One doesn’t have to be a war correspondent
to recognize that journalism and news media can incite violent conflict.
In 1994, Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda incited genocide by employing
metaphors and hate speech. Serbian state broadcasting during the 1995
and 1999 Balkan conflicts is almost equally infamous. Incompetent
journalism and partisan news management can generate misinformation
which inflames xenophobia, ethnic hatred, class warfare and violent
conflict in almost any fragile state. The anti-Thai violence in Cambodia
in 2003, triggered entirely by partisan media, is a more recent example.
Radio Netherlands’ website on counteracting hate media indicates
that hate radio is currently operating on five continents.
Less recognized, however, is the potential for journalism to influence
conflict resolution. And less resolved is whether it should play that
role. Is there such a thing as conflict-sensitive journalism? (To
be clear, journalism here means reporting that seeks international
standards of media reliability such as accuracy, impartiality or fair
balance, and social responsibility.)
Although unremarked in the daily grind of news and in journalism education,
the reality is that reliable journalism indeed contributes to conflict
reduction. It is automatic or innate.
Reliable reporting, and responsibly written editorials and opinion,
do things such as establish communication among disputant parties,
correct misperceptions and identify underlying interests and offering
solutions. The media provides an emotional outlet. It can offer solutions,
and build confidence.
As Robert Karl Manoff of the Centre for War, Peace and the Media at
New York University notes : the regular journalistic activities
are precisely the activities which professional conflict mediators
conduct. Johannes Botes  at George Mason University similarly describes
the parallels between the roles of professional journalists and professional
conflict resolvers, such as diplomats and truce facilitators. Journalists
and mediators both remain independent of the parties to a conflict.
They share similar positions, functions and even attitudes. Of course,
there are differences, such as journalists’ instinct for exposing
As researchers Hannes Bauman and Melissa Siebert put it, in observing
reporting on South Africa’s Truce and Reconciliation process
in the 1990s, “journalists mediate conflict whether they intend
to or not.” In other words, as journalists, when we do our jobs
well, we do more than we think.
ROSS HOWARD is a Canadian
journalist and consultant specializing in media development in conflict-stressed
states and emerging democracies. He is president of the journalism
development consortium Media
& Democracy Group, a journalism faculty member of Langara
College in Vancouver, and a freelance writer. He has trained journalists
and conducted media assessments in countries including Sri Lanka,
Cambodia, Nepal, Rwanda, and Burundi.
Howard is co-editor of The Power of Media (European Centre for Conflict
Prevention); author of Conflict Sensitive Journalism,
a handbook (IMPACS/International Media Support-Denmark), and An
Operational Framework for Media and Peacebuilding (IMPACS-CIDA),
and Media & Elections, a handbook, (IMS-IMPACS,
and Gender, Conflic t& Journalism (forthcoming: UNESCO/NPI), and
Radio Talkshows for Peacebuilding: A Guide (forthcoming:
Search for Common Ground).
He is an award-winning former Senior Correspondent for The Globe and
Mail newspaper and a former CTV Television editor. He has presented
analyses on media and conflict/ democratization in Europe, Asia and
North America. Ross Howard currently lives in Vancouver. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Conventional journalism training and development generally contains
little or no reference to the wisdom of five decades of academic
and professional study of conflict. Conflict analysis theory and
skills are still not considered mainstream journalism prerequisites
However, at least in fragile and post-war states, some professional
journalism developers are now broadening that mainstream. Their
approach includes specifically recognizing what most cripples these
stressed states, which is violent conflict. Often termed conflict-sensitive
journalism, this training retains core journalism values and skills.
But it includes an introduction to conflict analysis: the concept
of conflict and most common causes, the forms of violence by which
conflict is played out, and some insight into techniques of resolution.
(See below, The basics of conflict
sensitive journalism.) And in some cases it goes further, into
interesting unconventional practices.
At the very least, these added capabilities create better story
selection and much more insightful writing and broadcasting. At
best, they substantially expand a stressed community’s dialogue
and possibly offer glimpses of common ground.
Organizations within the $100-million-per-year journalism development
sector, such as the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting
(IWPR), US-based Internews, the Panos network, International Media
Support, IMPACS, Media&Democracy Group in Canada and others
now frequently include conflict sensitization modules within their
programs in dozens of conflict-stressed countries. There is a nascent
literature , and links to practitioners
and conflict resolution organizations. As Robert Karl Manoff of
the Centre for War, Peace and the Media at New York University notes,
the regular journalistic activities are precisely the activities
which professional conflict mediators conduct.
But Siebert and Bauman in South Africa in 1990 also argued that
journalists should go beyond simply recognizing the roots of violence
and their unintended roles as mediators. They argued journalists
should consciously help manage conflict rather than exacerbate it,
as was done by journalists selecting the right stories from South
Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process to affirm the value
Individually, many journalists will acknowledge a humanistic or
moral willingness to reduce violence. When a CBC reporter recently
seized a lighter from a gasoline-soaked protestor about to immolate
himself at an Ottawa embassy, most colleagues justified it with
references to putting human life ahead of just another protest story.
But applying that moral impulse as a collective or workplace obligation
for journalists rarely wins endorsement from Western media professionals.
[Interestingly, at the Carnegie Commission’s 2002 roundtable,
“Journalists Covering Conflict: Norms of Conduct ,”
the strongest defense of moral obligation came from European reporters
who had covered the Balkans conflict and ethnic cleansing, and from
Jay Rosen, the American journalist-academic who leads the core-journalism
restoration movement in the US.]
Nonetheless, as Jannie Botes reports in the IWPR book, Regional
Media in Conflict , some journalists
in the new South Africa walk a tightrope between ethical obligations
to report without self-censorship, and social responsibility to
avoid inflammatory or hate speech. Traditional journalists might
remain wary of going beyond observing and reporting. But a newer
generation raised on anti-apartheid experiences argue the media
has a responsibility in reconciling groups in conflict.
Similarly, trainers and advisors working for CECORE in Uganda, Search
for Common Ground in Central Africa, Panos in The Great Lakes region
of Africa, and Internews in both Indonesia and in the Ferghanna
Valley of Central Asia, have devised training to address violent
conflict through journalism, rather than merely report it. In the
Philippines and Indonesia, journalism which includes deliberately
calming or conciliatory news is now competing with the conventional
sensational fare, especially in rural communities, inspired by trainers
from Internews, IREX and other large training organizations.
British journalist Jake Lynch is a leading proponent of deliberate
media engagement in seeking peace . With co-author Annabel McGoldrick,
Lynch calls for journalists to address “their responsibility
for the influence their coverage is likely to exert on what happens
next.” His “workable ethic of responsibility”
includes no specific imperative for news judgement, he says, but
he also argues that “the choices [of influential news] we
make will be based on what we actually want to happen – that
is to say, peace.”
Sandra Melone and George Terzis of the European Centre for Conflict
Prevention similarly argue that journalism should ensure balanced
reporting but “cannot be neutral towards peace.” But
neutrality is an old journalism code-word for objectivity, which
itself has been replaced by words like impartial and fair. So do
we sacrifice an essential journalistic core value, in moving to
conflict-sensitive reporting? Probably not. But what about so-called
peace journalism? Does it cross the line into advocacy? It’s
debatable. But surprisingly few professionals in Western media seem
prepared to debate conflict coverage at a time when sensationalistic
and trivial reporting deserves new examination for its contribution
to polarized, ill-informed and frightened communities.
However, some media development organizations go beyond debate and
are making their intentions much clearer. They see and use journalistic
techniques as a tool for transforming attitudes, promoting reconciliation
and reducing conflict in war-torn countries. Organizations such
as Search For Common Ground have pioneered intended-outcome programming,
which uses news and entertaining broadcasting to change behaviour.
Radio broadcasts such as soap operas, comedies, music shows and
call-in shows can present information which helps break down stereotypes,
exchanges viewpoints dispassionately, dispels myths and seeks commonalities
in communities desperate for any media alternative to hate radio
or state propaganda.
But is it journalism? By conventional definitions, no. Granted,
the specialists at Search for Common Ground insist that they remain
committed to essential elements of accuracy and responsibility in
the information they provide. Certainly their material does not
resemble propaganda, which relies on misinformation. And it is highly
relevant to local situations, moreso than mere body-count news reporting.
Ultimately, as Francis Rolt of Search for Common Ground puts it
 , organizations and individuals
working in conflict zones have been blinded too long by these old
arguments about whether journalism techniques should be used for
conflict resolution. The media, in many forms, can be more than
just news, Rolt argues, and can contribute to peace-building in
1. Manoff, Robert Karl: Role Plays. Track Two, Vol. 7 No. 4, December
2. Rubenstein et al: Frameworks for Interpreting Conflict, a Handbook
for Journalists. Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution,
George Mason University, 1994;
3. The Power of Media, A handbook for peacebuilders. European Centre
for Conflict Prevention. Utrecht., 2002
4. Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, final report,
New York, 1999.
5. Botes, Johannes, Regional Media in Conflict, Case Studies in
War Reporting. Institute for War and Peace Reporting, London, 2000.
6. McGoldrick, Annabel and Lynch, Jake, Peace Journalism, in Reporting
The World. Also available at www.transcend.org
7. Rolt, Francis et al, The Power of Media, A handbook for peacebuilders,
European Centre for Conflict Prevention, Utrecht, 2003
The relationship between journalism and conflict is a curious
one. Although conflict – be it political, social or military
– is a primary focus, often to the point of obsession for
conventional journalism, most journalists know surprisingly little
about it. There is, in most journalism training and practice, precious
little familiarity with conflict as a social process. The consequence
can be a reporting style that feeds on and repeats the worst stereotypes,
the drama and the immediacy of conflict, and fuels their ignition
Journalism trainers and media developers in fragile or emerging
states have increasingly recognized that conventional training is
insufficient in preparing journalists in such places to report on
what is often seen and described as intractable conflict and inevitable
violence. Something additional to conventional standards such as
accuracy, and skills such as interviewing and editing, is needed
to overcome the legacies of authoritarian government, corruption,
poverty and an absence of media diversity, editorial independence
and a media-supportive legal infrastructure.
What has emerged is an expanded concept of journalism development,
a sort of professionalism-plus approach, sometimes called conflict-sensitive
journalism. It involves stressing the core values of professional
reporting, plus sensitizing journalists to their innate potential
as unintended mediators in conflicted societies, and introducing
them to a rudimentary analysis of conflict. It argues that journalism
which repeats simplistic or stereotyped claims about violence without
seeking deeper explanations will mislead citizens into believing
violence is the only recourse in all conflicts.
Conflict sensitive journalism can inject context, an appreciation
for root causes, and a new capacity to seek and analyze possible
solutions, to the otherwise daily repeating of violent incidents
as news. At best, when reported reliably, these elements can alter
a community’s handling of its own conflicts.
Essential elements of rudimentary conflict analysis
for journalists often include these points:
• Almost all conflict emerges from a handful of causes, most
notably inadequately shared resources such as food or housing, no
communication between disputants, unresolved grievances and unevenly
distributed power. Conflict turns violent when no common ground
or shared interest can be established.
• Violence can emerge in several forms, including cultural
practices such as widely-practiced hate speech and racial (or religious
or gender) discrimination. The violence can also be institutionalized
by legally sanctioned racism, sexism, colonialism, nepotism and
• Conflict almost inevitably ends because of one-party dominance,
withdrawal and irresolution, compromise, or real transformation
of a dispute into a shared solution. Journalists play some of the
roles of a mediator, providing resources – information –
to communities to resolve conflict. Successful resolution almost
invariably requires an expanded number of interests with new interests,
trade-offs and alternatives.
• Journalism risks being manipulated by narrow interests and
unchallenged mythologies, especially from traditional elites. A
basic analysis of a conflict broadens journalists’ insights,
perspectives and sources of information, which produces more diverse
• In acknowledging their innate capacity as mediators, and
applying basic conflict analysis, conflict-sensitive journalists
apply more rigorous scrutiny to the words and images they apply
in their reporting:
• Avoiding emotional and imprecise words
such as massacre and genocide, terrorist, fanatic and extremist.
Call people what they call themselves. Avoid words like devastated,
tragic and terrorized.
• Defining conflicts as multi-faceted, and seeking commonalities
as well as points of disagreement among disputants, and seeking
alternative perspectives and solutions to the conflict.
• Attributing claims and allegations, and avoiding unsubstantiated
descriptions as facts.
• Avoiding the unjustified use of racial or cultural identities
in stories and the exclusion of gender diversity in seeking perspectives
Training courses and modules for conflict sensitive
reporting often provide examples of how traditional reporting describes
a violent event, without verifying information or not going beyond
bare facts, and using unnecessarily vivid and emotional words such
as massacre. In contrast, a conflict-sensitive report would report
what is known and give less emphasis to unverifiable claims. It
would ensure both sides are included in the report, and it would
include people who condemn the violence and offer solutions. It
would not blame the conflict on ethnicity and would not repeatedly
identify the combatants or victims only by their ethnic identity,
if there are deeper underlying causes of the conflict.
Essentially, conflict-sensitive journalism is a reiteration of the
elemental principles of professional reporting with added response
to the situation of unskilled media workers accustomed to severe
constraints, in environments prone to violent conflict. Conflict-sensitivity,
however, need not be unique to emerging democracies’ media
professionals. It is equally relevant to media coverage of any Western
Examples and Sources
The vast majority of specific examples of conflict-sensitivity training
are contained within short or long-term international initiatives
to advance media development as an element of conflict resolution
and post-conflict democratization. Most initiatives are delivered
by NGOs and consultancies.
• International Media Support (Denmark) presented a series
of conflict-sensitive reporting workshops and seminars for journalists
in Sri Lanka in 2002 following declaration of a truce in the country’s
extended civil war. The program was designed to address highly unreliable
and partisan reporting which was rapidly eroding public confidence
in the truce, by media narrowly representing single viewpoints in
• Search for Common Ground (USA) presented a week-long training
course in Burundi in professional and conflict-sensitive reporting
for radio producers and reporters from Central and East African
countries which have experienced intense conflict, in 2003.
• International Media Support (Denmark) developed, in collaboration
with local partner, The Nepal Press Institute, a program of conflict
sensitive training for for journalists from traditionally highly
politicized and competitive media outlets, who worked as teams to
produce major non-partisan reports on significant national issues
for simultaneous countrywide distribution in Nepal in 2003-2004.
• Internews (USA) initiated training for more than 200 radio
and print journalists in handling conflict issues in their communities
– to move beyond “body count journalism” –in
recognition of the massively expanded but unprofessional media’s
opportunity to play a pivotal role in de-escalating conflict in
Indonesia in 2002-2003.
• Internationally-supported Medios para la Paz (Media for
Peace) has operated in Colombia since 1997 to address the difficulties
of reliable reporting in the midst of violent conflict. Its activities
include media professionals’ support and training based on
the premise that media coverage can exacerbate a conflict or help
reduce it. Much of its work focuses on reporting that can have a
positive impact on efforts to achieve peace.
• Search for Common Ground, a US-based conflict resolution
organization, presented a 10-day workshop in 2005 for senior radio
talk show hosts from 20 African countries to consider techniques
of broadcasting likely to retain and better inform audiences without
exploiting conflict issues in their communities. A handbook on conflict-sensitive
talk-radio was produced for international use.