Reporting Ethnic Conflict

By Steiner, Henry J. | Nieman Reports, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Reporting Ethnic Conflict


Steiner, Henry J., Nieman Reports


Harvard Human Rights Director Calls on Press For Less Random and More Probing Coverage

Extraordinary and terrifying things happen as ethnic groups battle each other. A high percentage of the world's violations of basic human rights grows out of them, for ethnic conflicts have the long lives denied their victims. Spiraling hatreds generate rounds of retaliation and atrocity. Killings and torture reach beyond combatants to the helpless civilian populations standing, or cowering, by. Sporadic violence shades into systematic terror, then ethnic cleansing and ultimately genocide.

Reports of these struggles between ethnic groups--I mean the term to include racial, religious, linguistic and national-origin groups-should make good press; the conflicts' sheer savagery should catch the eye and reach the emotions of readers. Moreover, despite their remote locations and extreme violence, these conflicts are less alien than might first appear. Foreign ethnic struggles tap into the American psyche, for racial and other hatreds scar our national life as well. The phenomenon is truly universal, a tragic and perhaps even indeliable part of our human nature. But with few exceptions, newspaper reporting has failed to attract more than a fleeting public attention or to engage deep feelings, let alone realize the more challenging goal of educating the public.

Journalism about ethnic conflict has little persistence, follow-up or continuity. Some conflicts seem to escape the press entirely. Reporting of many others, including some of the most destructive, is sparse and selective, rarely probing. It tends to concentrate on dramatic extremes--a massacre of innocents, the assassination of a group of priests, terrorists' strikes, a promising peace initiative, the massive exodus of refugees. Rather than portray in graphic and human terms the wanton cruelty and intense suffering of these conflicts, rather than inform about their whys and the possible ways out of them, newspapers usually leave their readers with only a brief memory of aimless, discrete and horrid events.

Within present conventions and attitudes, the nature of most reporting about ethnic conflict--I refer to the large, leading, prestigious daily newspapers--is not only understandable but predictable, perhaps even inevitable. The typical reports of these conflicts reflect problems that journalists confront in describing large and complex events in general, and international or foreign matters in particular. Journalists must draw readers in quickly. They uncover facts to tell a story, not to write complex history or social theory or to change the world. Nor can they report "everything" important, particularly things foreign. Competing with a range of media, newspapers cannot ignore what their readers prefer or are even capable of absorbing. Such givens of journalistic life surely constrain what the press might attempt or could achieve in reporting ethnic conflict.

Nonetheless, those constraints must here be challenged rather than passively accepted. Given the millions killed and scarred by these conflicts over recent decades, given their persistence all over the globe, given their tendency to shatter international stability by provoking cross-border violence and flows of refugees, newspapers cannot easily justify their present practice on such familiar grounds. The leading press describes itself, and properly so, as charged with a public mission that requires it to reach beyond the profit motive. The social responsibility that it bears in a democratic society must include informing the public in some meaningful way about the major and alarming events of our time. Such a responsibility will never make more forceful claims on news coverage than with respect to ethnic conflict.

For most of the public, what is not reported in the media simply has not happened. The deaths of tens of thousands, the flows of hundreds of thousands of refugees, have not happened. …

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