Does rôle of journalist change post conflict? – Professor John Brewer argues yes

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This post is dedicated to the memory of Professor John Tulloch (1946-2013), from the University of Lincoln, one of the few British pioneers of peace journalism, and author of, amongst others, Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution (2010).

‘The Troubles’ – a phrase which to me always under-emphasises the scale of atrocity but it has become so widely known it can’t be avoided – made local news international, and some great figures in journalism first began building their reputation in Northern Ireland. The violence honed their journalist skills. Some became almost like war correspondents, thriving on the smell of cordite, whilst others sharpened their investigative powers, sniffing out secret meetings and back channel discussions, eager to disclose who was supposed to be talking to whom and supposedly about what.  The clandestine nature of it all merely added to their prowess – and the danger to their repute.

The peace process is so much more boring. The rest of us are thankful for that, but are Northern Ireland’s journalists? Have they made the transition to the changed circumstances of Northern Ireland? Indeed, are new journalistic skills needed as Northern Ireland confronts the challenges of its changed circumstances?

Some people see journalists as still in conflict mode, always looking backward and pointing to how little has changed in Northern Ireland. Some people would prefer journalists to be in peace mode, pointing forward to how much still needs to be achieved but never losing sight of what so far has been achieved.

But what do journalists themselves see as their role?

Are they neutral observers almost floating above society, looking down as the ‘fourth estate’ distant and aloof, truthfully ‘telling it like it is’? Or are they part of the very society they report upon, at the same time both shaped by it and helping to construct it? And if the latter, do they have some responsibility to help people in societies emerging out of conflict to make the necessary adjustments by which they can learn to live together in peace and tolerance?

The new practice called peace journalism is defined by its leading exponents in the following manner. It is “when editors and reporters make choices – of what to report, and how to report it – that create opportunities for society at large to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict” (Lynch and McGoldrick).

Peace journalism, though, faces two particular challenges in Northern Ireland. The first is the lack of progress in tolerance and compromise in society despite the progress in political reform. On the back of this, the second is the intent in a powerfully vocal minority, given plenty of attention in the media, who deliberately set out to offend and to be all too ready to take offence – offensiveness being their proxy for dislike at the outcome of the peace process.

These twin challenges facing peace journalism are brought to high visibility in two media formats. The first is the growth of social media, especially Twitter, whose 140 character limit seems to encourage the use of aggressive sound bites and extremism that almost borders on hate speech. The second is the curious survival in Northern Ireland of relics like the old shock-jock journalism, which seems so popular amongst people who seem addicted to its offensiveness.

Is it no wonder, then, that conflict journalism seems to triumph over its opposite?

Two questions must be asked of journalists.

a) What should be their commitment to this new form called peace journalism?

b) How should they deal with the twin challenges that limit its application in Northern Ireland?

But there is a deeper question here that the public needs to ask itself: does society get the journalism it deserves? In other words, don’t we in Northern Ireland have some role and responsibility to ensure we get the kind of journalism that best suits our needs as we emerge out of conflict?

This relationship – between media and society in a context of post-conflict recovery and reconstruction – needs further exploration by journalists, academics, politicians and the public together.

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About Author

John David Brewer joined the University of Aberdeen in 2004 as Sixth-Century Professor in Sociology. Formerly he held  positions at Queen’s University Belfast, the University of East Anglia, and, while doing research in South Africa, at the University of Natal, Durban.  He has held visiting appointments at Yale University (1989), St John’s College Oxford (1992), Corpus Christi College Cambridge (2002) and the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University (2003). He was awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship for 2007-2008 to write up research for his book on the sociology of peace processes. In 2012 he was appointed to the new Irish Research Council and to the Council of the Academy of Social Science. He is author and co-author of fifteen books.


  1. Sorry if my response is long but it is a very important topic.

    It is almost impossible for journalists but more importantly editors schooled in the Troubles to shake off the rush of the adrenalin-dripping stories after decades of violence. Even today in a post-Troubles era they cling on to issues about victims, Loughinisland, the missing, the RC/PSNI, collusion etc etc ad infinitum.

    There is a complete anal obsession with the past. It divides, disillusions, and depresses the population preventing any therapeutic process of healing between the communities. It is a generalisation to say all journos etc locked into this mould as there are many fine ones chipping away at the problem. What we really need is for print or online productions to actually declare their policy on reporting – breaking the mould.

    I personally do not enjoy reporting on this aspect of the past. It is a very dark place to go often. We have got to create an enlightened press, a movement as if it were. There will always be the titles who will continue to dwell in the troubled past and argue on narrow ideological positions, but it takes courage, determination and vision to move ahead to a new and peaceful society. There may well be times when we do in fact have to report on the issues of the past as necessary and this needs to be done sensitively.

    Also, I think that a newspaper/onlne or in print, inevitably has a subjective ethos or an ideological position that its readers identify with. The dysfunctionality of our society is often added to when these titles reinforce the division in society. It becomes self-fulfilling. The answer is to train a number of ‘peace journalists’ and get a few projects going. These projects will have a knock on effect to the backward-looking titles and maybe help create a society where the media can fulfil its role in contributing to a productive society.

    I would add, the labourer is worthy if his (her) hire. There are issues in the media today with low wages and poor work conditions, and this itself may reflect a tired industry that has failed to move forward with the times and modernise – hence falling sales from a customer base, a new generation, who do not want the same old drama of the Orange and Green on the pages.

    New ideas, new models, experimentation, etc. The media too has to change – it has an important role and this has not really had a good old public discussion either! These are just a few views which I am sure the more liberal-minded may identify with.

    Reporting on the old issues of a sectarianised society simply provides a positive reinforcement to particular types of behaviour. Reporters do not have to be therapists, but maybe there needs to be a discussion somewhere – even on Eamonn’s blog – about how we can shape our society better using sociai psychological tools. I believe it can be done – and should be done. But in a society with a free press there are issues around this but a discussion about what is achievable would not do any harm. Really about creating new values and parameters.

    The rise of blogs and the Net generally adds to this issue where almost everyone can become a broadcaster or sorts.

    Peace is far from boring. It is a different but enormous challenge – can we meet it?

  2. so, by the flawed, dangerous and anti-democratic logic of brewer’s argument – “let self-censorship flourish!” – anything which causes difficulties for the peace process should not, must not be reported. does that mean that aine adams’ complaint that her father sexually abused her at aged 4 years should not have been reported because the story led to accusations that a key architect of the peace process, her uncle gerry, was complicit in the cover up of said abuse? after all if you harm gerry, then you harm the process! equally, the bbc should never have reported the iris robinson sex scandal because that helped undermine her husband peter, the first minister and a vital partner in the peace process machinery. and so on, and so on. and if the media refuses to self-censor what is the next step? impose censorship and outline punishment of those journalists who default? because that’s the logic of this absurd and dangerous nonsense.

  3. Journalism was a part of the conflict paradigm, and in some ways it can argued that it was not just a beneficiary of that conflict, but was also a contributor.
    We have seen reform across many sectors of society; police, justice etc, yet there are many that would argue that journalism itself has not been a part of that reform.
    From an economic perspective, the reality is that conflict and bad news sell.
    To quote mark twain- “lies make it half way round the world before the truth pulls its trousers on” and the same could be said of bad news in comparison to good.
    Yet this approach ignores the good news out there and the progress made, with relatively few outlets prepared or content to promote the peace.
    The concept of ‘peace-journalism’ must become realisable.

    • so, no news about climate change, syria, poverty, NSA snooping, Russian oligarchs, al qaeda, drones, bankers’ bonuses, fracking, prison suicides, Gitmo, Malala…..i’m sure i’m leaving tons of stuff out but you and your fellow trogoldytes will be able to help, i’m sure! what a brave new world that has such people in it!

  4. I think the local media show that just because the role changes doesn’t mean the journalists do. Certainly I wouldn’t see much in the way of local papers having journalists specialising in science, economics or the arts the way a normal broadsheet would.

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