The Role of Journalists in Improving Media Coverage of Conflict and Peacebuilding in West Africa
APN: What role do you think journalists can play in peacebuilding in Africa?
AG: Journalists play a huge role, from creating awareness about—and the nature of—a conflict, to creating awareness about peacebuilding efforts and mobilizing people through their stories to help others see that there is a solution. They can also put pressure on activists to do the kind of things they should do. Another important role that journalists can play is by actually being on the ground in search of stories. If you’re a good journalist, the chances that you will come across stories where problems exist are increased. And if you have governments and policymakers who will actually listen to those stories being told by journalists, they can then take measures to avert the crisis. Journalists should also keep their ears to the ground and collaborate with the right people with similar agendas in order to affect change and have their stories heard. When it comes to peacebuilding, if we assume that the agenda for journalists is a public agenda, and that they want to report in ways that intervene positively when conflict arises, then their collaborators ought to be peacebuilders, mediators, and civil society organizations working on the ground. This mutual collaboration, in turn, brings more traction to the issue.
APN: In what ways do you see the media partnering with scholars and policymakers to bridge the gap between those that produce knowledge and those that implement knowledge?
AG: One of the things that good stories need is solid, evidence-based background and contextualizing through research. Journalists are not the ones who are going to produce that knowledge, but they ought to know that that knowledge exists somewhere. They also ought to know who the experts are, who can help them understand the complexities of conflict, and who can help them understand the mechanisms that are being put in place to build peace. So, clearly, they need to collaborate with researchers. For researchers, people want to see their work being connected to the reality on the ground. And indeed, a lot of good research just doesn’t get the kind of uptake that it needs to get because it’s hidden in scholarly journals, or some other form of academic publishing that is not accessible to most people, including policymakers. That is where the media must come in; they have the experience communicating with nonacademic audiences whereas researchers do not. The question, then, is how can researchers have the kind of collaboration with the media that translates their research into understandable language and in practical ways for those who might need it, such as policymakers, but also for the general public? Such collaboration has the potential to be a win-win situation, except that the link is weak, as with many other links in the nexus that are needed for peacebuilding. This needs to be strengthened.
APN: What are your biggest takeaways from this media training workshop? Do you see these types of workshops—where the media interact with scholars—as a model that should be emulated in the future?
AG: Yes. We need to replicate them, and also build upon what we have learned. Replicate in the sense that we have a model that helps us to quite clearly see that people are enthusiastic about peacebuilding and that they are working to incorporate these ideas into their work. But perhaps journalists who attend such workshops are thrown in the deep end. People come to cover such issues related to peacebuilding not because that’s what they planned to do, but because in the course of their work they were led to do so. This means they are not equipped with specialized knowledge in the field, and they lack the capacity to understand these issues. It is also quite clear that the journalists who attended this workshop were not even sure of the key actors in the conflicts they wish to cover. Here, again, expert sources are really important, especially when you are reporting on issues that are divisive. So, we need other voices that are not interested parties to a conflict, and journalists need to know where they can go to get those voices. For example, a few people know of WANEP, but too many people do not know of WANEP, which is the biggest regional peacebuilding network in all fifteen ECOWAS countries.
So, my takeaway is this: How can we strengthen a certain network that will connect these journalists with the resources that they need to do their work? And by resources, I don’t mean financial resources, necessarily, but rather the intellectual resources that will enable them to carry out their work within the context of peacebuilding. It is also clear that in order to move people into action, journalists need to master their craft as storytellers. At the workshop, there was this evident confusion amongst participants, between having the passion to report—which is good—and wanting an organization or group of people to take action and do A, B, C, and D, or get combatants to sit together and do X, Y, and Z. But journalists need to remember that they are not mediators; they are not even trained as such, so it would be very dangerous to try and do that. Therefore, they need to understand the limits of advocacy as far as journalism is concerned and use their stories to do the advocacy for them, rather than trying to take it upon themselves. In other words, journalists should let the stories tell themselves; if you tell a compelling story, people will get it. They just have to trust that people will get it and be moved enough to do something.