John Keating is a veteran journalist and journalism trainer from Canada. He has worked with IMPACS, and the Media and Democracy Group, training reporters in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Guyana, Brunei and Kyrgyzstan.
He spent the past three days leading a conflict sensitive journalism course for 25 reporters in Nairobi. His work was supported by International Media Support.
What are you finding that reporters are struggling with most, covering this conflict?
The thing that keeps coming up again and again is how, even if they write their stories in a balanced way, many of the editors will change them because there is a lot of corruption in the media here. People admit that pretty freely, even a few of the senior people are brave enough to say it. A lot of the media is owned directly or indirectly by politicians. They put pressure on, or pay off editors and owners to skew things to their point of view.
How much of that frustration on the part of journalists is due to a concern for their own safety?
That does come up. They say they go out for something, a demonstration or something, and the people say, “oh, you are from the Kikuyu paper.” That can make them feel unsafe or frustrated because they don’t see themselves as [affiliated to one particular side]. There is also a lot of division in the newsroom now. People are telling me, “People who used to be my friends, they are from a different tribe, and we don’t even talk any more...”
There’s one guy up there who is one of the displaced persons who had to leave his town because he didn’t feel it was safe any more. He was saying, “How do I write about this stuff when I am part of the story?”
How do you define conflict sensitive journalism?
It’s just a different way of looking at how you report conflicts such as the one here in Kenya. It means doing good basic journalism, not sensationalizing things, being accurate and fair and balanced but also not simply reporting what the two warring sides are saying. Report it from different points of view. If the economy is in trouble because of the conflict, you talk to business leaders. You go do stories about the family whose house was burned out by the riot, rather than only report on the riot. There’s also another story there, a human story.
It’s basically doing the solid journalism that we should be doing anyway. It also tends to teach people a rudimentary conflict theory: what causes conflict, how it is resolved, how does the media play a role in resolving it.
Why, in particular, is it important to have fair and balanced domestic reporting in a situation like this?
Well, how are you going to solve any problem if you don’t have any proper communication about it. Most of the violence in any conflict is about power and money, who’s got it and who doesn’t. But it is easily seen as an ethnic or religious divide. It creates a situation where you start thinking that, “The other side is the bad guys. The other side is the one I don’t trust. I don’t know very much about them but I know they are bad.” You don’t clear up those kinds of misperceptions until you have communication and you don’t have communication if you don’t have a decent media. Communication is the key to resolving any conflict.
What can domestic reporters do that perhaps foreign press can’t do?
Obviously they live here, they know the culture, they understand the situation better than outsiders. The majority of the media that people here consume is local media. A lot of those small villages, their only source of information, or at least the only one they listen to, is the FM station. So if you have a FM station that is whipping people up and encouraging people to spout hate propaganda against other groups, you are never going to resolve anything.
The fighting has died down now. Things are relatively calm as far as I can tell but the problem hasn’t gone away. The problem doesn’t go away unless you talk about it and the way you talk about it is through the media.
The media can frame the conflict in a certain way, if they are smart enough and good enough journalists to think about it, they don’t have to just frame the conflict as one part against the other. They can frame the conflict as one group is disadvantage and another is not. They can explore the common ground that both sides share, which is where you are going to find the solution.
What is your sense of how the issues are being covered by local press?
From the little bit I have seen, there has been a tendency to have this message of peace. They have suddenly become peace advocates rather than conflict sensitive journalists. It’s almost like, “let’s sweep it under the carpet and let’s hold hands.” In my view, that’s not the answer either.
I will just give you an example. I picked up one of the papers this morning and looked at the front page. It was a story about how Sweden and Britain are trying to put pressure on them to settle the situation. But the lead was “A noose is about to be put around the necks of the people standing in the way of a peace settlement.”
On the face of it, it sounds like a colorful lead. When you look at it more closely, it is still taking this position that there are bad guys and good guys and the bad guys are standing in the way and they won’t be able to stand in the way much longer. They don’t tell you who the good guys and the bad guys are, but if you read that newspaper and you live here, you know exactly who they are talking about.
That’s exactly the kind of thing that I am trying to tell them: even something like that, that on the surface appears subtle or harmless or just overwritten, is in fact damaging to any attempt to get a settlement. It still divides.
What are you advising reporters in terms of doing stories about the way forward, not just covering events?
That’s another thing I have been saying over and over again. Maybe the leaders don’t have the solution but there are other people out there who do. There are other people and other ideas. There are academics and diplomats. You could even write a story about how another country solved a similar problem in the past. You don’t have to wait for the press release from the government and print it saying, “The only way forward is for the opposition to pull up the pins and leave.”
It’s just good basic journalism, really.
If you were to paint a picture of the ideal composition of a newspaper in the middle of a conflict, what would you like the content of the newspaper to be?
First of all, I’d like it to have the news. That is one thing I kept reinforcing: don’t hide it. The idea here is not to hide anything or sugarcoat it. We’re journalists and what we are supposed to be doing is the news. And then I would like to see several points of view, not just the government and opposition. Several points of view from all levels, from the government level down to the person who has to stay with their relatives because their house was burned down.
I’d like to see articles about how similar crises were handled in other countries at other times; stories about the basic things that are wrong that have contributed to the situation, such as the institutionalized poverty here. There’s no end of social issues that contribute in small and big ways to [the conflict]. I think somebody should be starting to point out the corruption and the problems.
In this idea of sensitivity, is there ever a point where you pull back from being explicit?
This came up in the class. What I hope I got across is that, of course you should say the names of tribes if it is relevant to the story. If it’s not part of the story, why put it in?
That’s maybe harder to do in practice but to give a more practical example, you might say “Six people died in a riot,” and not have the lead sentence be “Six Kikuyus were massacred by a crowd of outraged…” It’ll come up a lot of times that it is part of the story. The bottom line is, this is journalism. If it news, put it in. If it is irrelevant to the story, why is it there in the first place?
What positive role do you think first-person journalism can have in this kind of situation?
That also came up today. The guy I mentioned, who had to flee because he felt unsafe, when he finished telling me [about fleeing], I said “That’s a great story. Did you write it?” And it turns out he did. As long as you can do it without turning it into revenge, as long as it is something that is dispassionate and tells the story… The less sensational you can make it, the less emotional you make it, the bigger impact it is going to have. If it’s news, it’s news, do it.
What are the key points that you cover in terms of basic journalism skills?
It’s just a review of the basics: accuracy, balance, fairness and responsible journalism. Avoid inflammatory language. Call people what they call themselves. And just be aware that you as a journalist, you are part of this. Everyone is getting their information from you and if you don’t give them the right information or you give it in a way that favors one side over the other, the trouble is just going to keep going, because nobody is going to know what is going on.
[The conflict theory focuses on] the sources of conflict. The four main ones are ethnic differences, political differences, lack of resources and lack of power. In fact, if you look at almost any conflict it looks like one of the first two and it’s almost always one of the second two.
Have you found resistance to any of the ideas you are presenting?
No. It’s surprising how talkative they are and how much they care about these issues. I think journalism here seems to be more sophisticated than most places I have been.
I think people really want to do something. I was at this roundtable on Tuesday and the very first guy is a big shot editor at [one of the papers], he gave a very passionate off-the-cuff speech about how the media had failed and about how he had failed. And how much shame it has brought to journalism. It was very moving, really. I was very surprised because he is a fairly senior editor, apparently. Everybody in the room sort of agreed with him.
There are still corrupt owners and there are still corrupt politicians who control much of the media and there are still corrupt editors. That is the biggest stumbling block: corruption. It’s what is really going to make it difficult to change anything. But there is a will there among the day-to-day journalists and some of the senior people as well.
These are great people, really smart and engaged. They really want to change things for the better, if only their bosses will let them.