The media need not be cheerleaders for war

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 15, 2003

This is the third in a series of columns on relationship-building in conflict resolution. We began the series with RCMP G8 strategist Sgt. Mike O'Rielly's call for respectful dialogue as an alternative to violence.

"Conflict, violence, misunderstanding, interpersonal angst – these do not need to be inevitable," he said.

Jeff Perkins responded that such relationship-building dialogue has helped the chemical industry come far in overcoming a history of community mistrust. " Rational thought, not emotional silliness" is the answer, Jeff said.

I have a special concern over the role of the media in relationship-building. Time and again we see the possibility of peaceful resolution sabotaged by fear and hate-mongering sensationalism in the print and broadcast media.

Publishers and broadcasters exploit our fascination with violence, horror and gossip. The best ratings seem to go to those providing the goriest coverage of tragic events and ill-informed speculations surrounding their causes. If an innocent individual, an identifiable minority, or some impoverished nation is scapegoated, that's too bad. Bias means big bucks, and if rational thought has to take a back seat to emotional silliness, so be it.

As evidence, we don't have to look any further than coverage of the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist assault on New York's World Trade Center. Gossip was treated like gospel as terror was magnified beyond measure by endlessly repeated images of flame-ravaged towers collapsing behind panic-stricken pedestrians. The perpetrators of this horror couldn't have wished for better allies to accomplish their fear-mongering agenda.

And as war looms on the horizon, what about the demonizing of a whole nation of already-victimized Iraqi citizens? Is there no longer a distinction between journalism and propaganda?

The media's bellicose bias is not always so blatant. Oftentimes it's barely noticed at all but nonetheless destructive of relationship-building.

Ian Tennant, the editor of the Eagle, addressed this problem of bias in his 1999 master's thesis at the University of Texas at Austin. He compared the coverage of The Globe and Mail and The New York Times of three Canadian ministerial visits to Cuba.

What particularly grabbed my attention was Ian's treatment of how news photos can subtly impact on trust and international relations. In one case, Fidel Castro appeared attentive and genial in a Globe and Mail photo of him with then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. But in a Times photo, the Cuban leader appeared distracted and disrespectful, bending over and adjusting his pant leg in the presence of the Canadian Prime Minister. The one photo kept the door open for dialogue, the other slammed it shut.

Henry Heald, an e-mail coffee companion from Ottawa, is a freelance journalist specializing in agriculture and international development. Periodically he sends me his "musings" on such topics as ethics and the media.

He is passionate in his opposition to a media bias that, in the face of impending war, short-circuits any hope of peaceful conflict resolution.

He began one of his letters last year with a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost: "Who overcomes by force, hath overcome but half his foe."

"The fight for minds is a battle where the news media have a key role to play," Henry said. "Capturing the minds and hearts of your foes requires, first and foremost, a thorough understanding of who your foes are and why they are your foes." Add to this the practice of honesty, accuracy, balance and thoroughness in reporting, and we see the journalistic possibility of building relational bridges instead of blowing them up.

Henry's Christmas letter included some thoughts on applying the Golden Rule to everyday life. To paraphrase his remarks from the perspective of journalistic ethics, the media might start asking itself: "If my network – or my newspaper – were the subject of a news report, how would I like to be treated?"

I'm sure the answer would have nothing to do with the kind of disrespect and fear-mongering that is cheering the world on toward war.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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