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BY ZAC GERSHBERG 

Zac GPhoto: Sunyu on UnsplashPeace Journalism is a frame of media ethics that seeks to refigure reporting in areas beset by war and strife through resolving conflict rather than merely recording military strategy and power politics. According to Galtung (2013), the low-road of standard war journalism adopts the discourse of sport, reporting a zero-sum game concerned with a victory between two parties, whereas the high-road of peace journalism focuses on a comprehensive view of conflict in order to highlight the creative possibilities of avoiding war or ameliorating conflict (pp. 95-96). Convincing mainstream news media outlets to adopt the central tenets of peace journalism has not been an easy process, however (Lee, 2009; Lynch & Galtung, 2010). As Lynch and McGoldrick (2007) point out, the framing of traditional news conventions exhibits biases in favor of official sources, events over process, and a simplistic dualism between sides—each of which reflects news strategies anathema to the tenets of peace journalism (p. 258). To this can be added the scholarly challenge of attracting the attention of professional editors, reporters, and broadcasters. What we find when we consider the relationship between theory and practice concerning peace journalism, then, is an intractable cleft between scholars and practitioners. It has been suggested that peace journalism “may transcend the structural conflicts mainstream journalism faces daily” (Perez de Fransius, 2014, p. 88), but the question remains: how? To what degree can the concepts of peace journalism be integrated into the reporting practices of the news media?

Unfortunately, the objectives of peace journalism will struggle to be realized absent a comprehensive, structural transformation of the mass media as it is currently figured. As Aslam (2011) observes, “the media operates on the principles governed by the triangle of power, politics and profit” (p. 121). Given this constraining framework of professional journalism, my overriding concern is what practices always already inscribed within the news media can be enacted to achieve the goals sought by peace journalism. It has been suggested that the theoretical breadth of peace journalism has “contributed to a lack of coherence” (McMahon & Chow-White, 2011, p. 990). To combat this and effect the movements of praxis peace journalism seeks, both an ethical-theoretical shift in peace journalism and an explicit prescription of journalistic practices for peace journalism are necessary. To that end, I want to consider two interrelated, concrete propositions: first, peace journalism must locate itself along an ethical continuum of cosmopolitanism in order to attract allies in the journalism profession; second, feature reporting functions as peace journalism and must be encouraged and promoted by scholars. The former addresses how uncomfortable news media professionals are with pursuing the consequentialist, or teleological, goals of peace journalism. Rather than accommodate the traditional deontological norms of journalism ethics, I argue peace journalism benefits from a cosmopolitan framing. The second proposition suggests there are already practices of peace journalism integrated within the news media, yet feature reporting, both from the past and moving forward, must be endorsed from the scholarly community as a way to achieve peace journalism. The combination of these arguments serves to create a practical, operational guide to convince the news media that peace journalism is a desired practice consistent with the traditional goals of the profession.

Journalism ethics is typically configured between the binary structure of deontological ethics, which focuses on duties and motives, and consequentialist ethics, which seeks to secure specific outcomes (Hansen, 2014, p. 231). Cosmopolitanism, by contrast, collapses this binary through global agents who privilege equality, agency, responsibility, consent, inclusiveness, and the avoidance of harm (Held, 2010, p. 69). Moreover, cosmopolitanism is “ethically neutral” (p. 80), a significant point of emphasis with journalists who do not want to appear biased in their reporting. However, cosmopolitan ethics inheres an “obligation to witness and document harms that others suffer from” (Zuckerman, 2013, p. 24), which is consistent with the goals of peace journalism. With the news media “under the protection of cosmopolitan principles” (Ward, 2010, p. 154), reporters, editors, and producers are more likely to transform peace journalism from theory to practice. The deontological duties which the news media prides itself on can be retained, but the teleological goals of peace journalism can still be reached through a cosmopolitan ethical framework.

To actualize these ethical concerns, peace journalism must prescriptively offer a way for the news media to achieve its goal within the delimiting economic and political structures of journalism. Feature reporting represents the best available means to meet theses holistic goals. The objective of feature reporting is to capture the narratives of people in their labor, their leisure, and their struggles. Though feature reporting can be seen as reflecting soft, celebrity news as opposed to the hard news of straight facts most commonly associated with inverted pyramid-style reporting, the methods of the former can provide depth of coverage. In doing so, features can facilitate the stories of the everyday people who suffer from geopolitical violence and focus on possibilities of peace.

What’s more, feature reporting is already integrated into the current media ecosystem, compromised though it is by financial and structural pressures. Practitioners in the news media may, as a result, approach peace journalism more openly would that scholars encourage its adoption and identify examples of feature reporting that reflect the tenets of peace journalism. It has been noted that peace journalism has been adopted in photojournalism and documentary filmmaking (Aslam, 2011, p. 125), but a full treatment of feature reporting within peace journalism has not, as of yet, been considered.

The primary benefit of emphasizing cosmopolitan ethics and feature reporting as the theoretical grounding and method of peace journalism is that they inoculate against some of the chief criticisms that have been marshalled against peace journalism. Hanitzsch (2004) argues that peace journalism abdicates the responsibility of managing conflict by political entities and awards the news media too much agency in seeking to resolve conflict. Loyn (2007) cautions against coercing journalists into ideological commitments. Lynch and McGoldrick (2007) point out that professional journalists are often uncomfortable switching from a deontological ethics of duty to a teleological ethics that privileges ends over means (p. 257). These concerns may disappoint scholars of peace journalism who find these professional anxieties misguided. Yet the long-term efficacy of peace journalism, as a theory to be operationalized within reporting, requires convincing journalists that it does not function as a dereliction of their duty. The traditional goals of journalism, such as truth and objectivity, may very well be dismissed as relics of an Enlightenment fantasy to create neutral knowledge, but that does not, unfortunately, remove the structural mythos upon which much of journalism practice and pedagogy is founded.

While theorizations of peace journalism should absolutely maintain a teleological focus, scholars should recognize the obstacles practitioners face in pursuing such a focus. This does not in any way attenuate the contributions of peace journalism scholarship; it simply acknowledges the challenges peace journalism faces within the established, corporate infrastructure of news media practices. As such, a cosmopolitan ethics of journalism, which “asserts the equal value of dignity of all people as members of a common humanity” (Ward, 2010, p. 154), furnishes a more convincing ethical frame with which to advance peace journalism. It retains the emphasis on method but answers the calls of peace journalism for empathy (Perez de Fransius, 2014) and its central question for reporters: “Am I a human being first or a journalist first?” (Lee, 2009, p. 260). Ward’s (2010) three-part proposal for a cosmopolitan ethics of journalism is an appropriate fit for peace journalism: first, reporters are encouraged to act as global agents; second, they must serve the citizens of the world; and third, they should promote non-parochial understandings of issues through diverse sources and nuanced perspectives (p. 162). Much like peace journalism, this is an aspirational theorizing of reporting, yet it is offered within traditional understandings of journalism practices and responsibilities.

To this cosmopolitan ethics of peace journalism, feature reporting can be put forward as addressing the concerns of journalists and the criticisms which have been levelled at peace journalism. Feature reporting proceeds as a form of intimate journalism, used to “describe and evoke how people live and what they value” (Harrington, 1997, p. xx). Feature reporting is most commonly associated with long-form writing in magazines such as The New Yorker and Sunday supplements to newspapers, but it is also practiced in NPR radio stories as well as the multimedia approach of contemporary news outlets such as Buzzfeed and Vice. Though feature reporting can, at times, cover famous personages in positions of power, its connection with peace journalism is facilitated through the stories of everyday experience and trauma of those who endure the effects of war. Instead of focusing on elite brokers of power, such as politicians and military leaders, feature reporting can highlight the narratives of how persons cope, struggle, and resist violence in looking to transform conflict into peace. As Willis (2003) observes, “It is not an easy kind of journalism to do because it requires intense research to do and demands a creative writing style that both engages the reader and stays true to the facts and larger truth of the story” (p. 77). Feature reporting is also, importantly, an accepted practice within contemporary journalism. It simply requires more emphasis to serve as the method by which peace journalism scholars should encourage the media industry to adopt.

A concern here may be that feature reporting does not function as hard news, but news, as a category, is itself the problem facing peace journalism. As Lee (2009) points out, “If peace journalism were to succeed, journalists must first reassess their notions of hard news, objectivity and traditional news values” (p. 270). This is not a new controversy, however. Since the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s, news itself became a commodity—an item to acquire then consume out of curiosity or titillation (Postman, 2005). The telegraph economized language, selectively controlled the transmission of information, and collapsed distinctions between time and space (Carey, 2009, p. 164). Its impact on journalistic methods and language remain firm in today’s world of digital media with its increased velocity of communication. The foundation and utilization of the internet reflects, in some ways, a more personalized system of the telegraph. The ability to communicate is more democratized and open, yet information, writ large, remains firmly entrenched by the concentration of corporate entities much like the early years of the telegraph (Mattelart, 2000). Despite the structural control of the mainstream media, however, some current research suggests accessing news via mobile and tablet platforms have ushered in a greater public appreciation for long-form journalism (Rose, 2014; Ricketson, 2012).

So the most important debate concerning peace journalism within the media is securing a shift from hard news as its primary objective. The numerous case studies on peace journalism from a social scientific perspective often demonstrate a preference of analyzing hard news stories (Lacasse and Forster, 2012). It is, then, little wonder that the war journalism frame predominates, but since citizens obtain hard news through the easily accessible headlines of websites, television news crawls, and smartphone notifications, there exists an opportunity within mainstream media outlets to strengthen feature reporting. Now that the globe is interconnected through fiber-optic cables and satellites which fan information out through the internet and television, among other communications technologies, time has collapsed. Information is instantaneous and comprehensive, though the quality of that information may be influenced by corporate and political structures of power. The opportunity for peace journalism is the manner in which it responds to the overwhelming influx of hard news as a commodity. The depth of space can be explored in richer ways. It is how a news media outlet can distinguish itself, and feature reporting, to its credit, is concerned with how bodies interact in space in contradistinction to hard news, which privileges the immediacy of time.

The Wall Street Journal, ironically enough, serves as an effective model. It has pioneered the features style in its news stories, though its focus has always taken the perspectives of business enterprise and the ideology of the free market. My suggestion is for peace journalism to adopt the Wall Street Journal style without its focus. As one of its longtime reporters, William Blundell (1988), has written, feature reporting is comprised of three main factors in each story: first, central development, which describes a concrete event involving a particular individual, family or community; second, impact, the manner in which the individual, family or community is affected by the relevant issues of a story; and third, countermoves, how those issues are confronted, ignored, resisted, and/or enhanced (p. 11). This set of journalistic strategies can be effectively adapted within the constellation of peace journalism, but it requires scholars to begin contributing explicitly to the pedagogies and practices of the profession of journalism itself, not just the teleological end-goals.

Feature reporting as peace journalism would proceed inductively, then, with narrative concerns for everyday individuals and communities who are materially affected, or going to be materially affected, by violence. It is, at bottom, storytelling about non-elite persons who have or might suffer as a result of conflict. As one peace journalism scholar notes, “[N]arrative form positions journalists to act strategically—this time as storytellers” (Fawcett, 2002, pp. 218-19). From there the issues underlying the current conflict can be introduced, but the goal is not to degenerate the reporting into the sport-like coverage of power politics and military strategy. Instead of recounting the elite power dynamic of the conflict, reporters can learn and communicate the issues that matter to everyday persons, and, as a result, discover the possibilities of conflict resolution that peace journalism promotes. Feature reporting, in sum, allows for tracing the impact of war on the civilian population who must perforce live through violent antagonisms as they arise. It also raises opportunities to locate possibilities of peaceful transformation from various perspectives in a bottom-up, as opposed to top-down, manner. And since peace journalism, as it has been theorized, “makes visible subjugated aspects of reality” (Galtung, quoted in McGoldrick and Lynch, 2000, p. 5), feature reporting comprises an effective method to reach that goal.

The central argument of this essay has been to position feature reporting within the model of peace journalism, but the ancillary benefit to the thesis is that such a stance will find a more receptive audience from journalists beset by corporate anxieties and professional duties. Editors and reporters may find the promotion of feature reporting more palatable because it is part of their training and does not suggest the imprimatur of an ideological endpoint. The issue is whether this journalistic style can be conducted more readily within the framework of the news media as it is structured. Perhaps not. But as the form of news grows more dynamic and the multifarious quantity of media content continues to expand, feature reporting might attract more attention such that the appetite for news has changed. An opening exists insofar as newspapers and press agencies refigure their models to meet the demands of twenty-first century audiences. This is also true for internet media outlets who have begun to attract a following. It is unfortunate, if not altogether unseemly, to devote such consideration to the commercial aspects of the news media in its nexus with peace journalism, but the task of scholars is to seek moments of praxis. Feature reporting, as considered here, represents just such an opportunity wherein the goals of peace journalism can be advanced in a manner that is not seen as encroaching upon the traditional views on journalistic agency.

What, then, does feature reporting look like as peace journalism? Many print journalists who covered the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo effectively carried out the goals of peace journalism. Though a number of mainstream outlets, like CNN, covered the siege, and the Balkan wars of the 1990s more generally, in traditional war journalism fashion as an index of political power between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, reporters based in Sarajevo whose movements were restricted due to the siege focused on the lives and the struggles of Sarajevans themselves.

The work of Barbara Demick, in particular, stands out. She covered the siege for the Philadelphia Inquirer and wrote feature profiles on the inhabitants of one particular street. “I spent the better part of two years on Logavina Street,” she later reflected, “knocking on doors, drinking coffee from people who could barely afford it, hearing their tragedies” (Demick, 2012a). Demick (2012b) would publish her articles in book form, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood. Her work does address some of the military and political maneuvers of the war, but the majority of Demick’s reporting captures the texture of the lives of individuals and families who endured mortar shell bombings for close to four years as well as Sarajevo’s mix of ethnic and religious identity. The following example from one of Demick’s (2012b) articles is representative both of the inductive style of feature reporting recounted above as well as the tenets of peace journalism:

The brewery was across the Miljacka River from downtown Sarajevo, about a thirty-minute walk. It had long produced Sarajevsko—the local beer—but now with no malt for brewing, the plant had found a new purpose: distributing water. Azra rounded up her husband, Asim, and [her daughter] Delila to help. Eleven-year-old Berin begged to tag along. They were still in line with their empty canisters when the mortars came slamming into a brick wall above their heads. Delila grabbed her brother and flopped to the ground, the two lying as still as possible under a whirlwind of flying bricks and shrapnel.

“Are Mummy and Daddy okay?” Berin asked Delila after a few minutes had passed.

“Can’t you see they’re dead? Daddy has no head,” Delia snapped back at her brother.

As she would later recount in the frigid emptiness of her parents’ kitchen, “My father, he was decapitated. My mother’s head was like a watermelon dropped on the floor. Berin couldn’t believe it. He kept trying to wash her face. He was crying, ‘Mommy, wake up. Your Bero is calling you,’ but she didn’t respond.”

The brewery shelling left eight dead, twenty wounded. Sarajevo’s daily newspaper, Oslobodenje, branded the day “Black Friday.” It was not the first bloodbath in Sarajevo. Twenty people had been killed the previous May 27 on the Vase Miskina pedestrian mall as they queued for bread. Many Sarajevans described the horror of the breadline massacre as the moment they were forced to reckon with the reality of war (p. 32).

This extended passage proceeds from the traumatic experiences of victims and only then moves to addressing the broader context of the war. Space is privileged over time. Demick’s work deserves the attention of peace journalism for it captures the experience of everyday lives during violent conflict. It evinces empathy but also renders visceral the narrative of those who suffered.

Another reporter who uses feature reporting as a lens through which to activate peace journalism is Anthony Shadid, the Lebanese-American journalist stationed in the Middle East for the Washington Post and, later, The New York Times. Shadid won two Pulitzer Prizes, was imprisoned by security forces loyal to Qaddafi in Libya, and tragically succumbed to an asthma attack in 2012 while in Syria. When the Iraq War began in March 2003, Shadid chose not to embed with the American military, like many mainstream journalists, but to live in Baghdad and cover the lives of everyday Iraqis. A Shadid (2003) Washington Post story from the first month of the war, “A Boy Who Was ‘Like a Flower,’” recounts the funeral preparations and rites for a child who, along with two others digging a trench outside their house, perished in a fusillade of shrapnel. Rather than focus on the shock-and-awe campaign promoted by the American government, Shadid took pains to capture how war begets confusion among a local populace, teach readers about Islamic customs, and explain differences between Sunni and Shia. After detailing the community struggle with burying a child, he paraphrases their concerns and questions as follows:

Their talk was angry, and they were baffled.

If the Americans are intent on liberation, why are innocent people dying? If they want to attack the government, why do bombs fall on civilians? How can they have such formidable technology and make such tragic mistakes?

In Hussein’s Iraq, with a 30-year-political culture built on brutality, some were convinced the Americans were intent on vengeance for the setbacks they believed their forces were delivered in Basra and other southern Iraqi cities. Others, in moments of striking candor, pleaded for the United States and Britain to wage war against their government, but spare the people.

Shadid’s work here is not just effective because of the Pulitzer Prizes he won. The virtue of his reporting is that it exhibits and inhabits the frame of peace journalism in contradistinction to traditional war reporting. It is not about who wins, but, rather, how bodies in space endure the specters of violence that surround them. The conclusion of Shadid’s piece is also instructive such that we see another inductive movement from experience to context:

Hattab, the uncle, looked on at the departing coffin. His eyes were red, and his face was drawn. “He has returned to God,” he said. “It’s God’s wish.” Iraqis carry an injured employee from the ruins of the Salhiya telecommunications center in Baghdad after a missile strike. U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles bombarded the capital, hitting a presidential palace and an intelligence complex. An Iraqi family huddled in the back of a battered pickup truck flees Baghdad as thick smoke from burning oil trenches enveloped the city on another day of heavy U.S. airstrikes.

The work of Demick and Shadid are but two examples, yet they capture the promise of how feature reporting can facilitate the tenets of peace journalism. The news media already does this kind of work; the problem is one of will, however, as feature reporting is viewed as a subset of journalism at large. Would that feature reporting be promoted as the necessary frame of journalism during times of war, or in anticipation of war, scholars of peace journalism might begin to see a news media transformation consistent with their goals.

In close, I’d like to review three main elements of the argument here and connect them to the direction of peace journalism. First, cosmopolitan ethics offers a more practical, if not convincing, frame with which to convince the news media practitioners to adopt the tenets of peace journalism than the scope of a teleological ethics. In this regard, scholars of peace journalism should acknowledge the methodological concerns of editors and reporters, seeking to maximize opportunities of praxis that can be enacted within the structural limitations of the news media. Second, peace journalism requires an emphasis on space over time, which can be facilitated through feature reporting as opposed to hard news. When news is treated as a commodity, war journalism will be the result. Feature reporting offers a more imaginative space with which peace journalism can be actualized. Third, the practices of peace journalism should be viewed as proceeding inductively, from the lived experience of non-elite actors to broader contextual issues of policies and strategies. It is vital to stress the storytelling function of journalism as a gateway to conflict resolution. Finally, this argument is not designed to displace or supplant the theoretical or social-scientific scholarship of peace journalism. My hope is feature reporting can be integrated as but one component within the constellation of peace journalism and serve as witness to the goals that peace journalism seeks to enact.

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