Conflict sensitive journalism


The role of the media in reporting about conflict and protests in the Northeast is extremely important, as they can play a seminal role in events unfolding in the region. But are our journalists trained to do so with sensitivity? asks Patricia Mukhim.

In a situation where the powerless who also are at the receiving end of guns and bombs, are constantly being exhorted to stand up and speak out against militancy/insurgency, it is heartening to note that senior scribes are taking a stand against senseless killings which go by the euphemism of ‘freedom struggle’, resistance movements, fights for ‘sovereignty’ (leaving the definition of sovereignty ambiguous or semantic) et al. In India’s Northeast, a section of media persons have been unequivocal in their stance against the diminishing returns of militancy. The media enjoy a certain amount of power to articulate the angst of the weak and voiceless. Besides, media persons are part and parcel of the larger society, and it is in the fitness of things that they contribute to peace building measures.

A wag recently made a wisecrack that better media would result in less conflict. This phrase would of course require some explanation. Does it mean that bad media provokes conflict? And what exactly is bad media? Better still, is there a role for the media in conflict resolution? Before anyone answers this very ticklish question on our behalf, and I am sure there would be many outpourings to these provocative questions, we in the media ought to make time and space for some reality checks. This would also mean taking a fresh look at our own roles in the changing global, national, regional and local scenario.

But there’s a bit of problem here. Seldom ever have the media organised workshops/seminars or training programmes for themselves. The reason is simple. We have no time. Ours is a job that runs from one deadline to the next, and by the end of every deadline, we are totally washed out. Besides, there is a general ailment that media persons suffer from and that is a sense of having ‘been there, done that,’ and therefore, knowing it all. We tend to feel there is very little that we can learn. Short of telling those who pontificate about the media, ‘don’t teach an old dog, new tricks,’ our body language is like a picture that communicates a thousand words.

Is complacency the answer?
But can we be so complacent about everything? Much less, take things for granted? Do we know all there is to know about conflict in this region? Are there changing contours and road maps that we have misread? The possibilities of us having missed the woods for the trees are endless. And the reason is because we do not always report from ground zero. That is of course a tall order and not always possible in a profession with a deadline. But our over-dependence on sources can sometimes become a treacherous misadventure, because we cannot rule out the possibility of those sources suffering from their own angularities and trying to sell us their view of a story.

The media is not a surreal drama where good nearly always triumphs over evil. In the real world we have to witness several disturbing events, including senseless killings, destruction of whole villages, an economic breakdown, before peace pipes are taken out of their covers. The truth about the media, particularly the electronic variety, is that conflict sells. Dead bodies scattered hither and thither by a powerful bomb make good breaking news. The ‘in your face’ repetition of such gory incidents, while it may be revolting, also creates a curiosity for a fresh set of audience who might have missed the scene earlier. The Mumbai attack of 2008 is exactly the kind of coverage that militants and agent provocateurs love. In a sense, our media is promoting sadistic pleasure to some, while it masquerades as a news provider.

Conflict sells because TRP ratings soar and newspapers make a killing the next day. Conflict resolution is boring news. It is a staid process that media prefers not to dwell on too much because there is no story. But even if there is one, we are unable to adequately embellish our peace stores the way we do our conflict narratives. So what does the media do? We dramatise conflict and focus on points of differences and disagreements between warring parties. We highlight inflammatory statements made by the parties in conflict. Given our way, we prefer to focus on win-lose situations because we would run short of story lines if suppose the guns are completely silenced.

Let us not for a moment delude ourselves that having taken to the profession of disseminating news, media persons automatically transcend race, culture and all the ‘isms’ that afflict the ordinary citizen. The media is as good at ‘othering’ and ‘demonising’ individuals and communities. It takes a lot for a scribe from one community to really be objective and remove the jaundice from his/her eyes. This is more nuanced in the case of the Northeast where ethnic loyalty is all pervasive. Whether we do it consciously or through force of habit is a moot point, but the fact is that the media does propagate intolerance, and is guilty of disinformation campaigns and thereby manipulating the readers’ mind.

This breach of journalistic ethics is more palpable in the vernacular media where the newspaper or television channel feels it owes its loyalty to the readers of the language in which it is published. One of the greatest human failings is the inability to be rigorously critical of ourselves. The smaller the ethnic community, the greater seems to be the need to glorify our antecedents and our ‘unique’ histories which we want every other person to appreciate. The problem is that those outside our closely guarded paradigms see us as real people, flaws and all. Our inability to scrutinise our own actions makes us rely heavily on obsequiousness, which a section of the media provides and which we then learn to patronise.

Need for conflict sensitive reportage
In a region embedded in conflict, there is an urgent need for conflict sensitive journalism. My own understanding of what this means is that we break away from stereotypical reporting and look for fresh angles in a conflict story. Conflicts are not static. Nor are the ideologies on which they hang. So how can our stories miss out the fresh perspectives that every conflict throws up? There is of course a category amongst us that believe in indolence and picking up stories from the trash basket. But there is also the hyper-active scribe who sees ghosts everywhere. We need to strike a balance somewhere.

The whole problem with the media is that we are a self-regulating body. This is an extremely difficult situation because we are so used to being policed in every other aspect of our lives. Nevertheless, we can try. For starters, let us explore the possibilities of getting ourselves trained in conflict reporting. I fail to understand why only academics are deputed for peace and conflict resolution trainings when they actually produce so little for public consumption and engagement. Food for thought, surely!


Patricia Mukhim

Patricia Mukhim is currently editor The Shillong Times, Meghalaya’s oldest and largest selling English language daily. Mukhim has served as member, National Security Advisory Board, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. She is a recipient of several journalistic awards and was conferred the Padmashri in 2000.