Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
An early warning of erupting conflict is when journalists are silenced or, worse, incarcerated for their refusal to be silenced. We see this throughout recent history and around the world—from press crackdowns in Burma to the imprisonment of Al Jazeera reporters in Egypt to the incarceration and torture of hundreds of journalists in Ethiopia. Regardless of how you define democracy, it is a nearly universally held belief that freedom of the press is a fundamental pillar of a peaceful and free society—one that provides a critical check and balance on power structures and the status quo.
Yet, as Rotary Chula Class #17 discussed earlier this month with Professor Reena Kukreja, contemporary media—and all media, perhaps—warrants scrutiny. First, no storyteller or version of a story is without some kind of bias, despite the fact that most media outlets declare themselves to be fair and balanced. But perhaps more troubling is the growing intermingling between corporations—entities that exist to make money—and media outlets: entities that exist, ostensibly, to report the truth. If a media company has business interests in Israel, for example, that might skew the manner in which its newspapers and TV stations report upon the current conflict in Gaza. As more and more of our international media outlets are owned by fewer and fewer companies that stand to gain or lose from the way in which current events are portrayed (or even if they are reported upon at all), we can have less and less faith that the information we are getting is actually fair and balanced.
We also discussed the corrosive phenomenon of our media’s over-focus on reporting upon negative events. Negative events are what make the news, sadly, whereas stories of everyday peace, stories of positive solutions to difficult problems, are not as sexy, and go drastically under-reported. This has an added effect of perpetuating conflict, because conflict—and not peace initiatives or successful interventions—become the dominant narrative. In this way, journalists aren’t simply reporting on a conflict, but can also become, in their methods of reporting, conflict actors and agitators, themselves.
Ms. Kukreja offered another paradigm for us to consider: Peace Journalism. Peace Journalism offers reliable & accurate information and unbiased and diverse media; works to reduce the impact and spread of rumors; attempts to stabilize society (by monitoring rights abuses and encouraging divergent opinions; encourages journalists to question their roles, assumptions and the impact they have in a conflict; and imparts voice to the voiceless.
“Wow,” I thought as her power point flashed on the screen. “This sounds pretty good!” It also sounds exactly like what good journalism should be.
As a journalist, I feel that it is absolutely my responsibility to offer accurate and reliable information, and to check my own biases and ensure that I’m speaking to and checking my facts against a wide variety of sources. Spreading rumors is the lazy work of a hack—and there’s nothing more embarrassing as a journalist to report something that ends up being factually inaccurate. And the entire reason I became a journalist was to report stories related to human rights and social justice, to use my position of privilege in the world (a privilege that exists purely by the chance of where and when I was born) to amplify the voices who, because they are not so privileged, rarely get heard.
I would argue that peace journalism is what we should expect of good journalism, and that just because journalistic hackery is masquerading in the mainstream as fair and balanced, doesn’t mean that we should throw the whole journalistic institution out the window. There are remarkable citizen journalist initiatives that are doing incredible work—from using radio to re-integrate child soldiers into society or teach children via airwaves who are living in war zones, or documenting abuses against women using cellular phones or providing minority opinions via video diaries. These are all vitally important initiatives to ensure that “the single story” (something we like to reference so much at Chula) is, as it always must be, interrupted and put into check. These other media alternatives don’t need to exist in lieu of good old fashioned journalism, however—journalism that speaks truth to power, that exposes human rights abuses and power abuses and corruption, as well as journalism that covers the excellent work being done to thwart these kinds of insidious forces. Just as we need to check our facts, we need to check our media outlets—and insist that they hold themselves to higher standards.
Lauren Markham, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2014 Session