A comparison of the coverage of terrorist attacks in France, Lebanon and Kenya demonstrates that global media falls well-short of the ideals of peace journalism.
By Kirthi Jayakumar*
For a while after the terror attack in Paris, there was outrage: not only at the incident in Paris, but also at the near-absence of media coverage of incidents in Lebanon and, earlier in the year, Kenya. This led to angered statements that denounced the media’s choice in reporting incidents of equal magnitude, intensity and concern, and even led to a sense of exclusion. The Western media was accused of racism. People began asserting claims that some lives probably mattered lesser than some others, in a manner of comparison.
Regardless of the motivations underlying this, the media’s response and reaction to both incidents – and I say both rather than all of the incidents collectively because these incidents ran and occurred almost in parallel, give or take a few days and hours – is a reflection of how far the global media is from peace journalism.
For the uninitiated, war journalism refers to journalism that projects violence and focuses on portraying violence. It tends to encourage a media presentation that is heavily-oriented towards violence and projecting the conflict arena in a two-party and one-goal deal, confining itself to closed spaces and time, with the cause and effect studied only in the arena. It is concerned only with the visible or tangible effects of violence, thereby making conflict “opaque”. Furthermore, war journalism is exceptionally exclusionary – and focuses on an “us-and-them rhetoric”; seeing the enemy ‘them’ as the problem while dehumanising them. It is heavily reactive in that it waits for violence to start before it does or says anything; is heavily propaganda-oriented, seeking only to expose their untruths while helping to cover-up “our” own flaws and lies; tends towards the elite, by focusing on their violence and our suffering, calling them evildoers and focusing only on the elite segments of society – spokespersons and peacemakers; skewed towards victory, in that it considers peace as victory and ceasefire, while concealing peace initiatives even before victory is at hand, while focusing on controlled societies and treaties and gives up on a war once it is through – not looking at the root of the issue that needs solving, and returns only if the war flares up again.
In simple terms, peace journalism offers what war journalism doesn’t. It does not concern itself with anything aside from the facts of and surrounding the issue. It encourages the exploration of backgrounds and contexts of conflict formation, and presents the causes and options of every side when it portrays conflict in realistic terms. It effectively serves the purpose by being transparent in the representation of the causes, background and issues causing a conflict, giving a voice to all the rival parties involved and their views, offering creative ideas that can culminate in conflict resolution, development, peacemaking and peacekeeping. As a matter of principle, therefore, it works on exposing lies, revealing excesses committed, revealing all the suffering inflicted on people of all parties involved in the conflict, paying attention to peace-stories and efforts for peace and bringing out information on post-war developments.
For peace journalism, therefore, it does not matter where an incident occurred. Lebanon or France, it is all covered with equal value and attention. In sum, it is about transparent journalism that relies on facts, exploratory and evaluated reality that focuses on causes and effects, and efforts.
Looking at Paris and Lebanon as distinct, looking at one worthy of coverage at the cost of the other, and treating both accordingly is clearly a case of war journalism. It has been argued that people are “more likely to be concerned about victims they can identify with.” While this may be an agreeable agreement, it is disappointing that people can’t identify with other people. It is disappointing that people identify with attributes of other people.
The media’s perception of what is news should be restructured. As a vehicle of information, the media has a responsibility to the masses, to provide authentic information without clouding it with judgment. Let the people decide and form their opinions themselves – and let the op-ed column take care of publishing opinion. The mainstream media channels should stick to reporting news in an unbiased way. True, there maybe a sense of rarity to the occurrence of terror attacks in Paris. But this does not mean that any other part of the world should be overshadowed.
It is not for a media house to determine what should receive more coverage or not in a global space. The only exception for this would be the local geo-situation of a news outlet. For example, if there’s a news outlet that caters primarily to an audience in Tamil Nadu, India, focusing on a cyclone and its movements as a matter of priority over and above the attacks in Paris and Lebanon are acceptable, and perhaps even necessary – for it can be a greater priority for people to be safe in their immediate lives as it is.
If we want a peaceful world, it’s time we stop choosing between the geographies of global violence.
*Kirthi Jayakumar is a Lawyer, specialized in public international law and human rights. A graduate of the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai, Kirthi has diversified into research and writing on public international law and human rights. She has worked as a UN Volunteer, specializing in human rights research in Africa, India and Central Asia and the Middle East. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on international law, called A38.
- See Lynch, J. & Galtung, J. (2010). Reporting Conflict: The Low Road and High Road
- Lynch, J. & McGoldrick, A. (2010) “A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict and Peace” in R.L. Keeble, J. Tulloch & F. Zollmann (eds.) Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution. (Peter Lang: New York)