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Sensitivity, new paradigm in conflict reporting

By Udo Ibuot

CURRENT tendencies in newspapers’ coverage of conflict situations usually focus on reporting of violent activities, behaviours of winners and losers, with details of how these tragedies have been sustained. This conflict reporting model is associated with war journalism given its focus on reporting of violence and how the stakeholders foist untold hardships on affected citizens and the nation as a whole. However, an alternative paradigm of conflict journalism has emerged.

Its fundamentals include the requirement that media professionals covering conflict beats be sensitive to the hardships that the people contend with. It also demands that they explore the backgrounds and contexts in which these conflicts are formed to prevent their escalation. The new paradigm involves giving all the combatants similar opportunities to express their misgivings and reporting excesses found to have been perpetrated by all the sides to the conflict.

These are sensitivities that are often absent in most conflict or war reports. The sensitivity not only led to the conceptualisation and introduction of conflict-sensitive journalism, but is also the reason for this book which is a product of three conflict-sensitive researches. The three researchers, Tunde Akanni, Jide Jimoh and Philip Olayoku, obtained their Ph.Ds in Media, Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ibadan, with two of them teaching journalism at the Lagos State University, and the third teaching cultural and media studies at the premier university. Each of these researches focuses on a specific conflict situation with all the three adopting content analysis as research designs.

The first study entitled: Conflict-Sensitive Journalism and the Jos Crisis (2010-2011) is presented by Jide Jimoh. He purposively chose four newspapers – The Guardian, The Punch, Daily Trust and  National Standard. The Punch and The Guardian are privately owned newspapers based in Lagos, National Standard is a Plateau State Government-owned publication while Daily Trust is a privately owned newspaper based in Abuja. The study had Framing theory and the Social Responsibilities theory as theoretical underpinnings. A major finding was that in the reportage of the Jos crisis, 30.5 per cent of the coverage reflected conciliatory language, 32.2 per cent was considered inflammatory, 11.3 per cent was considered sensational in tone while 26.1per cent was considered moderate.

Combined, it meant that about 44 per cent of the reports were inflammatory or sensational in nature. Another finding was that 65.2 per cent of the main sources of news of the crisis were from statements or speeches, while 5.6 per cent came from reports and other publications. Reporters’ interviews accounted for 18.6 per cent of the sources while press conferences provided 6.2 per cent of the coverage. Investigative reporting accounted for 3.4 per cent of the coverage with other sources accounting for 0.9 per cent. This finding suggests that media professionals are no longer engaged in the business of investigative journalism. The study concluded that the newspapers did not only report the conflict but that they, indeed, contributed to its exacerbation through their use of sensational languages.

The second study entitled: A Conflict-Sensitive Analysis of the Newspaper Coverage of 1999 Odi Conflict, is presented by Tunde Akanni. The researcher purposively selected three newspapers – Thisday, The Observer and Vanguard – to examine the coverage of the ‘Odi massacre.’ Justification of the choice flowed from the fact that owners of the three newspapers were connected to the Niger-Delta. The Observer is owned by Edo State Government, one of the six states in the region, while Thisday and Vanguard are Lagos-based newspapers owned by Niger- Delta citizens. Editions of the newspapers spanning the period of the crisis were analysed in line with the research questions.

Salient questions were on the pattern of coverage of the conflict, issues arising from the pattern, and how the selected newspapers manifested the ethos of conflict-sensitive journalism. Theoretical underpinning was the Gatekeeping theory, while about 220 editorial items comprising news stories, feature articles, opinions and editorials were analysed for the study. Of this number, 130 represented statements or speeches, while five were from reports or publications. Reporters’ interviews accounted for 30 of the stories while 40 were from press conferences. Public opinion polls accounted for 15 of the stories while no investigative report was published during the period. The researcher drew attention to the lack of multiple sources of editorial items or the dominance of statements and speeches in the newspapers under review.

He observed that this constituted a serious vacuum to the concept of conflict-sensitive journalism. His findings included the observation of a bandwagon effect in the reportage as virtually all the newspapers adopted similar dispositions in news reporting. He also found that there was a conspicuous absence of investigative reporting on the pages of the affected newspapers. The reportage of the Odi affair was also found to be largely bereft of conflict sensitivity as reporting of stakeholders’ comments did not seem to be mindful of their impacts on the larger society.

The third entry entitled Towards a Culture of Conflict Sensitivity: Group cum Ethnic Profiling in the Media Reportage of Nasarawa State Violent Crisis (2012-2013) is presented by Philip Olayoku. The study focused on how the newspapers reported on the Eggon or Ombatse crises in Nasarawa State. Two newspapers – Daily Trust and EggonNews – were purposively selected for the study and the choice was justified by the proximity of the publications’ offices to the crises environment. Daily Trust is a private newspaper based in Abuja with focus on the north and the government, while EggonNews is a community- based monthly newspaper that caters to interests of the Eggon. The researcher adopted Gatekeeping theory as the underpinning theoretical framework for the study. He examined the effect of labelling adopted by reporters in the two newspapers in the coverage of the conflict and explained that while EggonNews profiled the Fulani as ‘mercenaries and militia’, the Daily Trust profiled the Ombatse as ‘cult group and ethnic militia.’

Sensationalism was the second theme the researcher examined. Its use was dominant in both newspapers as lead headlines were laced with editorialising tendencies, a move that was meant to generate sympathetic affections or sentiments from members of the public towards the causes the newspapers represented. The other trend which Olayoku’s study found was the discriminatory approach towards the female gender in the reporting of the conflict. This is a theme that was also discernible in the two previous studies. Women, children, the aged and people living with disabilities constitute a group that is often relegated in conflict reporting scenarios, yet they bear the brunt in all conflicts and ought to dominate in these discourses. Both the Daily Trust and the EggonNews paid scant attention to this category.

These studies have brought to the fore the need to introduce the core knowledge that is required to cause a paradigm shift in reporting of conflicts. The fundamental knowledge should include, among others, the requirement that media professionals detailed to cover conflict situations acquire detailed conflict-sensitive training that will enable them to understand the tone of language to use in their reports to reduce tension in conflict environments. This book is recommended to journalists and all media organisations that may have to assign reporters to conflict situations. It should also serve as a valuable manual for lecturers and students of communication studies in universities, polytechnics and monotechnics, as it will enable them to have first-hand knowledge of how to approach the field.

 

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