“The winds of change are blowing through American media.” So say the enterprising campaigners for peace and social justice at Avaaz.org, an independent not-for-profit organisation with offices in six countries. Avaaz means “voice”, in many languages, and their team “works to ensure that the views and values of the world’s people inform global decision-making”.
Like many of us, they detect an opportunity for positive change with the election of Barack Obama as US President. After all, long before he emerged as America’s choice, he was being willed on to victory by publics around the world. And, like many of us, Avaaz believe the top priority in foreign policy for the Obama White House should be to shift to a far more even-handed approach in the Middle East. Without using the term, they slot this issue in to what is known as the “constraints theory” of policy decision-making in international relations, and they identify, as the biggest constraint, the way the conflict is represented in the media.
Only 4 per cent of stories reaching US readers and audiences so much as mention the fact that the Palestinians are under military occupation, Avaaz note. The shape of public understanding of the issue reveals the clear imprint of this and other notable omissions: in opinion polls, fewer than 25 per cent of Americans say they can sympathise with both sides. “Given domestic pressure, even Obama will find it difficult to be fair”, they say.
This is welcome because it is a (still) relatively rare example of someone in the peace and social justice fields treating media representations as a concern in their own right. History - certainly my history - is littered with unsuccessful applications to charitable trusts and the like, with ideas for campaigning, not merely through the media but also on the media, as a way to create a public discourse more conducive to non-violent responses to conflict. The latest rejection came through just the other day, from the James N Kirby Foundation here in Australia.
Having decided, then, that media represent a problem in their own right, what do Avaaz intend to do about it? Despairing, perhaps, of persuading the plenipotentiaries of charitable giving to share their analysis, they’ve issued a grassroots call for small donations - imitating the signature style of the Obama campaign itself. “Media experts tell us the best way to seize this opportunity is to fund a small number of highly respected individuals to engage top journalists and editors on this issue”, they say: “providing facts, information and opportunities to hear sensible voices for peace from both Palestinians and Israelis.”
To this end, they’re appealing for funds to hire specialist staff and lobby the media: “As a start, $40,000 would be enough to hire a respected advocate; $15,000 will pay for an opinion poll in Gaza and Israel that challenges prejudices and is released to US media; $50,000 will build a ‘peace wall’ in Gaza, Jerusalem and Washington DC for citizens in each place to post messages to each other and the media”.
Their strategy covers several distinct types of media activism, a form of endeavour that has been divided into three strands, summarised thus:
- change the media;
- create new media; and
- change the audience.
Assuming they succeed in raising the money (and I encourage you to join me in making a donation at the link here), how far are they likely to succeed in changing media representations for the better?
To adopt a tactic of advocacy to senior journalists is to work on the assumption that editors and reporters have unexplored scope to change the way they approach their job. In academic language, some journalistic “agency” can be brought to bear. It resonates with some of the responses to a global survey of journalists, carried out a few years ago, which asked editors, reporters and others from 28 countries, what were the major impediments to them and their colleagues doing a better job? Some respondents picked up on this sense that, while there are structural constraints (of those, more later), many who operate within them do not push hard enough at the limits.
So, for example, Jon Snow, one of Britain’s highest profile TV presenters, at Channel Four News, blamed “laziness and self-censorship” for media shortcomings. Baffour Ankomah, UK-based editor of New African magazine, accused his fellow editors of being “lazy, ignorant and operating with pre-set ideas”. Supara Janchitfah, a reporter at the Bangkok Post, was frustrated that Thai media did not make the most of their notional freedom of expression: “Our organisation has no clear vision of what we want to achieve. Sometimes, to play safe we often sided with the government. Criticising the government is not our nature. Thus most of the time, we do the self-censorship.”
The survey was carried out under the banner of Reporting the World, a journalism think-tank based in London, of which Annabel McGoldrick and I were co-directors, operating from 2001-2005. This took the form of a series of meetings for invited journalists - including a residential roundtable - to discuss the reporting of particular stories about conflict, supported by publications, a website and regular newsletters (material stored at www.reportingtheworld.net). According to the project report, the process was “intended to fortify reporters, producers and editors alike in overcoming self-censorship and the constraints of consensus and inertia, in favour of thinking through stories for themselves”.