Media aggravates conflicts

By focusing on violence and its victims, the media tends to make conflicts worse. NAI guest researcher Ada Peter is critical of traditional war journalism.

In her research, Peter analyses articles on violent conflicts in Africa, with a special focus on protracted conflicts like Darfur and the Boko Haram violence in Nigeria. She looks at the international media headlines, what kinds of pictures illustrate the stories and what actors are quoted in the news. This analysis reveals a great deal – mostly about what is not reported.

Media stories are incomplete

What is left out and why are other things included? According to Peter, this is the big question one always should ask when coming across a media product. Media stories are always incomplete and unreliable for decision making. Journalists always select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in the news. The media logic for this critical gap of information dissemination is that the more spectacular violence, the better.

“Leaving out or including certain details may actually exacerbate conflicts. For instance, if media reports focus on Boko Haram shooting soldiers, this might lead to a counterattack by the army – and by that more civilians are likely to be hurt.”

Peace journalism

According to Peter, journalism should highlight peace negotiations instead of recent attacks, and instead of simply reporting body counts, journalism should provide thorough background information on the origins of the conflicts.

“This could ease conflicts. Combating parties as well as observers would get another picture of what is going on, and be less keen to escalate their violent efforts. However, too often, media houses train and shape how individual journalists write and tell a story that will be published.

NGOs follow the media

Humanitarian organisations are also affected by warped media coverage of conflicts. If media don’t report on a conflict, then it doesn’t exist, and vice versa: if media do report on a conflict, then NGOs get funding more easily for an intervention.

“But by then it becomes what l call a ‘late intervention’, they should have intervened before the conflict escalated to the level where the media finds it interesting enough”, Peter remarks.

Media illiteracy

She has a background as a TV journalist in Lagos. Her PhD was a study in media illiteracy regarding alcohol commercials. Peter explored whether people actually believe that drinking a particular gin will give them a new car or a pretty girlfriend, or whatever else the billboard or TV ad suggests. At first, the overwhelming majority of her test group in a secondary school in Lagos couldn’t see through the alcohol producer’s advertisement. It took several “media literacy treatment” classes to transform these students into media literates.

“If it is so difficult to decode a commercial, how hard will it be to understand that a news article is not necessarily true, or at least not the only truth,” Peter concludes.

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