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Covering Conflict

Posted by sjbutterfield on September 11, 2008

How do we rationally analyze the murky haze which shrouds conflict in biased ambiguity?

That is what MU professors Michael Grinfeld and Richard Reuben of the Center for the Study of Conflict, Law and Media set forth to explain on Thursday morning in Lee Hills Hall. Their presentation, titled “Covering Conflict,” outlined the goals of their organization, the Center for the Study of Conflict, Law and Media, which focuses on the interaction between conflict and the media.

The Center has researched everything from health care and domestic violence to its most recent undertaking, a death row innocence project headed by MU professor Steve Wineberg.

Seven years after the attacks of 9/11, Reuben elaborated that the media has made some mistakes in its presentation of conflict, as it tends to omit the underlying causes for tension while focusing on manifest causes. Reuben began his presentation by explaining why conflict is important, citing its pervasiveness and the unique nature of writing a conflict story as primary reasons.

Reuben continued to explain that covering conflict is especially complex because the manner in which it is reported can impact the outcome of the conflict and the severity with which it is viewed. The traditional style of news reporting, the “5 W and H” model, Reuben stated, is part of what contributes to the media “not doing a very good job covering conflict.” By using the present model, Reuben continued, the media polarizes the story, antagonizing the opposing sides rather than presenting the nuanced, foggy picture that is any conflict.

In order to effectively cover conflict, Reuben and Grinfeld sought to lay out some ground rules which their research has shown presents the most accurate picture of conflict. Reuben explained that the media often covers a group’s positions because they are more salacious and sensational than a group’s interests. Where interests are the bedrock behind any group’s positions, a group will tout its staunch, firm positions in order to attract more attention. Furthermore, Reuben said, the media tends to focus on the immediate dispute in a conflict rather than the underlying causes. For instance, Reuben said, a reporter might explain that a suicide bomber attacked a bus in Jerusalem. He might report how many people were killed, where it took place, what group claimed responsibility, but would largely ignore the overarching roots of the Palestinian Israeli conflict.

To effectively cover conflict, Reuben presented a slideshow outlining tips for conflict coverage. He advocated probing past positions to get to the underlying source of a conflict in order to resolve and create a discourse which represents the views of both sides. He encouraged journalists to “situate the dispute within the context of the conflict,” rather than reporting the semantics of the individual event. Furthermore, he said journalists must broaden their source base to get as many sides to the story as possible and that journalists must temper their language so as not to be incendiary.

Wrapping up their program, Grinfeld and Reuben presented a role playing activity to simulate a controversial story in small town America to reflect the intricacies of conflict coverage. In their game, two students played the role of reporter and editor attempting to toe the line in covering a story where a group of students at a small Nevada high school attempt to form a Gay and Lesbian Outreach Club, naturally igniting controversy from the town’s denizens.

The activity reinforced for the audience the multiple levels of interest at work in covering any story, as party politics assure that no group wants to tip the scales enough to make their goals unreachable. Ultimately, Reuben and Grinfeld hope their work pays dividends, as Grinfeld summed up his aspirations for conflict journalism with “if journalists did a good job of looking at interests, of looking at context instead of just reporting what happened, the coverage would be a lot better.”


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