Journalists as Escalators of Conflicts

Jannie Botes

Assistant Professor, Program on Negotiations and Conflict Management, University of Baltimore

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

You wanted to talk, if I remember, about can the media directly contribute to conflict resolution or escalation. And then I would say, journalists escalate conflicts all the time and sometimes it's inevitable and sometimes it's done in a way that should've really been prevented, but I think the process of journalism itself escalates conflict. And I get back to that A versus B, I talk to you, I take that information, I speak with somebody else, they tell me things and I come back and I check it off against you. So you know, I'm feeding this fire just by playing you off against each other. And that in essence is journalism.

Q: Which may not be a bad thing right? You may want a conflict to escalate?

A: You might say that. There is the theory of conflict ripening and journalism contributes to the ripening of conflict. I think one could argue that.

Q: You mentioned empowerment earlier and certainly if a party in a lower position were to be empowered, then a conflict would escalate. 

A: I think one of the other things that's fascinating about conflict is that just like mediators empower people by bringing them to a table, even if you and I think of students and professors, that's an unequal power relationship. But if they have to go and negotiate something with the dean, who is acting as the mediator, and to a degree the student is now being escalated to another party and the faculty member has lost some of his power because they are now equals in front of the dean with whom they have to negotiate.

I think one of the most important roles of the media is that they convene people in front of a microphone or they convene them as parties A and B in a story. In that sense they bring those conflicts forward and they empower people by writing about them as equals. But it's a huge area of danger. For example, the BBC, have been accused of this. Let's say there's a small African country that barely gets into the news and there is a rebel war. Now, it's happened in cases that one of the hardest things to ask, what is it the rebel group wants? Sometimes the rebel group is fairly unable to tell us what they want; all they really want is those bad people out of there. Why are they bad they can't really tell us, what they would do that's better and why they should be in government they can't really tell us either. That is a problem in terms of defining why you are better or different. But that's not really the point I want to make.

The point I want to make is let's say there is this rebel war somewhere in Africa and this rebel group had a skirmish or two with the government whatever the government was and then they fled into the bush, but they've got some help from somewhere. They've got some satellite funds, so they also understand how they can further their case through the media. And the BBC world service plays a big role in Africa, right, so they now get onto their satellite phone and they call bush house in London and they speak to the BBC and they get put on and they get interviewed. What occurs in that case is that you've escalated a very small group that probably really doesn't have the right to be deemed an equal group or people with right on their side within this specific situation. But putting them as the opposition against the government group, you've escalated them in a way and furthered their case in a way that distorted the whole conflict itself.

You've legitimized them without really understanding if that was a legitimization that was legitimate in terms of their number and their cause etcetera, etcetera. I've seen the same things done by very serious, very good journalists, people like Nightline. I remember watching years ago a Nightline on South Africa where they showed ____ , the Afrikaners Resistance Movement, people with very right wing tendencies and their insignia on their shoulders is a version of the swastika of the Nazis. As somebody who lived in South Africa, I've always thought that the conflict in South Africa was distorted by the fact that it was made a black/white issue and that whites like me who were anti-apartheid who thought that country should be changed were oversimplified in media. That is one of the big things is that we are always oversimplified.