Helping children through conflict-sensitive reporting
By Galina Solodunova
OSH, Kyrgyzstan, 14 February 2012 - Journalism feeds on conflict. News stories about conflicts often attract the biggest audiences, especially on television. Paradoxically, journalists are taught surprisingly little in journalism schools about conflict as a social process, and seldom think about consequences of their unskilled or insensitive reporting.
UNICEF brought some new thinking on the media and conflict to Kyrgyzstan last week in a program on conflict sensitive reporting for journalism trainers, with the ultimate goal of greater media contribution to ensuring that all children and their families live in peace.
Leading journalists, media trainers and professors of journalism from across the country were taken through professional journalism standards and principles, practical skills, basic conflict analysis and role plays to strengthen their appreciation for the impact of higher quality reporting on conflict. They learned about the significant parallels between conflict mediation and conflict sensitive journalism, and also about the important distinctions between the two roles. They also learned the importance of putting human faces on conflicts often seen and heard only in the words of traditional power elites and in violent pictures of the death, destruction and atrocities. “I learned how terrible it is to be an old woman whose voice is not heard but she may know the best solution to a conflict”, shared Maksuda Aitieva, Director of the Osh Media Centre, after one interactive session.
The training of trainers programme had a two-fold goal: to enable trainers to learn the concepts of conflict sensitive journalism as well as to learn sufficient skills as trainers to lead similar workshops which are planned for all the provinces of Kyrgyzstan. The programme did not aim to find solutions to the existing dilemmas and conflicts of Kyrgyzstan but rather was intended to develop discernment skills among journalists who can make wider choices about what to report for the public, including possibilities of conflict resolution.
The trainer – Ross Howard – has extensive experience in training journalists in conflict sensitive reporting throughout the world. He is the author of the most widely-recognized handbook on conflict sensitive journalism, as well as other training materials, and is a practicing journalist and instructor in Canada. His personal examples and profound knowledge of the impact of journalism, in countries ranging from Rwanda to Nepal and Kenya to Canada, assured the participants that journalists have enormous power to either escalate or contribute to the resolution of conflicts.
“With this power, comes responsibility” he says. “Conflict sensitive journalism differs from outright peace journalism or advocacy by its aim – to report professionally, including an understanding of conflict and the possibilities of conflict resolution – so that the public is much better informed and able to include peacebuilding among its options” he explains.
Most of the participants remarked on how the programme expanded their understanding of conflict, such as experts’ recognition that almost all violent conflicts – whether between countries or within a family – arise from a very few essential reasons. Most conflicts may have one or more of only five reasons at their root – uneven distribution of essential resources, unresolved grievances, uneven power, incorrect beliefs or poor communication between the conflicting interests. This information helped participants recognise that conflicts in Kyrgyzstan are not unique and do not require unknown unique solutions. There are alternatives to continued conflict. And for journalists, “what is needed is to enlarge the media’s framing or way of looking narrowly at the conflict, to look deeper and wider, to better understand the causes, to point to possible alternatives, and see the human angle of the conflict” stressed Ross Howard.
Understandably, a discussion of journalism and conflict in Kyrgyzstan could not avoid touching on existing interpretations and remaining grievances of the June 2010 events in the southern towns of Kyrgyzstan which were attributed to ethnic identities and divisions and left hundreds of people killed and thousands injured during civil clashes. There was a high temptation to discuss who was wrong and who was right, including what was reported. However, the programme participants were encouraged to rise above their own ethnic identities and individual values by first applying basic professional journalism standards – accuracy, impartiality and responsibility.
The training also touched on the content of the news media in the country. The overwhelming majority of news content in the country is focused on politics and surprisingly little concerns issues such as health, education, employment creation and other socially significant issues. The political reporting is almost all built around official speeches and statements. Journalistic initiative ranks quite low. The views and concerns of ordinary people are not much considered. As Ross Howard suggested, much of the divisiveness in the country is portrayed through a very narrow frame which limits the public engagement in finding non-violent alternatives and solutions. The media can, however, make choices to widen the frame and better inform the public.
Howard noted that conflict sensitive journalism, because of its commitment to larger frames and more points of view, can also strengthen reporting on issues of concern to ordinary citizens such as the appropriate treatment of child victims of natural and political upheavals. “Professional and sensitive journalism can do a lot to enable a stressed society to mediate its conflicts and grievances. Part of that process involves putting a human dimension on big issues. Nothing does that better than reporting on affected children and solutions to alleviate their situation.”
The participants spent long evenings in developing the programme agendas for their future conflict sensitive journalism workshops for less-experienced journalists. University teachers developed initial strategies for including conflict sensitivity into students’ practicums and for developing special content or modules on conflict sensitive journalism within academic syllabuses. Representatives of media NGOs planned to implement unique training programmes, such as coaching and mentoring young journalists. Most of these initiatives should be launched within a month throughout Kyrgyzstan.
The conflict sensitive journalism training is part of a larger joint initiative of UNICEF and UNHCR to enhance the capacity of journalists to build peace, working in close partnership with the Internews Network in the Kyrgyz Republic. It is a response to inadequate media reporting after the June 2010 civil clashes when media was accused of being unprofessional and contributed to the conflict. Besides training for more than 100 journalists, the initiative includes specific project grants and a large public awareness campaign. It will conclude with a media monitoring to evaluate the initiative’s impact and establish baselines for further development of a media in Kyrgyzstan that is accurate, impartial and responsible, and can report sensitively on conflicts.