Telling the Truth to Peoples at Risk: Some Introductory Thoughts on Media & Conflict
By Robert Karl Manoff, Director, Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, New York University
Prepared for "The Legitimacy of Intervention for Peace by Foreign Media in a Country in Conflict" sponsored by Fondation Hirondelle
July 3-4, 1998

Our century has been characterized by organized group violence on an extraordinary scale. The figures are slippery, but it is safe to say that the human race has seen fit to engage in something like 250 significant armed conflicts in the course of this century, during which over 110 million people have been killed, and many times that number wounded, crippled, and mutilated.

The scale of this slaughter is something new in human history. A mere 19 million people died in the 211 major conflicts of the Nineteenth Century; 7 million in the Eighteenth, which was marked by a paltry 55 significant wars. In fact, there have arguably been as many casualties from mass violence in our century as in the rest of human history combined.

We have become sufficiently used to these numbers and the human suffering they represent that it is easy to forget how much more social violence we live with than did our ancestors, and how much more deadly it has become. Indeed, as we know, mass violence on a previously unimaginable scale has become universalized, industrialized, and routinized. By now there are 233 politically active communal groups in 93 countries, representing fully one-sixth of humanity, at present engaged in political or military struggles from which more than 20 million refugees are currently in flight.

According to Ted Robert Gurr, who has done among the most ambitious data gathering, every form of ethnopolitical conflict has increased dramatically since the 1950's: violent communal protests and open rebellion are both four times as prevalent as they were a half century ago. Social violence, in other words, is now more likely to occur than at any other time in human history, and to be more devastating in its consequences when it does so.

With this in mind, and for realpolitik, humanitarian, and moral reasons, it has become necessary to ask what more can be done in the common interest to reduce and prevent such conflict and the suffering that attends it.

Few would disagree with the importance of this general proposition. But when the issue is raised with specific communities, constituencies, or professions this unexceptionable proposition not infrequently encounters reservations: Different institutional actors understand their own potential very differently and vary greatly in their willingness to explore how they could contribute to preventing deadly conflict.

This is very much the case with "the media," a rubric under which are grouped institutions and individuals pursuing dramatically different purposes, under a wide variety of technological, political and social conditions, within markedly divergent cultural worlds. The potential to prevent or help terminate conflict varies greatly across this media universe, as does the willingness to investigate what this potential might be.

Nevertheless, it is of critical importance that the international community explore the potential of the media to prevent conflict precisely because, taken together, the diverse mass media technologies, institutions, professionals, norms, and practices constitute one of the most powerful forces now shaping the lives of individuals and the fate of peoples and nations. To be sure, media influence is not evenly distributed in space or time and varies with circumstance. But, overall, media influence is significant, and increasingly so, and as a result the media constitute a major human resource whose potential to help prevent and moderate social violence begs to be discussed, evaluated, and, where appropriate, mobilized.

It is important to recognize that in asking what the media's preventive potential might be, much more than journalism must be on the table. In fact, in speaking about "the media" we have in mind any and all mass media forms distributed to mass audiences by any technology whatsoever. With this in mind, we believe that the international community needs to understand and fully develop the potential of popular music, journalism, soap operas, advertising and public relations, TV and radio dramas and comedies, interactive video dialogues, talk shows and call-in shows, social marketing, wall posters, matchbooks, and the World Wide Web, among other mass media forms and formats. What is more, inasmuch as attention to the potential of such genres is tantamount to focusing on media content, it must be supplemented by the development of initiatives designed to explore the institutional dimension of the media by addressing professional codes and guidelines, government and multilateral policies, the interests of media personnel or the economic stakes of their employers, and the potential of training programs, and journalist and management exchanges, as well.

With this in mind, the Media & Conflict Program of the N.Y.U. Center for War, Peace, and the News Media is working to develop a comprehensive media strategy for helping to prevent, manage, and resolve ethnonational, religious, racial and other forms of substate and international conflict. This Program will be engaging professionals from advertising, social marketing, public relations, television and radio entertainment programming, among many other fields. Professions such as these offer no prima facie ideological or professional taboos against the kind of media-based preventive activities that we believe the spectre of mass violence necessitates. Indeed, professionals in many such fields have long been associated with efforts to alter social or political behavior, either through industry associations (the Ad Council in the U.S. sponsors a wide variety of "public interest" campaigns) or the efforts of professional groups that have been formed to mobilize the intervention potential of soap operas, talk shows, and film (all of which have been the focus of NGO-initiated efforts to disseminate messages on such issues as family planning and teenage drug use).

Having said this, it nevertheless must be admitted that in a number of countries, no single issue has so bedeviled the discussion of Media & Conflict as the deeply held belief on the part of many journalists that the very idea of media-based preventive action violates the norm of objectivity -- whose corollary, disinterestedness with respect to the events being reported, is an essential element of the professional creed.

There are more or less sophisticated variants of this creed, and "nonpartisanship" or "fairness" is sometimes substituted for "objectivity" as the desirable norm.1 But whenever in recent years events such as the war in Bosnia or the genocidal violence in Rwanda have provoked discussions concerning the role of the media, the conversation-stopper has been the passionate assertion by senior correspondents that such concerns lie beyond the pale of legitimate journalism.

Because this issue so frequently becomes the fulcrum of debate for Media & Conflict issues in journalism settings, I would like to try to offer a number of propositions that, I hope, may help to structure the dialogic process on this subject, at this conference and in other venues where Media & Conflict issues will be examined in the future. In summary form, the following stipulations constitute an attempt to come to terms with "objectivity," current journalistic paradigms, and the prospect of transcending them in the interest of preventing genocide and other forms of deadly conflict.

It is important to stipulate that objectivity and related norms are fundamental core values in many journalism systems, and that these norms are believed to be inviolable because they are essential to the profession's commitment to discovering and reporting the truth.

Objectivity is, at the same time, an unobtainable ideal, as both philosophies of science and the postmodern emphasis on the genesis of narratives have made clear. A growing body of evidence points to the fact that there is an irreducible contingency in all accounts of the world (journalism's included) that belies the claim that they can, in fact, report "the truth."

Objectivity is therefore in some sense both necessary and impossible. It is a "vital illusion" -- and perhaps even a tragic one. Objectivity is unobtainable, but the effort to achieve it is much of what gives the practice of journalism its social utility and undoubted nobility.

Despite this nobility, objective journalism may be faulted on the grounds that its epistemological strength as a truth-seeking technique is also the source of a fundamental moral weakness. For it is an article of faith for those who practice objectivity that they can neither intervene in events they are covering nor take responsibility for the consequences of their decision to abstain from doing so. Critics of this point of view make the case that the professional norms of journalism do not trump fundamental human moral obligations. To my knowledge, this argument has not been successfully refuted.

Debates about Media & Conflict most often proceed without recognizing that much of the world does not practice objectivity-based journalism, nor does it necessarily aspire to do so. While the rejection of objectivity in the name of "The New World Information Order" or "development journalism" has often in the past been a smokescreen for rationalizing state control, it is nevertheless true that other forms of journalism possess excellent pedigrees and histories of accomplishment. Traditions of literary journalism, which emphasize a strong personal voice, or traditions of engagement, which express belief in the importance of defending the values and ambitions of communities (or even particular political parties or points of view), render the ideal of objectivity often irrelevant or undesirable to journalists operating within other cultures and media systems.

Such journalists may have a point -- or, again, they may not. We don't really know, inasmuch as the journalism profession as a whole has yet to carefully examine the nature of the epistemological foundations of its craft. To do so would be to ask whether objectivity-based journalism is an invention with universal validity, or whether it is a particularistic accomplishment which merely answers to the needs of particular societies or historical moments.

Having raised this question, however, it must also be stipulated that no matter how particularistic such journalism might, in the end, be determined to be, under no circumstances is propaganda a valid alternative to objective journalism, no matter how such propaganda may be rationalized.

Further, in order to examine this question intelligently, we need to keep in mind at least the following two points when it comes to truth and journalism:

Human beings have a great need to understand the truth of things. (It could even be argued that we actually do not appreciate the full extent of what might be called our "species-need" for the truth.) To put it another way: Truth has survival value for both individuals, economies, and, polities. (Liberal economic theory recognizes this fact when it privileges "information" as the sine qua non of free markets, for example.) Whatever its failures and illusions, objectivity-based journalism has proven to be an effective techniques for seeking our species-truth.

However, objectivity may be only that: a particular technique. In fact, objective journalism, which we often represent to ourselves as an enduring value at least as ancient as the "ancient hatreds" that journalists often write about, is only a half-century old. Whatever value objectivity may have as a means of acting on our universal need for truth, in other words, it may be only a particular, time- and culture-bound solution to this species-wide compulsion.

This should serve to remind us of the obvious point that journalism is a specific social practice that has a history, and that this history is one of unending social invention. Consider that only a hundred years ago the interview -- which today we would consider the primordial journalistic act -- was regarded as an unacceptable invasion of privacy, a mindless waste of good reportorial energy (and, by Europeans, a particularly American outrage). What is more, such taken-for-granted journalistic staples as the sports page, science journalism, op-eds, investigative reporting, and business journalism are all recent journalistic inventions that answered to the needs of a particular moment. In other words, in discussing Media & Conflict issues, it is important not to fall prey to an ahistorical essentialism that presumes that today's form of journalism is, or ought to be, tomorrow's.

In fact, as you all know very well, contemporary journalism is in flux. The intensity of the debates over such issues as multiculturalism, and public, civic, and community journalism signal us that the future of the profession is very much up for grabs. While journalists like Christiane Amanpour are notorious for having spurned objectivity in the interest of humanitarian engagement, even Ted Koppel has donned the mantle of a conflict resolver more than once on ABC News's "Nightline," and the ABC "Evening News" now regularly airs a segment called "solutions," something that not long ago would have been inconceivable. The signs of ferment are all about us, and it is a propitious moment to be raising some of the issues that we have on the agenda today.

Last, in the final analysis, objectivity -- and, indeed, journalism itself -- is only one of the media tools available to local actors and the international community for conflict resolution purposes. There is ample evidence that objective, fair, accurate, timely journalism is an effective way to help prevent or manage conflicts, and we will hear some of it at this conference. But at the same time there is compelling evidence that there are a wide variety of media-based strategies that have nothing whatsoever to do with journalism that may be strikingly effective in their turn. We need to recognize that in intervening in a country in conflict, we need what advertising people call a "good media mix" in which journalism is but one of the constituent ingredients.

In light of the foregoing stipulations, when it comes to examining the potential function of journalism in the media mix (the focus of this conference), it seems to me that we need to operate analytically on both the operational and the paradigmatic levels. At the operational level, we need to consider what can be done to prevent and resolve conflict through activities consistent with existing journalistic practices in each region of the world. By challenging ourselves to conceive of media-based preventive actions that are possible under current professional paradigms, we increase the likelihood of their adoption by ensuring that they are not fundamentally at odds with the profession as it is currently understood.

But even as we consider what more might be done at the operational level, I believe that it is also incumbent upon us to work on the paradigmatic level, as well. By doing so, we free ourselves of the fetters imposed by journalists' conceptions of what it may be now possible to do, and we can therefore consider more aggressive interventions that might require the development of new journalistic paradigms before they can be widely implemented. As I have noted above, journalism is a particular social practice whose principal tenets are both relatively recent and currently in flux, and it does not seem unreasonable to imagine that the history of this profession will not be frozen in its present form. Indeed, I suppose it is my argument that the urgency of the task of preventing genocidal violence should shape the evolution of journalistic paradigms in ways that will make it possible for the profession to contribute to the prevention and resolution of conflict more effectively in the future.

I say this not as the representative of a humanitarian NGO, a multilateral assistance organization, or as the victim of violence. I speak, that is to say, objectively, as a journalist, as someone who honors the profession's values and norms, and who understands the way it serves its readers and viewers every day in every corner of the globe. This is, in other words, a call from within the profession, and I am offering it in the knowledge that it will be considered unacceptable in many quarters, where the defense of journalism-as-it-is-practiced is motivated by an essentialist vision of the profession as somehow always remaining in the future what it has already become today. That view, I believe, is profoundly in error on both historical and moral grounds.

Accordingly, we at the Center for War, Peace, and the News Media have been asking ourselves if we could turn the usual question about Media & Conflict around, and in lieu of asking, "What is it possible for the media to do to prevent conflict?" pose the question, "What does conflict resolution theory and practice tell us needs to be done to prevent conflict?" In other words, instead of starting with the media's understanding of their own possibilities, as determined by current paradigms, we have decided to begin by establishing the desiderata for media action on the basis of the work of the negotiators, diplomats, Track Two practitioners, and protagonists who have participated in the resolution of conflict, or who have studied the process, or developed a body of theory about it.

This shift of perspective makes it possible first and foremost to address the question of what conflict prevention and management require of the media, putting aside for the moment the question of under what circumstances the media may be able to provide it. This is rather different from other discussions of such issues, which tend to accept at the outset what media professionals judge would be practical or possible according to the standards currently dominant in their fields. As we have argued above, it is these very same paradigms and norms that must be called into question insofar as they now impede the effective response of the world community to mass violence.

In beginning with "what conflict prevention and management require of the media," we recognize that there are diverse and contending approaches to conflict prevention and that it is likely that proponents of each will come to very different conclusions regarding the potential of media-based preventive action. Realists, focusing as they do on state actors, will likely find little use for the notion that the media can play any role other than that of facilitating the realization of state interests. For its part, an approach focused on diplomacy may see in the media little but vehicles for advancing the agendas of particular parties to any negotiation. Alternatively, approaches that can loosely be grouped together under the rubric of "conflict resolution" typically share a greater interest in the potential contributions of non-state actors and might therefore be expected to provide a body of theory and practice more congenial to the development of media interventions.

Accordingly, when we began to examine conflict resolution theory and practice several years ago, we quickly identified a number of potential "media roles" in conflict prevention that emerged from this literature and experience.2 Each one of these "roles" has an extensive theoretical and practical foundation in the conflict resolution tradition, and each, we felt, opened up possibilities for media activity that could readily be imagined. The point was to identify the conflict-preventing functions that the media can perform, and then to develop media-based activities (as appropriate to diverse conflict circumstances, media technologies, and media systems) by means of which such functions can be fulfilled. With this schema in mind, we began to develop an inventory of such roles.

In the course of doing so, I should add, we discovered that the media were in some cases already performing some of these roles as a byproduct of what they do for purely journalistic reasons. In such cases, the question then becomes whether the media can more self-consciously and more completely take on the burden of preventing deadly conflict, whether within current paradigms or through the elaboration of new ones over the years to come. Meanwhile, as a small sample of the repertory of potential journalistic roles, let me offer the following:

Potential Media Roles in Conflict Prevention and Management

Channel of communication between parties: The media not infrequently play this role ad hoc in domestic and international politics as it is; the point would be to heighten the appreciation and systematic performance of this dialogical role in the ethnopolitical context.

Education: Simply changing the information environment in which the parties operate can have a marked impact on the dynamics of conflict; it is particularly useful to promote appreciation of the complex factors impinging on the conflict situation, and to create appreciation of and tolerance for the negotiation process itself.

Confidence-building: Lack of trust between parties is a major factor contributing to conflict. The media can help to reduce suspicion through their reporting of contested issues, and increase trust through reporting of stories that suggest or illustrate that accommodation is possible.

Counteracting misperceptions: Related to the confidence-building role above, journalists can come to see the misconceptions of the parties as a story in and of itself, and by reporting this story they can encourage the parties to revise such views, moving closer to the prevention or resolution of a conflict in the process.

Analyzing conflict: This differs from conventional conflict reporting in that the media would self-consciously apply analytical frameworks derived from conflict resolution and related fields to systematically enhance the public's understanding of key aspects of the situation, as well as the dynamics of the efforts to manage it.

Deobjectifying the protagonists for each other: Sophisticated journalism, by revealing peoples' complexity, can already do this, but the question is whether some of what journalists already do ad hoc can be developed into a systematic repertory which they will be able to employ by virtue of an enhanced conception of journalism influenced by conflict-prevention considerations.

Identifying the interests underlying the issues: This is standard conflict resolution practice, but it is surprising how infrequently journalists address this question in stories. As one media scholar has remarked, in the case of U.S. journalism, instead of answering "Why?" with a sophisticated analysis of underlying group interests, "Explanation in American journalism is a kind of long-distance mind reading in which the journalist elucidates the motives, intentions, purposes, and hidden agendas which guide individuals in their actions."3

Emotional outlet: Conflicts may escalate or explode in part because the parties have no adequate outlets for expression of their grievances. Conflict can be fought out in the media rather than in the streets, and journalists, already prone to report conflict, could better serve their readers and viewers, as well as the cause of preventive diplomacy, by more fully understanding this role and perhaps pursuing it self-consciously.

Encouraging a balance of power: This helps get parties to the negotiating table. A media report can weaken a stronger party or strengthen a weaker party in the eyes of publics, thereby encouraging parties to negotiate when they otherwise might not have out of concern for the perception of their relative positions.

Framing and defining the conflict: This is nothing but good journalism practiced on the right occasions. The media can help frame the issues and interests in such a way that they become more susceptible to management. The media can be particularly attentive to the concessions made by the parties, the common ground that exists between them, the solutions they have considered, and so on.

Face saving and consensus-building: Similarly, when, in the course of negotiations, parties take steps toward resolving a conflict, they risk being attacked by more intransigent members of their own constituencies. The media can greatly facilitate the process of compromise by making it possible for negotiators to address their own publics through the media in order to explain their negotiating positions and build support for them.

Solution builder: Conflicts get prevented or managed when the parties table and consider possible solutions to grievances. Journalists can play a role in this process by pressing the parties for their proffered solutions. Although this seems self-evident, many third-party negotiators have noted that parties are often so invested in their grievances that they do not develop or consider options for potential agreement with adversaries. The simple act of eliciting ideas and reporting them could assist the dynamic of the more formal mediation process itself. It should also be noted that the process of formal mediation can fail if there is not a parallel process of what might be called "social mediation," by which the constituents and publics of the formal negotiating parties are brought into the process and prepared to accept its outcome.

This is but a partial account of potential media roles. A fuller account would describe a complex set of activities undertaken by a great variety of actors operating from institutional bases in independent, multilateral, and governmental institutions in conflict situations of great diversity. Elaborating such a full account will require, over time, the combined efforts of media professionals, diplomats, conflict resolvers and diverse protagonists, among others.

The process by which this could done would be one of "social invention" in which the spontaneous, largely uncoordinated, but not random activities of diverse actors could create new institutions and behaviors. Journalism itself, in fact, is a product of precisely this process over time, as is the sitcom, soap opera, rap song, the portable radio and the sports page. It would be folly to believe that the history of the media has ended here, and that we do not possess the social imagination to meet the challenge now being posed by the threat of mass social violence to human societies everywhere.

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