Tuesday, January 6, 2015

How Media Companies Aggravate or Ameliorate Conflicts

As a private business entity, a media company has political vulnerability in a conflict context. In many cases, the ulterior motives of the media may differ from what appears below daily headlines. Due to commercial interests and nexus with power centres, the media may not be as unbiased as the public generally expects. Therefore, understanding the role of media in politically sensitive times requires an in-depth analysis. On the one hand, the media inform people about events and incidents, and prepare them for future occurrences; on the other hand, they may exacerbate mishaps and enrage their audience (Ghimire, 2006). Thus, they can influence both national and international agendas. There are many examples of the destructive, as well as constructive, impact of the media. For  example, Hitler manipulated the media, belittling and humiliating Jews and other groups, which triggered vehement disputes (Bratic and Schirch, 2007). Media companies elsewhere have played fundamental roles leading to social change. During the Christian–Muslim global controversy surrounding the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad, the South African government forbade the media to circulate the comic strips representing him as a terrorist (Van der Vyver, 2011), in order to protect Muslims from being ostracised and labelled as dangerous.

Photo: Safal Ghimire
When the media ignore ethics and underestimate their audiences, existing conflicts may escalate further. This could be linked to the case of the Balkans where media broadcasts described a certain community as the generators of antipathy and aggression (Bratic and Schirch, 2007). Similarly, Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda, with the current government support, credited one group and demonised the other, causing a serious rift between them, and it played a very negative role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (Bastola, 2011). In contrast, in Sierra Leone, religious leaders relied on radio programmes to console affected people through a ‘mix of prayers’ and other religious messages. The leaders aimed to build trust among various religious groups through ‘information, song and reconciliatory processes’ (Comninos et al., 2002). Carruthers (2000: 171–172) has pointed out that media ambivalence encouraged violent behaviour from Latin America to western Europe between 1968–1971 and 1973–1974. ‘Media silence’ describes the failure of mass media to bear any social responsibility that could contribute to reducing violence and promoting peace. Hamdan and Hanaysha (2011) assert that television channels in Palestine gave no coverage, even when they could have done so, to the potential for reconciliation. Given their widespread presence, television channels could have contributed considerably to promoting a culture of peace and reconciliation. But this did not happen. In practice, there are major political, social and even economic implications in the forming and manipulating of public opinion in conflict situations. An American style of presentation, often highlighting differences and divergences, is becoming increasingly global as news channels attempt to reach more viewers and dissuade their target audience from switching channels (Thussu, 2003: 127).

Media companies tend to report more on conflicts and wars because they perceive these topics to be sensational issues for their audiences. This trend results in competition between television channels to show sensational news around-the-clock, a culture also termed as ‘CNNization’ of news (p. 118). Broadcasting sensational features is also associated with successful business. Hess and Kalb (2003: 63) also term the effects of media in decision-making as ‘the CNN effect’. They write:

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush saw television images of starving children in Somalia, and he felt obliged to send U.S. troops there to distribute food and establish security. Less than a year later, President Bill Clinton saw television images of Somali fighters dragging the desecrated body of an American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu, and he felt obliged to withdraw the troops. (pp. 63–64)
The question is whether such media behaviour aims merely to disseminate information or tries to advertently influence decision-makers. As Hawkins (2011) argues, the other side of the CNN effect is that media companies cover conflicts selectively and disproportionately. Hawkins, as well as Salhani (2006), has provided examples of media influences directed at sensitive and military intervention decisions.Media coverage is widely considered as part of an agenda-setting process because it forces action (Bahador, 2007; Livingston, 1997). But it sometimes inadvertently ignores genuine conflicts that deserve primary attention, thereby diverting policy priorities. Because of this, the media cannot be considered to be actors with homogeneous characteristics, but rather a concept within which varieties of actors involve themselves with varieties of interests. Recently, the advent of citizen journalism and technological advancements in social media have also contributed to diversity in media behaviour (Ali and Fahmy, 2013: 55–69). Such heterogeneous media behaviour limits its role of raising homogeneous issues. This reflects both the positive and negative attributes of media companies.

Conflict brings profits for the media, but cooperation does not. Van de Veen (2011) agrees that this profitability leads media companies to focus more on irreconcilable differences, extreme positions and threatening statements than on harmony, points of agreement and win–win options. This commercial characteristic of the media makes the events ‘news-worthy’ rather than ‘peace-worthy’.

Media companies in fragile contexts are remarkably different from those in developed economies. In fragile countries, why and when one invests in the media industry depends on the investor’s command of financial and political capital. Private media companies seek profit from news-making whereas state media suffer from their lack of operational independence. Broadly, Hallin and Mancini (2004) assert that no media in any part of the world can be termed ‘entirely neutral’. Hattotuwa (2003) and Musa and Ferguson (2013) talk about coloured opinion, partisan biases and the practice of enemy framing while publicising coverage. Therefore, the media represent the most vital yet controversial character in conflicts.

Note: This is an extract from the accepted manuscript of the journal article by Safal Ghimire and Bishnu Raj Upreti; the final version is available here, for a (free of cost) version before peer-review process, please click here.

Citation: Ghimire, Safal and Upreti, BR. 2014. Wavering between profit-making and change-making: Private media companies in conflicts in Nepal. Media, War & Conflict, 7(2), 187–200. doi:10.1177/1750635214530315.

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