Northern Ireland journalists, do yourselves a favour: Don’t call yourself a peace journalist

Northern Ireland journalists, do yourselves a favour: Don’t call yourself a peace journalist
3 December 2019

Anyone engaging in peace work anywhere in the world has learned the discouraging, ironic truth about the word “peace”.

The word “peace” is incendiary, and provides a blank screen upon which self-righteous critics and “glass half empty” skeptics project their anger, ignorance, and cynicism. In fact, in some places, leading discussions about peace can be dangerous. Just ask the colleagues and friends of Shujaat Bukhari, a newspaper editor who was shot and killed outside his paper’s office in Kashmir. His crime: embracing non-inflammatory, non-sectarian reporting and leading discussions about peace in Kashmir. Or, ask my journalism colleagues in Cameroon, where discussing peace can arouse the suspicions of both government authorities and rebels which in turn can get one arrested or kidnapped. This happened to me: gendarmes shut down a peace journalism seminar I was conducting in Cameroon, and threatened to arrest all presenters and attendees.

Then there’s Northern Ireland, where mention of the word “peace” won’t get you kidnapped or killed, but will subject you to sneering derision. I know, since I’ve written about peace journalism in Northern Ireland and made several visits there this year for peace journalism seminars and workshops. A recent spate of columns, broadcasts, and social media posts have taken aim at anyone who has the audacity to link the words “peace” and “journalism”.

Take Alex Kane’s recent column in Newsletter:

“Over the past couple of decades I have heard a number of academics (and some politicians, as it happens) push something which is described as ‘peace journalism.’ It’s the Pollyanna approach to politics: no matter how bad things may look on the surface, and no matter how much worse you actually know them to be below the surface, you should simply ignore that reality and find something positive to say. Yet nobody ever asks why, if things really are so good, the Pollyannas rarely offer anything more substantial than, ‘Well, it’s better than it used to be.’” (25/11/2019)

In another example, on the BBC’s The Nolan Show (21/11/2019), one speaker said that there is a presumption that “for peace journalism to work” in support of the peace process, it must look closely at unionist politicians, but avoid looking into the “deep, dark hole” of Sinn Fein politics.

Finally, a Twitter discussion recently suggested that a peace journalist would “kill” an accurate story if this story damaged the peace process.

These criticisms are all off base, and reflect a complete misunderstanding of the nature and goals of peace journalism. Yet, I’m coming to realize that all the corrections in the world in defense of peace journalism won’t help skeptics understand what peace journalism really does, since all they seem to see is the word “peace” and its accompanying baggage.

In fact, as long as peace journalism contains the word “peace”, it will be criticized not for what it actually proposes, but for what its critics ignorantly and erroneously project onto the concept.

So, rather than spending our precious time and energy putting our fingers in the dyke leaking misinformation about peace journalism, perhaps peace journalism proponents should direct discussions away from the term peace journalism, and more towards its concepts.

Let me start. Journalists and journalism academics and students in Northern Ireland, do you agree with these principles?

  • Journalists should avoid inflammatory, sensational language that exacerbates or fuels conflict
  • Journalists should reject “us vs. them” narratives and instead build bridges between communities
  • Journalists should lead societal discussions about solutions (without advocating for any one solution)
  • Journalists should balance their stories by giving peace proposals and peacebuilders a voice proportionate to the voices of those advocating violence and war (without advocating for peace)
  • Journalists should give a voice to the voiceless in their societies—victims, migrants, women, etc.
  • Journalists should reject formulaic, stereotyping coverage and instead offer counternarratives about marginalized groups and perceived enemies (“them”)

Northern Irish journalists, if you embrace these concepts, do yourself a favor and don’t call yourself a peace journalist. Say that you’re a good journalist, or a socially responsible reporter — anything that doesn’t use the word “peace”. What really matters anyway is promoting and practicing these principles of good, fundamental journalism, regardless of what the label we use.

Image: Photo by Gergely Szabo used by license

Originally published at Peace Journalism Insights.

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