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News Media's Role In Conflict

Do the news media enjoy the confidence of anyone these days? In the United States mistrust was on the rise even before the recent presidential campaign.
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BRUSSELS --- Do the news media enjoy the confidence of anyone these days? In the United States mistrust was on the rise even before the recent presidential campaign. Elsewhere, news organizations are often seen as tools of political and financial elites, with little allegiance to the broader public. In the zones of conflict speckling the globe, journalists may be viewed as fomenters of sectarianism and their reporting as an obstacle to peace.

Pretty grim. But these perceptions are not always accurate, and a multi-year European Union-funded project, Infocore, has been combing through millions of pieces of data to develop a comprehensive picture of part of this issue: the role of media in "preventing, managing, and resolving violent conflict." (Disclosure: I am a member (uncompensated) of Infocore's academic advisory board.) For three intensive days of meetings in Brussels this week, Infocore assembled an array of academics, media professionals, policy makers, and NGO representatives to review the project's findings about news media performance in tense areas ranging from Kosovo to Syria to Burundi and beyond.

The verdict: far from perfect, but much that is encouraging. First, journalists continue to put themselves at enormous risk in order to tell the world about ongoing conflicts. This should not be forgotten, no matter how critical of the press one may be. That said, news organizations could do a much better job of ensuring that diverse voices are heard. Shutting out the opposition intensifies hopelessness and bitterness. This is related to the larger issue of recognizing that the public - particularly in this era of pervasive social media use - expects to be respected not just as news consumers but also as part of the news dissemination process. Further, NGOs (such as Doctors Without Borders) and political actors themselves now have increased capability to do end runs around traditional gatekeepers and so must be recognized as being more than part of the obsolete concept of "the audience."

Infocore's findings are based on computer-assisted analysis of vast amounts of news content plus interviews with a range of constituencies that include journalists, public officials, and members of the public. In the content analysis, it is not surprising to find a heavy emphasis on covering the "bang-bang" aspects of conflict. As one participant put it, "Which do you think will get more media exposure, ISIS beheadings or people trying to negotiate peace?" The economic realities of the news business dictate a tilt in coverage toward content that will capture the mildly attentive reader or viewer. Working for peace, therefore, tends to be shortchanged.

Infocore's work to date presents interpretations of evidence that should generate more hope than despair. But now all the players involved have much to do if Infocore's trove of information if to have real value. The challenge to academics is to make their findings understandable and useful to non-academics. The challenge to news professionals is to find ways to make peace as attractive as war in terms of journalistic content that will engage news consumers. The challenge to the public is to take conflict-related news seriously and recognize that the stories journalists produce are often grounded in life-and-death matters affecting millions of people.

How these diverse constituencies respond to the news media's coverage of conflict will affect the future of the news business and the future of conflict. Both are exceptionally important and underscore the significance of Infocore's mission.

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