Media as critical reflective practice

by Mohammed Cherkaoui
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WASHINGTON, DC – In June 2006, I led a series of workshops for Palestinian journalists in Ramallah, West Bank. I was shocked to discover how party bias influenced their reporting. Five months earlier, the Hamas movement had won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in the West Bank and Gaza, and the divide between the Hamas and Fatah parties deepened existent social cleavages to the point where it continues to fuel an intra-Palestinian conflict alongside the protracted Palestinian-Israeli one. But the journalists I worked with came to appreciate the role they can play in preventing and resolving conflicts.

Instead of playing a constructive role and encouraging readers to rise above the factionalism, many local journalists contribute to the split. Their reporting is unashamedly elite-oriented, zero-sum, and propaganda-fuelled—aimed at exposing “their” untruths and helping “our” cover-ups. The war of media narratives is so acute that it may have been the single most important factor in deepening the divisions that led to the 2007 battle between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza.

This dynamic played out on an even larger scale in the recent Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza, where objective coverage was held captive by the political and ideological allegiances of local, regional and international journalists alike. Speaking on media and conflict, Johan Galtung, founder of the UN Institute of Peace Studies, explained that "first an angle is chosen and then the facts are delivered accordingly....The media are suggesting to the readers how to talk about certain topics and what they may remain ignorant of".

This statement underlines the extent to which the media's narratives of conflict can corrupt the public’s assumptions, positions and decisions. Too often, journalism produced in these societies is guided by an embedded political perspective rather than a pragmatic, fact-checking or impartial humanistic approach.

With the recent Gaza war, Western media did not focus on the anguish of casualties on the ground, but was instead driven mainly by the “politics of positions” between the leaders of Israel and Hamas. This, in turn, fuelled competition between the two sides over who carried into battle the banner of “righteousness”.

I believe it is vital to change the role of the media in conflict in order to avoid fuelling this kind of competition, which only exacerbates violence. To this end, I suggest three important steps for journalists:

Firstly, journalists should challenge themselves to exercise restraint against the psychological “heat of the moment” in their reporting of breaking news–both in terms of the content and tone of their writing. While journalists often need to report events with immediacy, they should do so while being fully cognisant of their role in shaping public opinion, and their capacity to influence policy.

Secondly, journalists should reflect critically on their ideological assumptions. One of the most significant challenges facing journalists in Israel, the Arab world and the West is the need to question the “subcultures” of their own newsrooms, a questioning that may require setting out to define new social/political discourses.

Thirdly, media practitioners ought to consider ways to frame their work so as to promote peace. Instead of perpetuating the violent status-quo, their journalism could be guided by a commitment to re-humanise the other. With the rise in identity-based conflicts in the Middle East, now more than ever the moral mandate of journalists is to act as agents of conflict resolution. I remain a firm believer in the need for cooperation between media and conflict resolution practitioners; by bringing the language and perspective of conflict resolution to the public, we can begin to reinforce the public imagination with a sense of possibility.

The ultimate goal? A shift within the mainstream media toward a pop culture of peace, the world’s major news networks on the forefront of “track two” for peace-building and conflict prevention. As Galtung once stated, peace must be built not only in the human mind, but also in social structures and in culture.

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* Mohammed Cherkaoui is a media practitioner in Washington, DC and conflict analyst at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, Virginia, USA. He may be reached at: mcherka0@yahoo.com. This article is part of a special series on responsible journalism in the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service, 16 April 2009, www.commongroundnews.org.
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Other articles in this series

Let the buyer beware by Barbara Sofer
Reaching people on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide by Ghassan Rubeiz
A vital medium by Khaled Diab
Human tragedy as a catalyst for change by Yizhar Be'er
Serving the public’s best interests: A story of one journalist’s dilemma by Akiva Eldar