Journalism and the Coverage of "Events"

Jannie Botes

Assistant Professor, Program on Negotiations and Conflict Management, University of Baltimore

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

... In all of this what is so important is to replace conflicts in journalism with something that I would call the story framework. Journalists talk about stories and then the question or the point that I want to end this discussion with is what is a story and how do we make conflict processes other than just conflict events as it is. At the moment, our definition of news, is an event that happens that we can report on. But when you go to the doctor and if you put a heart monitor on somebody, you see that blip going up and down. Especially for people with abnormal hearts, it's not a blip that's repeated, it's up and down, hills and valleys.

You can take any conflict and you can clearly see that the stories that appear in the newspaper when there's the big mountain and when there's the small little blip down here that is maybe when the background negotiation or anything occurs that is not new. So one of our greatest challenges is to see how we can make it so if we want to say how journalism should be done in a way that it makes for a better society and helps us resolve disputes etcetera. Which by the way journalists say is neither their role nor their tasks, which is another problem.

If we want to do that then we have to get to a situation where the valleys, where the negotiation and the background talks and much of the process of conflict and where conflict resolution especially occurs we have to figure out how to make that a story.


So the other issue, as a part of that, is that news organizations compete

and in that situation what we hear is just kind of ???. But even the network says, 'We're the network that broke the story, we were first on that.' They never brag to their people were right, it's not a matter of who did it the best. Rather it is we were first. They never say, 'we were the people who assisted understanding.' No; just 'we were the people who were first.' So there's another little dirty secret about journalism that affects conflict reporting a lot and that is that media organizations are businesses. I've talked about that a little. I think that South Africa is a fascinating ongoing story and there are still millions and millions of people without homes in South Africa. There are still race relations' problems in South Africa, etctera, that no longer makes the news really in America, because that again to my analogy of valleys and mountains, valleys and hills, these are valleys.

I just saw a story in the New York Times over the weekend covering the predicament of so-called colored people in South Africa involving people of mixed race in South Africa who were designated so under apartheid regime, they were deemed "not as white people." And now as someone quoted in the story, "We weren't white enough under apartheid, we weren't black enough under the new South Africa" because black South Africans now, they feel that black South Africans don't want them, they fall kind of in between these two groups. My point is really that that kind of story in depth, you hear now and then but South Africa has disappeared because, yes it's a costly story, but it's also because of how we define news.

Now we've moved on, and I also want to mention pack journalism, journalists are like a pack of hounds, there's a conflict and we go there and report, report, report, and then when the shooting or the events that can be dramatized are gone, we move on to the next one and we leave this one behind.