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Is it possible to shape a different world through journalism?

Cristina ┴vila-Zesatti
General Editor of Corresponsal de Paz
Cristina ┴vila-Zesatti

Cristina Ávila-Zesatti

Shaping reality: the business of the mediatised war

A broadly accepted cliché in newsrooms is the one that says good news is bad news. Based on my experience of more than fifteen years in various international media, "good news" does not in reality even become news. The media present us with a series of images and texts showing a world that has collapsed, is in conflict, bloodstained, with constant uprisings that appear to emerge in the blink of an eye and vanish from the headlines only to make way for "another new and inexplicable conflict," nearby or far away.

But do we really live in the furious world that the media present to us today? The answer is no. But it is an answer that needs qualification. We undoubtedly live in a complex world. However, the media (especially the mainstream media) have an interest in failing to qualify their message and presenting us with this fragmentation of reality, in which hatred seems to be our constant defining feature. In order to understand this "mediatised discourse of war," we first need to know who the "mainstream media" are that bring us this arsenal of words and images.

Five news agencies are currently responsible for distributing 96 percent of the world's news: Reuters (UK), the Associated Press (USA), France Press (France), EFE (Spain) and DPA (Germany) and to an increasing extent, the Chinese news agency Xinhua. Curiously, of these six states that control our information, four are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

In the private sector, the situation is not very different: the major news monopolies - print, electronic and cybernetic - are in the hands of no more than ten private investors, whose power is even greater than that exercised by the states. A very good example of the relationship between the interests of states and the mainstream news media is the American company General Electric, a major arms producer and exporter, which also owns the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), one of the most important North American television channels, which has a global influence. Its corporate website contains sections such as "Supporting our troops", "Partnering governments" and even a special policy for Iran.

This is not an isolated case. The "CNN model," which since its partial - and successful - coverage of the first Gulf War (1991) has made war into entertainment, has been imitated endlessly, not only by the television channels, but also by "short and decontextualized" formats in newspapers and websites worldwide.

This network of "dangerous liaisons" between the media and governments means that it is not surprising that the image of the South - and sometimes even of the North- is still a black and white photograph: violence, disasters, poverty, hunger, war and ignorance. "Interesting" wars are magnified, while other conflicts - armed or otherwise - are completely ignored.

War journalism vs. peace journalism

Johan Galtung said: "There is a type of journalism that emphasises possibilities instead of violence." For him, and for other theorists of this vision of journalism, the issue is concerned with the ethics of reporting the facts. It is not a question of avoiding violence, but rather of relating it from another perspective, based on solutions, which are inevitably always present from the very start of any conflict, armed or otherwise.

Choosing this journalistic option of peace need not be so difficult. However, behind the current news model is the neoliberal economic model, which needless to say is based on a "war economy." But undoubtedly, the establishment of a new economic model - no more and no less – would be necessary to achieve truly different media content.

This outcry is not new. Between 1970 and 1980, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) produced the document Many Voices, One World, better known as the McBride Report, the goal of which was to create a "new communication order" to promote peace and human development.

The text identified the communication problems which we face today: the concentration of media ownership, the commercialisation of information, asymmetrical access to information, the imbalance of news flows (north-south), and the economic dependence of the media and the sources for covering the news,

But not only economic reasons are important in the language used by the media to convey this violent image of reality. It is also a systemic and cultural issue, motivated by the (false) idea that violence sells, or in another words, that violence is what media consumers want and expect from the news.

This sensationalist misunderstanding has a historical basis. When the first "war correspondents" began to routinely transmit their reports using the telegraph, they decided that it was much better to use a warlike discourse with heroic overtones.
Naief Yehya said that "the myth of war exploded without the slightest shame, and the public developed an appetite for this kind of story, that has evolved and become modern 'war entertainment' [...] and has propagated the immoral perception of war as a videogame."

This "myth of the heroic war" is also constantly linked to "patriotic issues." During the First World War, for example, the mass media of the period censored news of a truce that occurred between German, British and French soldiers at Christmas 1914. This truce lasted for several days and took place in several places where fighting was taking place, and was soon put down by senior government authorities because "they had spent a lot on preparing the offensive." Examples like this one, of "ordinary people" undertaking peaceful initiatives take place every day in all the conflicts (armed or otherwise) that we face in today's complex world. By their nature, most of these efforts tend to be spontaneous, and are usually "silenced" by the status quo, including the mass media.

So do the media contribute to endorsing the idea of a world full of insecurity and violence? Or to put the question in a more propositive way: can journalism do anything to contribute to social peace, even within today's economic and media framework? The answer is yes to both questions, and is called peace journalism.

"Peace journalism" does not mean writing about "good news" but instead monitoring what is happening from another perspective, with a different focus and for different reasons. For this type of journalism, in a world where the daily routine is "supposedly" war, the newsworthy event is in fact "peace."

And the precepts of this vision of reality are closely related to ethical journalism: an in-depth understanding of the conflict (or war) before trying to tell the story of it, pursuit of the symmetrical truth with the involvement of all social strata, avoidance of confusion of the conflict with violence, and above all, presentation of a result focused on the opportunities that arise between the parties involved.

However, peace journalism requires more space and time, because this approach places a great deal of emphasis on the context. On the "before and after," on causes and consequences, since violence is an event, after all; the conflict is an opportunity, and peace is a process. In short, peace journalists work at a different pace, and do not just report: they also suggest.

A peace correspondent as the antithesis of a war correspondent

Ryszard Kapuscinski said the first thing he looked for when he arrived in a country mired in violence was "the place where hope is reborn."

The search for hope is what we proposed with the creation in 2009 of a digital medium called Corresponsal de Paz (www.corresponsaldepaz.org), a new journalistic approach geared entirely to this change of perspective.

We aim to bring to the "foreground" the initiatives that are created by individuals and organisations seeking to restore peace where war and violence have planted their seed. We have found time and again that there is a more caring, more humane and more purposeful world. This world is in stark contrast to the "distorted picture" given to us by the mass media.

This is obviously a medium run on a non-profit basis, outside the economic framework, as we are based on the premise that a new news model needs to be part of a new financial model.

Our work has been made possible by a grant from the Swiss-Catalan NGO I-with (www.iwith.org), an organization that has believed in and made a commitment to our journalism, and decided to restore our hope in humanity, in our creative potential, rather than our destructive side.

Our self-imposed task is now not only to improve the focus of this 'world picture' but also, and above all, to empower the peaceful initiatives that emerge in each conflict and each war, because at Corresponsal de Paz we are convinced that the absence of information on conflict resolution in turn leads to the absence of peace.

The Spanish author and educator Rogelio Blanco said that "the greatest crime against man is to kill hope"; that is the reason behind this idea for news of the 'media vision of a positive world ".