Conflict Sensitive Reporting Essential

Journalist Mary Kiio has trained fellow reporters in conflict sensitivity for the last five years in Kenya. She currently works with BBC Media Action training journalists around the country. We interviewed her to learn more about her work.

Why is there need for conflict sensitive reporting?
The way journalists report during a time of conflict may either exacerbate or quell a situation. I used an exercise with vernacular journalists to help them understand how language contributed to the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007/8.

When journalists reported “My people are being attacked” or “Our people are being attacked” in vernacular language, it gave the impression that they were siding with their own communities. This reporting may have led more people to fear that their whole community was under attack and react negatively. In reality, the attacks may have only involved a few people.

How do you train journalists effectively?
I use experiential methods. I create role plays and exercises so that journalists can identify with a certain situation, discuss the issue, and come up with their own solutions.

What role does language play during a time of conflict?
It’s not usually what one says, but how one says something that may lead to further problems. For instance, if 10 people die during a conflict between two communities, a journalist who reports “two warring communities” gives the wrong information. The word “war” is usually used when armed conflict takes place especially between nations, resulting in many fatalities. The journalist needs to consider the appropriate words and wording for the story, for example, “Fighting between two communities has resulted in the death of 10 people.”

How can Christian journalists report effectively on inter-religious conflict?
Christian reporters need to find the real cause of a religious conflict. For a longstanding feud, dig into the genesis of the conflict, how it escalated and analyze the current situation with all the facts.

Journalists must ask themselves fundamental questions prior to reporting, including: Do I prefer one of the religious groups involved in this inter-religious conflict? Do I have any negative perceptions about any of the religious groups involved? Acknowledging this often leads journalists to realize personal shortcomings in reporting on an issue. But this awareness can also provide impetus to go beyond their perceptions and stereotypes to tell the true story.

What key lessons you have learned?
Conflict sensitive journalism is hard work and requires the truth be told, but in a responsible manner. It is not soft journalism or hiding of truths. It may require that a journalist holds back a few more minutes when she has a breaking news story on conflict. She first checks all the facts and ensures that she doesn’t contribute to further conflict.

One needs a keen eye to detail and to ask the hard questions to be able to tell the truth without being perceived as being biased against one group or community.

If journalists around the world would embrace conflict sensitive reporting, there would be more peaceful coexistence among the people that they seek to inform.

Photo above courtesy of Fredrick Ngechu