bus) and increasingly evident nobody wants to go there. And maybe…if I read Julia Paul right, journalists dont really like the whole endless good news spiel.
    In 1950s USA…they procliamed things….journalists and artists as unAmerican.
    In the 1960s…anti Soviet activity included the Beatles and of course journalists.
    All for the Common Good.
    Were have paid too high a price….Integrity….for the Common Good in Norn Iron.
    Harnessing journos and writers and artists to a LetsGetAlongerist agenda….no not a good idea.
    Yet for journalists to rely on their professionalism or their “ethics” as safeguards… thats just a bit rich.
    Journalistic Professionalism did not assist tabloid journos missing the biggest domestic story of the 21st century… their own newsrooms.
    And a proper respect for their own ethics might have stopped it happening in the first place.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m sure it was the McIlroy mention that got you slung onto the mentalist heap. It has the potential to do some good, but it’s always needed a tighter definition to make it work.

    If I’d been there I’d have asked Malachi if the sense he conveyed in his book on his first year as a journalist in 71/2 that they really had not much of a clue about what was going has changed much since peace set in?

    We seem to have swapped the secret protocols of war for those of peace. And I would here have interjected by way of example the degree to which the PAC was blindsided by its official information flow from government (DRD), in the NI Water case.

    And then I would have finished with the question: is it not dangerous to find yourself co-operating with political partners who seem reluctant at certain critical moments to be less than honest or open with you?

    The press must have teeth and be fierce (though not necessarily in a Daily Mail way), otherwise it can play no useful party in help set the natural state of peace (which ought to value conflict rather try to plaster it over.

    There is rather too much of the latter and too little of the former). It has brought us to an anodyne mediocrity in journalism that illserves the cause of peace or war. Why? Because, like the bad poet, we presume far too much.

    verum, nil securius est malo poeta

  • No harm done Mick.
    I was being hopefully humourous in my long long list of letsgetalongerists (I cant believe I omitted Slugger) and I assume that Mr Crawley allowed for that.
    At least…I hope so.

  • Politico68

    The way the media operates today has nothing to do with fairness, balance, objectivity or morals. Everything has to be ‘shocking’, ‘breaking’ , ‘sensational’, ‘exclusive’. Really its about scapegoating, sacrificing individuals, exagerration or just pure lies. Why bother sitting around having a chat about it when most of them have the integrity of cobra. The media stopped concerning themselves about the common public good years ago.

  • I went in search of a commentary on journalism and found a contribution from the Pew Research Journalism Project. The following paragraph caught my attention:

    The news media are the common carriers of public discussion, and this responsibility forms a basis for our special privileges. This discussion serves society best when it is informed by facts rather than prejudice and supposition. It also should strive to fairly represent the varied viewpoints and interests in society, and to place them in context rather than highlight only the conflicting fringes of debate. Accuracy and truthfulness require that as framers of the public discussion we not neglect the points of common ground where problem solving occurs.

  • “Really its about scapegoating, sacrificing individuals, exagerration or just pure lies.”

    Politico, are your observations not applicable in wider society too? Doesn’t this sort of thing happen, say, amongst our politicians and civil servants too? Is there any group that has the credibility to assert that we deserve and need better than this?

  • I have to confess that I’m not sure what “peace journalism” means, not having heard the words used before. But I think that “street level” reporters should simply report the facts, the 5 “W”s. Advocating peace rather than the absence of peace is properly in the domain of editorials or comments sections of the media.

  • Some links:

    Steven Youngblood responds to Friday’s conference in a blog post from Missouri.

    Alex Kane’s piece in the News Letter referring to the conference and a question he was asked during a Q&A (not recorded above): “If you knew that something you wrote would result in a riot, would you still write it?” He answered with an emphatic “Yes”.

  • Prior to reading the Youngblood Blog last night, I had formed the opinion that Peace Journalism was well intentioned but wrong headed.
    In my own Blog yesterday evening, I said as much…and argued thatt event history has shown we should be skeptical about Journalistic ethics and professionalism.
    And when people of the calibre of John Brewer, Duncan Morrow and Jane Morrice advocate something, it is right to listen, even if I disagree.

    In his blog from the Centre for Peace Journalism based at park Univ in Missouri, Youngblood does indeed quote Alex Kane and link to his Blog.
    He also links to my blog …in its entirety. Fair enough.
    He also quotes my most controversial paragraph of about 50 words but omits the 12 words which mitigate the controversy.
    Is that what an advocate of Peace Journalism does?
    I am NOT impressed.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Peace from Journalists would be nice at times.

  • Mr Youngblood has contacted me via my Blog and agreed to make some changes to his Blog.