Absence of solutions-based journalism deemed problematic in reports of war and mass atrocity

Academic challenges media to offer solutions in their reporting instead of just telling dramatic stories meant to grab their audience

Martha Steffens (University of Missouri) and Paul Watson discuss journalism post-Rwanda at the Media and Mass Atrocity roundtable. Photo by Liam Harrap.

In 1994, there was a lot to be covered by the media. O.J. Simpson led the police and news helicopters on a two-hour car chase in a white Bronco, TV cameras followed Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding’s fall from grace, and politicos were consumed with the investigation into the Whitewater scandal and the implementation of NAFTA. Abroad, western news outlets kept their attentions focused on the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks.

Lost in the shuffle, many argue, was the Rwanda genocide.

Today, the endless news cycle means journalists are covering an ever-wider breadth of stories.

“How do you deal with a lot of coverage in a lot less space?” asked Martha Steffens, a journalism professor from the University of Missouri, to the Media and Mass Atrocity round table.

Steffens was part of a panel of experts discussing the everlasting lessons on the media from the Rwanda genocide. Among those lessons: the need to seek out solutions-based coverage with victims and survivors as a source of information, using data and technology to find and enhance stories, and valuing the pursuit of the truth above all else.

Lauren Kogen, an assistant professor at Temple University, told the round table via Skype that when it comes to covering foreign suffering, western journalists are often reluctant to report on potential solutions.

In her research, Kogen has employed discourse analysis and in-depth interviews with journalists in an attempt to understand why reporters feel this way.

“Presenting that there are solutions (suggests) that we ought to take a solution, which they saw as equivalent as taking a political stand,” she said, noting that reporters can’t always conceive a possible solution to the crises they report.

In the case of the Somali famine in 2011, Kogen said the news media presented the tragedy as “without solution,” often reporting on “human interest stories” instead.

Kogen says journalists should rely on the voices of victims and survivors as sources for solutions-based information. Given that such sources represent the main stakeholders in their given crises, she says journalists should ask them how they want the situation to be dealt with.

For her part, Steffens told the round table that data and technology literacy can help flesh out future journalism, pointing to social media and the use of satellite images to monitor the development of stories.

“Perhaps this holds the key for future reporting efforts,” said Steffens.

Given the current rise of data leaks, Steffens says journalists need more data literacy skills in order to sift through and properly analyze and contextualize the contents of such leaks.

“Data should always be a tip or a tool rather than an end,” she said. “On leaks the number one issue is always going to be verification of the information: is it true, or is it propaganda?”

Steffens also suggested public journalism (the practice of integrating the public into the roles of journalists) be employed when speaking with victims in order to not re-traumatize them during the reporting process.

“Anniversary stories are done in a very rote way,” Steffens said, explaining how on the anniversary of a tornado in Ohio, she brought survivors together and let them communicate with each other as part of her reporting. She said her sources found the process much more intimate and healing than it would have been had they just been speaking with her as a journalist.

“They’re talking to other survivors rather than the news media,” said Steffens.

Panelists spoke of responsible engagement with victims and survivors of an atrocity or disaster. Photo by Liam Harrap.

Seasoned war correspondent and author Paul Watson agreed with Steffens’ approach. “That’s just good journalists doing their job,” he said. “We need more of it.”

Watson added that whatever the future of journalism in the face of mass atrocity, journalists must remain devoted to reporting the truth.

“There’s a war within the war reporters head,” he said. “It’s effectively the battle between what you know, what you think you know, and what the propagandists want you to think you know.”

Watson gave an example of a time when, during his reporting from Afghanistan, he disagreed with his editor on how best to cover a story. He says his editor told him he had to “understand the public mood here.”

“For the young journalists in the room, that’s the best argument I can find for breaking up the old system,” said Watson. Adding that new, small media organizations willing to work in a balanced way with local, foreign reporters are needed in order to pursue the truth.

“Editors always tell you before you head off, ‘No story is worth dying for,’” he said. “But I can think of several stories worth dying for.”