Give Hope a Headline
Why it pays to look on the bright side of world affairs.
Tensions soar in the Middle East, sparked by Palestinian-Israeli violence. Basque terrorists in Spain end a cease-fire and unleash a bombing campaign. Thousands of black Africans are forced out of Libya in what observers call a "pogrom." The list of carnage and cruelty seems unremitting. Conflict -- ethnic, economic, or seemingly inexplicable -- dominates international news coverage and studies of global affairs, leaving an indelible image: The world is falling apart.
Tensions soar in the Middle East, sparked by Palestinian-Israeli violence. Basque terrorists in Spain end a cease-fire and unleash a bombing campaign. Thousands of black Africans are forced out of Libya in what observers call a "pogrom." The list of carnage and cruelty seems unremitting. Conflict — ethnic, economic, or seemingly inexplicable — dominates international news coverage and studies of global affairs, leaving an indelible image: The world is falling apart.
Yet it isn’t. There are as many forces holding the world together as ever, maybe more. By missing stories of hope, the media contribute to a pervasive sense that nothing goes right in the world. The media should instill not cynicism about global affairs but a rational hope, grounded in evidence.
The evidence for hope is compelling. Look around the world, in the places that CNN ignores. The former Soviet republic of Estonia, after excluding most ethnic Russians from citizenship, redressed this mistake by passing more equitable laws, undercutting separatist sentiment. Senegal and Ghana benefit from ethnic diversity even as interethnic strife consumes other West African countries. Ireland, in a historic reversal, receives thousands of newcomers, some nonwhite, with relatively few tensions. In Macedonia, the leading Albanian political party maintains a coalition with the largest party of the ethnic Macedonian majority, pushing through power-sharing deals and avoiding the ethnic violence that has blighted the rest of the former Yugoslavia.
Individual situations, of course, are fluid, but the overall trend toward a more peaceful world is clear. Last summer, the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management released the most comprehensive study of intrastate conflicts ever assembled, drawing on a massive database of more than 200 ethnic trouble spots collected over a 50-year period. The results were stark. Of existing conflicts, more were easing than escalating. Fewer secessionist wars were being fought than at any time since 1970. And because the number of new ethnic-political protests — defined as dissent or rebellion organized around group demands — declined from a global average of ten per year in the late 1980s to four per year since 1995, "the pool of potential future rebellions is shrinking," concluded Ted R. Gurr, the study’s chief author.
Predictably, the Maryland study inspired no headlines. Good news is no news. Or, as Anthony Borden of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in London puts it: "War is sexy and peace isn’t."
Just as U.S. television news coverage of crime has increased even as crime levels have declined, so has coverage of turmoil overseas grown even as the world has become more peaceful. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs’ Media Monitor, "the leading topic of foreign news every year throughout the 1990s has been social disorder — wars, coups, demonstrations, etc… Since 1994 nearly one out of three foreign stories has covered this kind of social strife." And that’s as the foreign newshole has shrunk.
The media’s taste for crisis and violence buttresses the pervasive idea of decline. Intellectuals, policymakers, and activists are drawn to the dystopian because it underscores the importance of their mission to promote a just order. To citizens in the wealthy West, signs of disintegration elsewhere give reassurance that their own societies are superior. Motivated by the best intentions and rewarded by global elites, the media feel positively righteous in sounding the alarm about our broken world.
Why isn’t hope sexy? It can be, if only the media would grasp the potential drama in conflict avoidance. Explaining why conflicts decline — and why specific places avoid violence — is as interesting a story as the breakdowns in Rwanda and Kosovo. The appeal of hopeful stories shouldn’t be so hard to accept. In the United States, a movement of "civic" or "public" journalism examines how police, schools, businesses, and other central institutions deliver the goods, explaining why positive outcomes occur in one place and not another. Readers don’t just learn by studying why things go wrong, but also by looking at how things go right.
The wider world offers no shortage of material for such treatment. In Macedonia, Arben Xhaferi, the leading Albanian politician, stars in a compelling melodrama: How can he deliver more group rights to Albanian speakers (who want university courses in their own language, for instance) while at the same time proving the loyalty of his people to the Macedonian state? Or how is it that mineral wealth fuels civil war in Sierra Leone but not in Botswana?
Stories of hope would contain drama and raise important issues — and not at the expense of presenting a nonsensical view of the world. Why one country explodes and another prospers is usually no mystery. Patient inquiry can yield answers. "When journalists can’t explain what’s going on, they call it anarchy," says Tim Allen, a conflict expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
To find intelligent explanations, the media must examine the work of building societies. This patient and painstaking reportage would reflect a new reality: that international policymakers and practitioners increasingly focus on practices aimed at conflict avoidance, reconciliation, and power sharing. The goal is not for the media to ignore violence or disorder because it is disheartening, but to apply standards of careful reporting to provide a necessary supplement to — not a substitute for — war reporting. A journalism of hope, in short, would help change the image of the world and spread the word that not only war, but peace, is on the march.
The biggest obstacle to a journalism of hope, rather sadly, isn’t cynicism among the media, though there is plenty of that; some journalists honestly oppose more positive approaches to coverage, fearing that they will become party to awful whitewashes. But many are open to more positive coverage — until they run into opposition from policymakers and humanitarian actors who use the idea of decline to advance their own agendas. Although a journalism of hope could provide useful role models for struggling societies trying to do the right thing, it would also spark complaints that the media undermine the political will to do something about genuine crises. We are left with a paradox: If truth is the first casualty of war, it may be the first casualty of peace, too.
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