The Convergence Era (9/00)

For Robert Manoff, more coverage of international conflicts isn’t enough: He wants a whole different brand. The former managing editor of Harper’s Magazine and editor of the Columbia Journalism Review thinks the news media should reevaluate their role in such battles, examining what they can do to resolve and perhaps even prevent them.

Some say this is too close to advocacy. But to Manoff, director of New York University’s Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, it’s really part of good journalism. "We’re trying to push the envelope here," says Manoff. "I’m really trying to put on the table the question of what the moral responsibility of journalists is, with respect to genocide – the limit case – or other forms of mass social violence. It’s a question of how to cover, where to cover, and what to cover that isn’t covered."

Arguing that journalism’s culture "thrives on conflict," he wants the profession to rethink its impact on society. In articles, Manoff has proposed new roles for the media, such as providing a "channel of communication between parties," engaging in "confidence building," serving as an "emotional outlet," and acting as a "solution builder," among others. Although these ideas are considered controversial, they’re gaining ground.

In the last decade, the argument that journalists should do more to prevent conflict has become more persuasive, especially when the public and politicians react to what they cover. Media and policy analysts point to the "CNN effect" – in other words, where the cameras go, so does public attention and US policy. Bolstered by the belief that the media wield the power to change the dynamics of conflicts, other organizations have addressed what to do. In 1991, the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting was founded to help independent media become "part of the process of strengthening independent civil society and reducing political tensions in countries undergoing conflict." A few years later, a conference sponsored by Harvard University’s World Peace Foundation Program concluded that future humanitarian crises "could be avoided if there were more and better-targeted sharing of information between the media and relief organizations."

Manoff started his center back in 1985, in the final days of the Cold War, when he concluded that the media were exacerbating the tensions. The goal was to facilitate sharing of information between US and Soviet media, and find ways to better explain the arms race.

Mingling the media’s basic job with conflict resolution is a radical proposition. Last summer, it was explored at a conference co-sponsored by NYU and the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. "Really good journalism that’s thorough and thoroughly done contributes inherently to efforts to prevent or resolve conflict," noted Tom Gjelten, a diplomatic correspondent for National Public Radio and a panelist at the conference. "On the other hand, I am very suspicious or skeptical of anyone who promotes a much more explicit role for journalists in conflict resolution."

Gjelten did praise the efforts of non-governmental organizations to educate the media and public in conflict zones, yet he cautioned that the work should be done separately from "the main mission of news organizations," otherwise journalists risk being viewed as part of the story or as purveyors of propaganda.

While Manoff recognizes that journalistic objectivity lies at the heart of the controversy, he insists that he doesn’t want journalists to become advocates or mediators. But he’d like to see more journalists follow the example of Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, whom Manoff says frequently acts as a mediator by pressing the parties involved in conflicts for their proffered solutions. "Journalists can either, in their questions, take the antagonists and sharpen the differences between them," says Manoff, "or with equal professionalism, and equal attention to the norms of journalism, they can probe for places where the antagonists perhaps agree."

Gjelten agrees that journalists often "feed into the tension," by playing "gotcha" journalism instead of trying to bridge the divide. But the NPR correspondent still isn’t sure how Manoff proposes to prevent incipient conflicts from exploding. Manoff isn’t entirely sure either, and doesn’t offer specific guidelines. But he insists the media could and should do more.

For example, Manoff would like the profession to "react to new ideas with something other than knee-jerk invocation of objectivity and fairness doctrines when these aren’t being questioned in the first place." US journalists tend to resist the very idea of rethinking their profession, he explains.

The problem with conflict resolution reporting could just be a question of semantics, suggests Pamela Taylor, a correspondent for Voice of America (VOA). Taylor participated in VOA’s three-year conflict resolution program, funded by the Carnegie Endowment, while Manoff held workshops. She says many journalists, including herself, associate conflict resolution reporting with advocacy journalism.

Taylor’s attitude changed in 1996 after spending a month in the Balkans. VOA’s conflict resolution reporting essentially meant covering issues, including refugee resettlement, that were ignored after the war in Yugoslavia ended. Ordinary people there repeatedly said that they could live together if the politicians would just back off. When she returned to the US, however, news reports focused on the worsening conflict and failed to report that most people were willing to resolve their differences.

"As reporters, we’re always talking about getting balance," reminds Taylor. "Well, isn’t it unbalanced to only have on the air radical extremists and nationals screaming for division and separation? And you never hear the ordinary voices of the people, who say ÔNo, we don’t want that’."

Gregory Pirio, head of VOA’s conflict resolution program, says VOA’s training taught reporters new themes of in-depth coverage, such as the emotional and social impacts of conflict and the mediators in those communities. Taylor would like to continue reporting on conflicts from these angles. But VOA, like many news organizations, doesn’t have the funds for such stories.

The best solution to preventing conflict is simply more coverage, argues Michael O’Neill, a former foreign correspondent for the Daily News. O’Neill blames the profit-driven news industry for the failure to alert the public and politicians to crises around the world, and says that news organizations should develop ways to subsidize the cost of foreign coverage.

"Trends have to be caught a lot sooner than ever before," says O’Neill. "Reporters should be out in the front lines, in the neighborhoods, community boards, and neighborhood organizations to pick up the first signals of trouble." He discusses the idea of preventive journalism in an upcoming book edited by Kevin Cahill, Stopping Wars Before They Start.

In recent years, the media’s news budget for international stories has shrunk. According to a Harvard survey, in the 1970s, television networks devoted 45 percent of their newscasts to foreign affairs. By 1995 it was only 13.5 percent. In 1998, only 2 percent of newspaper coverage focused on international issues, according to a national survey by the University of California, San Diego.

Manoff doesn’t have the time or money to track whether US news organizations are incorporating his ideas. But he continues to issue wake up calls through articles and speaking engagements. In the meantime, his center teaches conflict resolution in journalism training programs in Central and Eastern Europe, where some local reporters contributed to the genocide through their vitriolic and racist coverage.

Despite the barriers and the criticism of his peers, Manoff maintains his vision of proactive coverage. "I follow the old adage," he says. "Be realistic, demand the impossible."