Media Strategies

Jennifer Akin

March 2005

"All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level." -- William Bernbach

The mass media have a powerful influence on how people view the world. Newspapers, radio, and television are frequently the only link to events happening outside of one's neighborhood. A reporter's story on a conflict can be the sole information available to his audience. How the reporter frames the conflict can bias the audience in favor of one party, or one solution, over another. Because the media are so vital not only to presenting and explaining conflicts, but also keeping them from escalating, it is necessary for parties to a conflict and conflict resolution practitioners to know how to work with the media effectively.

Media coverage is at times something to be eagerly sought out, and at other times something to be avoided at all costs. Knowing when to seek coverage and how to handle it, both when it is desired and when it is not, can make a huge difference in how amicably and quickly a conflict is resolved. Journalists benefit from learning more about conflict resolution because it can improve their reporting.

All too often conflict is regarded as more newsworthy than resolution. That does not have to be the case. Bringing journalism and conflict resolution techniques together can result in solid news stories that are beneficial to the conflicts and people covered.

Additional insights into media strategies are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.


The sayings "any publicity is good publicity" and "there's no such thing as bad publicity" are common in the United States. Unfortunately, they are not always true when dealing with conflict. Conflict resolution professionals are not trying to keep their work a secret, but it is often not possible for them to do their job without some confidentiality. To be successful, mediation and other peace processes require that all parties be allowed to speak candidly at the table and consider a wide range of possible solutions. If they are being recorded, the participants may become self-conscious and careful not to say anything that sounds foolish or angers their constituents. If any party "leaks" the discussions to a reporter, the talks could break down completely over breach of trust.

To avoid these scenarios, conflict resolution professionals need to take preventive action. Before mediation begins in a high-profile conflict, the intermediary should consider meeting with local news outlets. Sitting down with reporters and perhaps newspaper editors and station managers gives conflict professionals a chance to explain how mediation (negotiation, etc.) works and why reporters are not desired at the talks themselves. When the mediation is ready to begin, the mediator should also clearly explain to all participants that a common ground rule is that there will be no individual contact with the media.

Just because one meets with journalists beforehand is not a guarantee that they will still not try to get quotes from participants or get access to the meetings. After all, it is their job to find and report information to the public. Most, however, will be respectful of mediators' requests if the reasons for the secrecy are legitimate and explained thoroughly. As a trade off for not being in the meeting, most mediators will provide journalists with periodic updates and schedule a press conference with all parties present to answer questions after negotiations end. Holding a press conference after mediation or negotiation is a win-win situation in that the parties to the talks can present their success together and journalists have access to all of the participants.

Although publicity frequently can be damaging to conflicts, there are certainly times when it is instrumental. The pressure the media can apply to persons or groups who are seen as hypocritical or malicious is without equal. From expos's on local polluters to the calls for an end to apartheid, the media can educate its audience and agitate for action.

Wanting media attention does not automatically translate into receiving it, however. Whether or not the media will be interested in a particular situation depends on several factors. Generally speaking, news outlets are looking for unusual events that will interest a large audience. Television news also needs events with dramatic visuals. Journalism is not a monolithic entity, but rather a collection of many people and organizations, each with different theories regarding what news is and how it should be reported. Also, each medium has its own constraints. For example a newspaper gains from adding more stories, but television has a limited amount of time and a fickle audience.[1]

Attracting media attention to events that are not automatic media priorities requires "pitching," or marketing, a story to a journalist. Journalists work under extreme time pressures. They are therefore often more willing to work with sources who can provide them with background information in advance, have participants available for interviews on short notice, and return phone calls promptly. It is better to admit not knowing something than to provide false information, as an unreliable source will not be used again. Along the same lines, it is better to present a conflict in the most balanced way possible even if one is biased towards one side. By portraying one's own side as perfect and the other side as completely wrong one loses credibility with the journalist (and general audience) and further alienates the other side.

Another way of gaining media time is to pay for advertising. Because it is a more controllable and repeatable way of appearing in the media, advertising is usually the first choice of those who can afford it. In the United States alone, advertising has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry.[2] The high cost involved in running a newspaper or a television network has meant that media companies need marketing dollars in order to keep functioning. Advertising consists of all promotions designed to create a desired response in consumers. Advertisements (ads) are designed to sell a product, from the literal sale of dish detergent to the figurative sale of a political platform. Politicians, public interest groups, and even nations use them.[3] The benefit of advertising over publicity is that an organization can say exactly what they want and do not have to share the spotlight, but the downside is that many people view ads far more skeptically than news stories.

Peace Journalism

Peace journalism is a term coined by Johan Galtung to describe a style of reporting which deliberately seeks to de-escalate a conflict through focusing on "conflict transformation."[4] Peace journalists look at a conflict from a resolution point of view and ask questions such as "what are the deeper roots of the conflict?" and "what are the parties' real goals?"[5] This theory of journalism is not without controversy. Many journalists view peace journalism as a departure from strict objectivity and believe that it is overstepping the bounds of journalism. Galtung and others argue that journalists can and ought to do more than report from a distance. As Jannie Botes notes, "The urgent task of preventing genocidal violence should shape the evolution of journalistic paradigms in ways that will enable the profession to contribute to the prevention and resolution of conflict more effectively."[6]

Creating Media

Another side to working with the media is to actually create programming for mass consumption. This is "media" in the sense of content -- stories, television and radio programs, songs, etc. The 1994 massacres in Rwanda were horrifying proof of how strong an impact "hate media" can have on its audience. Radio Mille Collines, a popular radio station in Rwanda at the time, is believed to have played a significant part in the genocide by heightening the fear and tension between the Hutu and Tutsi populations. Before the genocide began, its programming was subtle, but after the killing started it aired such chilling statements as "What are you waiting for? The tombs are empty. Take up your machetes and hack your enemies to pieces."[7] These types of inflammatory statements encouraged the killing that left 800,000 dead in less than 100 days. In response to hate media, groups such as The Search for Common Ground and the United Nations have created "peace media." Peace media introduces tolerance for differences and peaceful conflict resolution techniques by working them into popular entertainment on television and radio.

Studio Ijambo is an example of successful peace media in an area infamous for violent conflict. Created in 1995 by Common Ground Productions[8] and Search for Common Ground Burundi Studio Ijambo was Burundi's first independent radio station. The station employs both Hutu and Tutsi staff to produce news, public affairs, and cultural programming. The station's flagship radio drama, "Our Neighbors, Ourselves," describes the common problems facing neighbors, such as drought and division in the village, and how they overcome them together. A recent survey showed that an estimated 87 percent of Burundians listen to the radio, and 82 percent of those surveyed believe that Common Ground's programs in Burundi greatly help reconciliation. Studio Ijambo reaches an estimated 12 million people throughout the Great Lakes region.[9]

As Loretta Hieber points out in her article "Media as Intervention," there are several stumbling blocks for organizations trying to establish a peace media presence.[10] The first major obstacle is to create partnerships with locally-based media. The difficulty is to find partners who are not seen as biased by the audience and who will not demand content control. The second obstacle is to find a way to get the audience to accept the broadcast. Research shows that the most effective combination for successful communication is a mixture of entertainment and "desired outcome," or message, programming. Audiences will reject any messages that they feel are being imposed on them by outsiders (yet another reason it is useful to have local partners). Finally, once the project is underway it can be hard to measure its effectiveness because of a lack of resources, the scarcity of proven research methods, or difficulty contacting scattered audience members.

While there are many difficulties to be overcome, when peace media does succeed it is an extremely valuable tool for helping to prevent and de-escalate conflicts. Psychologically, a friendly source of news in a time of chaos is very calming, and after a conflict, by making available space or airtime for the expression of grievances, media encourages an essential part of the healing process.[11] [12]

[1] Conflict Research Consortium, "The Role of the Media in Reporting Less-Tractable Conflicts" [article on-line] Working Paper 93-7 (21 October 1993, accessed 24 October 2002); available at


[3] Victoria de Grazia, "The Selling of America, Bush Style," The New York Times. 25 August 2002.

[4] Johan Galtung, "High Road, Low Road," [article on-line] Track Two. 7, no. 4. (accessed on 24 October 2002); available at; Internet.

[5] Ibid

[6] Jannie Botes, "Dialogue of the Deaf," [article on-line] Track Two 7, no. 4 (accessed on 24 October 2002); available at; Internet.

[7] Giorgio Ruggiu; Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM)

[8] The media production arm of The Search for Common Ground.


[10] Loretta Hieber, "Media as Intervention," [article on-line] Track Two 7, no. 4 (accessed on 24 October 2002); available at; Internet.

[11] Ibid

[12] Special thanks to Mr. Dick Salem, president of Conflict Management Initiatives, for all of his help in drafting this essay.


Use the following to cite this article:
Akin, Jennifer. "Media Strategies." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <>.

Additional Resources