03.05.07 11:03 Alter: 5 yrs

The role of the mass media through a Peace Media Lens


Haïti, April 2004. The media played an active role in the overthrow of President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Here a man sells papers on the street in Port-au-Prince. © Paul Jeffrey / ACT

by Sandra Pineda de Forsberg (*)


This article was published in the magazine "New Routes", the quarterly journal of the Life & Peace Institute (volume 11, no 4, 2006). 

The 'peace media lens' metaphor in the title suggests the need for attitudinal and behavioural changes about the values every media person and agency should adapt to when covering conflict, in order to become peace agents. This way, peace media values can be incorporated into all levels of news coverage. The aim of this article is thus to identify the role of the mass media through a Peace Media Lens.


Free and critical media plays a central role in democracies by constituting the main source of information, which provides the society with knowledge and a variety of experiences. It also serves as a forum for public debate, conception and development of opinions. The media is viewed as a source of power that influences, controls, and promotes new standards in the society and reinforces the existing ones. Media is thus one of the principal agents for societal development, democracy and good governance, and a crucial element in areas of conflict.


It can be suggested that media is both a friend and a foe to a peace process. Media can foster human security, and there is evidence that media can reinforce motives for fuelling wars. It can be an instrument for peace and conflict management, which promotes messages and strategies that can lead to peaceful agreements and tolerant behaviour in a given society. Media can also be a weapon of violence that propagates biased information and manipulates societies or groups in conflict with divisive ideologies and harmful actions. Thus, the media have become pervasive and extremely influential in attitudes towards conflict.


The role of media in conflict has increased its place in public attention. Policy makers, journalists, and social scientists all point to the central role of the press in events such as the genocide in Rwanda, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the war in Bosnia, Somalia etc. A more descriptive example is the case of Colombia. Daily life in Colombia is bombarded, not only with explosives, but also with war news. It is very common to read news that vividly describe the drama of death and terror by informing the public of how many people have been massacred, for instance. Most Colombians have accommodated to this type of news, since there is nothing else on the menu.


Wolfsfeld, one of the leading peace media scholars, states that it is more complex to cover peace news than war. The drama and emotions of violent news are more profitable than peace reporting, since they attract more public attention. Still, studies and research on the role of the media in conflict are very limited compared to other conflict-related issues. An even more neglected area in this field is peace media.


Media as promoter of peace

There are efforts to promote the use of media to facilitate conflict resolution, and ‘peace media'. Peace media can be defined as the use of "radio, television, and printed journalism, to promote peace, to disseminate truthful information or alternate viewpoints that could turn public sentiment toward peaceful resolution of conflict, or to counter ‘hate radio'". Peace media workers are supposed to be balanced and unbiased when describing the parties involved in the conflict, but not neutral and passively observant when it comes to depicting peaceful means as the only acceptable way of resolving conflicts. Wolfsfeld holds that media in many ways can contribute to reshaping the course of events in a peaceful direction. For instance, media can stress the advantages of peace building, promote individuals and groups involved in peace initiatives, and balance the view of the actors. Often, however, media conveys the opposite type of messages to the public.


The theoretical background to understanding the power of media in shaping events is related to, among other things, how news is framed. Gitlin explains: "Media frames are persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation and presentation, of selection emphasis and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual." Frames can thus be understood as culturally flavoured frameworks that help journalists organise information and package it for their audience.


The interactions between the elite and the news media can be shown by the way political events are framed or structured by news media in order to give meaning to events by packaging information. Media frames are thus fundamental in news coverage and undergo changes with varying conditions over time. These frames are most often analysed from a social constructivist point of view, which holds that meaning is generated through actions limited in time and space - meaning is not intrinsic to persons or events. Hence those who control a situation through their actions create or define the meaning of a particular circumstance.


From this constructivist perspective, frames are always present when distributing information, which is particularly important in mass media. Tuchman states: "Within the realm of political communication, framing has to be defined and operationalised on the basis of this social constructivism. Mass media actively set the frames of reference that readers or viewers use to interpret and discuss public events." Hence, the framing of news presentation constitutes the very actions that create meaning to events. We can conclude that this important potential of media could be used for creating peace-promoting messages. Do we see that this is the case?


Unfortunately not. Wolfsfeld notes the difficulty of the media to contribute to peace processes and suggests four possible explanations that all revolve around the contrasting characters of the peace process itself and the news.


First, news coverage aims to depict immediate events and actions rather than longitudinal developments. For instance, media that takes a short-term view of a peace process usually creates a sense of irritation and anxiety. Second, drama and spectacle (bloody pictures, negative statements about antagonists, frustration, hopelessness and death, etc.) convey a greater negative impact on the news instead of expressing moderation and stepwise progress. This does not help the peace process perception of the public. It shows the propensity to polarise the parties as well as to frighten the society as a whole. Third, plainness due to time and space restraints in news presentation risks losing details and a sense of the complexity of the problem. In particular the importance of ideologies that have a bearing on the peace process are often neglected, which in turn lower the level of the public debate. Finally, ethnocentrism in media coverage favours the journalists' own convictions, and tends to skew the perception of the conflict and petrify hatred between actors. Antagonists become synonymous with threats to groups or interests represented in such coverage.


Endurance versus urgency

Peace processes need endurance, whereas news media require urgency that agitates emotions on all sides. This has of course the effect of counteracting peace processes, which need calmness for their nurturing. Wolfsfeld calls this relationship between peace processes and news media a ‘static model'. Many journalists, editors and others do not perceive these undesirable news values and counterproductive effects of the media from a peace building perspective. We thus see that media, despite its strong influences on the society, for a number of reasons is handicapped in the role of peace building in that the media tends to choose frames that are not compatible with the nature of peace processes.


The four hampering attributes of media mentioned above are cornerstones in what is called the ‘static model' of media. The changing nature of media over time and its dependence on conditions is also important in the context of peace processes and is referred to as the ‘dynamic model'. Wolfsfeld identifies two elements involved in this phenomenon. These elements are: the conditions associated with the political environment, which are related to the peace process, and the conditions related to the media environment. The latter can be defined as the sum of professional convictions, values and practices applied in news production. The political environment is based on the private and public norms, attitudes, customs and values that shape political life. This environment undergoes changes over time according to the circumstances.


When the political environment is shaped by an elite that is in agreement concerning the peace process, only one frame, good or bad, is at hand. If this singular frame is favouring, for instance, a peace process, then the news coverage can have a positive influence on the peace process. On the other hand, when the elite is split over an issue, the division itself becomes the focus of the news reporting and contributes to perpetuating the dispute. Likewise, the diversity of debate in the news is proportional to the diversity of debate within the political leadership. Wolfsfeld thus sees automatic adaptations of the media world that are in accordance with the political circumstances.


Apart from the political and media environments, other crucial elements within the dynamic model are the intensity of the conflict and the frequency of crises. Wolfsfeld claims that the more severe the conflict, the more likely the media is to make things worse by selectively emphasising the antagonism and highlighting the resulting problems to satisfy their need for ‘drama', as we noted earlier. A broad political consensus and a smoothly progressing peace process can only counteract this tendency where the news spontaneously will cover agreements for constructive and resolving solutions.


Finally, the interactions between the polity and the media can be understood as a circle with mutual successive influences, where usually the polity makes the first move followed by a media response that in turn affects new policies. Certain prominent political events can create a political wave, which is characterised by media involvement generating elevated public awareness that contributes to intensifying the impact of the event. Peace frames are easily placed in a context where, for instance, a major agreement between antagonists with a great amount of international support is negotiated. The event immediately becomes newsworthy and also provides significant political advantages to the government. The opposite scenario is when one of the antagonists is attacked and the peace process is threatened. Then the news media becomes more events-minded (kidnapping, assassinations etc.) and finds it difficult to keep the frame of the peace process in view.


Sensationalist or balancing media

It has been argued that the media can initiate events, although it is not the rule. Media can however, play a major role in defining the political atmosphere in which the process takes place and hence influence the nature of the debate. The strategy and behaviour of the antagonists can be affected as well as the public standing and perception of the legitimacy of antagonists. As seen, though media rarely initiate conflicts, they are potent in shaping them through their reactions to conflicts.


A media environment that is influenced by sensationalist priorities for news coverage is less likely to contribute to a peace process. Peace media, in contrast, is characterised by balanced reporting, emotional distance, presenting a broader and more multifaceted view of the conflict, and rejecting entertainment and partisan interests as major influences on news presentation. In this context, it is noted that an independent public sphere for open and free communication between different political currents, religions, minorities etc. is necessary for an effective peace media approach.


In sum, as a platform for discussions and sharing information by antagonists, peace media is needed as a significant catalyst for any peace process. Since the general public is dependent on news media for information, the media also influences the general view on the conflict and the peace process. Unfortunately, many have found that the media is more likely to hinder peace processes than to promote them.



The Colombian situation


The Colombian Nobel Prize winner and author Gabriel García Márquez holds that "journalists cannot cover peace talks if we intend to find daily news without the sufficient capacity and responsibility to deal with them as a process." The Colombian media and journalists appear to lack training for the efficient presentation of news that describe and analyse peace and conflict events and dynamics, with both immediate and long term perspectives. The content of the news articles in relation to the conflict portrays a very limited contribution to the conflict discourse from peace and conflict perspectives in order to build a more substantial dialogue. The quality of the work of the journalists can strengthen civicness and culture in relation to the respect of human rights and value of life above money. Thus, a novel media approach is greatly needed for the promotion of sustainable peace in a society that is capable of structural changes. The Colombian media have missed the central point by only looking at immediate events and displaying the short version of the story for forty years.


The social obligation of the media to contribute to the peace process is a constant struggle as mentioned above. A peace media journalist is expected to take a position that will favour the peace process, for example, as a facilitator for coexistence, pluralism and dialogue in order to reconstruct a Colombia based on democratic values. Respect for human rights and the achievement of peace as an integral part of the Colombian society are the other challenges.


Peace negotiations and local organisations facilitate the building of networks for the protection of human rights, refugees, peace initiatives, and democratisation. For establishing security reforms, the media come into play again. In the assistance of peace processes, the international community and Colombian policy makers need to realise that the challenge of peace in part depends on development and fair governance but can only be fully achieved with reconciliation strategies, after the actors have come to fully agree to make peace, which can be greatly influenced through the media.


Sentiments and positive feelings are also important to convey, particularly when a society faces harsh situations. Peace is positive, inspires tranquillity, and keeps some memory of what is meant by silence in the middle of so much screaming and convulsion. Harmony and serenity are desirable in the context. Agreements, dialogue, empathy, understanding, equality, opportunities and humanisation of the conflict are also instrumental. They are not highlighted sufficiently in the Colombian news. The violence is a daily reality, but it should not be lasting. A passive attitude towards peace-seeking alternatives when making frames is a dangerous choice.


Influence on the peace process

How can the media maintain the balance between transparency of the peace process and the need for confidentiality? Can the media meet the imperatives of market forces such as sensationalism and commercialisation, and at the same time create a forum for serious and responsible public debate? Media reporting and the public exist in symbiosis, each one moulding the other, which contains within it the key to both conflict resolution and conflict formation. In contrast with news about the elite who are mentioned very specifically, as in the case of families of deputies or elite associations etc, the nearly two million civilians that are displaced are almost forgotten by the media, and in the headlines they are mentioned only in very extreme cases. Here I do not intend to say that peace media is the absolute answer to the Colombian peace process, but it follows that better media coverage using the peace media features will greatly influence, shape and promote the Colombian peace process.


Finally, forty years of conflict in Colombia is enough to learn important lessons. Peace media needs time and perseverance in highly complex conflict situations like the one in Colombia. A shift from a short term to a long term perspective and gradual peace building must permeate the news media and the society as a whole. Unity and dialogue are required and media could contribute to these by setting the platform for a point of convergence for all institutions of the Colombian society.


"All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarise it. Or we can brutalise it. Or we can help lift it to a higher level."



Why peace media? Bernbach's words emphasise the power of media to shape conflicts. With this ability comes a responsibility. Therefore, a moral answer would be both necessary and sufficient for the most part. It is because a peace media focus on solving conflicts rather than winning them, given the horrors of warfare, may reduce human suffering. From another angle, peace media provides a more realistic image of what goes on in the world. Ideally, the role of the media should be concerned with democracy, justice and the interest of people. Peace media is not far from this concept. The information that is conveyed to the members of society should be useful for their development and be concerned with their immediate struggles. Here peace media encourages functional messages that take the society into account as a one whole unit comprised of human beings that have individual needs.


(*) Sandra Pineda de Forsberg is a consultant, teacher in Colombia and the UK. She has degrees in Peace and Conflict Studies and Theology, and a diploma in International Media and Communication Studies.





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