How to build peace while covering war: peace journalism and the Israel-Hamas War
Leo Weakland, Peace News, November 20, 2023
The ongoing war between Israel and Hamas has dominated news since the October 7th Hamas attacks and Israeli air and ground campaigns in the Gaza Strip that followed. Around the world, islamophobia and antisemitism have skyrocketed, as the conflict divides societies and has led to mass protests.
The media, especially in the West, has found itself struggling to report on the crisis, with both sides accusing it of biased coverage. Due to the nature of news coverage, which favors sensationalism and victory framing, the subject of peace and focus on long-term solutions has been largely absent.
Peace News Network spoke with three experts on peace journalism – Professor Jake Lynch at the University of Sydney, Professor Steven Youngblood, of Park University, and Vanessa Bassil, the founder of Media Associaton for Peace (MAP), Lebanon. They shared their thoughts on the current media coverage of the conflict, and how this could change to enhance the prospects for peace.
One aspect of journalism that all three mentioned is that the media, especially in the West, tends to reflect the interests of political elites. In this current conflict, they thought that this had resulted in a broadly pro-Israeli narrative focused on security and responding to violence, with a limited Palestinian perspective focused on short-term suffering without appreciation for the general conditions they endure or overall power imbalance.
Bassil noted that this is not just a Western phenomenon. In Lebanon, for example, she mentioned that some news stations reflect the views of Hezbollah’s leadership, while others are more sympathetic to other political factions.
All agree that there is more the media should be doing to accurately report on the conflict, and that it should play a role as an agent of change. For Lynch, the media should take a role in pushing for a ceasefire to end civilian suffering in Gaza, by including more perspectives of activists and those working for peace, and providing more background on the effects of Israeli settlements on the peace process and the hopes for a two-state solution.
A future Palestinian state “would have to include the whole of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.” Gaza has not been occupied by Israel since 2005, but has been blockaded since Hamas took over the densely populated territory, and there are concerns that Israel could move to reestablish its military presence following the end of this current war.
The other territories are either occupied by Israel or under limited control of the Palestinian Authority. Lynch told Peace News that as long as the settlements exist in the occupied territories, and continue to expand, a two-state solution is impossible. Furthernore, Lynch noted that the media needs to provide this full background in order to present the full reality of the conflict, and in his view it has failed to do so.
Lynch believes that more coverage of peacebuilding groups like the Parents Circle (which Peace News has covered in a previous story) and protest leaders could lead the media to be an effective voice for change. He sees the media as a potential agent for change on this subject, especially in the West. If the work of activists and peacebuilders like the Parents Circle becomes a more visible narrative in the Western media, he believes it can help lead to peace, by motivating politicians and other influential figures to support a peace agenda and make military support for Israel conditional.
Like Lynch, Bassil also agreed that the media must do more to portray a balanced narrative and work to call for an end to the fighting. As a journalist, who works to train others as peace journalists, she agrees that the media has a responsibility to provide appropriate background in the conflict, and to contribute to a ceasefire and the protection of women and children. As she said to Peace News, conflict journalism is “not a sports game” where one side will win and the other will lose; lives are at stake and the media has a responsibility to recognize the consequences of its reporting.
Youngblood agreed that the media still has a great deal of work to do on this conflict. He believes that the role of the media in conflict situations is to build bridges, give a “voice to the voiceless”, reject simple, one-sided narratives, and emphasize contextual reporting that rejects false equivalencies. He criticized some aspects of the Western media’s coverage of the current conflict, mentioning that at the beginning of the conflict it took a sensationalized approach, without sufficient inclusion of a Palestinian perspective.
Recently, he has noticed a positive change, with more Palestinian voices present on mainstream outlets such as CNN. Younblood pointed out that the issue of a lack of balance is common, and not exclusive to Western outlets. Al Jazeera, funded by the Qatari government, has extensively covered the current conflict, and has provided an alternative perspective. According to Youngblood, while they have done well to provide a Palestinian perspective and give a platform to voices in Gaza, they have a clear bias, and fail to provide context from the Israeli side.
Youngblood mentioned that the issue of how to provide proper context in a conflict without taking a side or justifying violence against civilians is one of the most important aspects of peace journalism. In many modern conflicts, peace journalists face a major challenge in how to remain objective without minimizing atrocities committed by one side or the other.
Youngblood presented one prominent example of the difficulty of this with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which he alleges that they have carried out deliberate attacks on civilians, including attempts to destroy Ukrainian power plants in the middle of winter, the horrific massacre committed in Bucha, and attacks on schools and hospitals. How can peace journalists cover these conflicts without explicitly taking sides, or minimizing the actions of the aggressor?
The current conflict presents the same issue. The latest chapter of this conflict began with the massacre of civilians in their homes and at a music festival, including many peace activists. In response, thousands of civilians have been killed by an indiscriminate bombing campaign that has displaced over a million and left many without reliable access to water, food, or electricity, and Israeli settlers in the West Banks have escalated their attacks on Palestinians. Effective peace journalism must cover the actions of every side contextually, without an agenda besides peace and the protection of civilians.
Civilians should be covered equally, with the focus on their humanity rather than their place of birth. The Israeli blockade of Gaza, the high and disproportionate civilian death toll from IDF airstrikes, both now and in past conflicts, the continued expansion and protection of settlements, and the extremist members of the current government must all be mentioned as part of the wider context of the war.
The brutality of the October 7th attacks, and Hamas’ stated dedication to destroying the state of Israel also can’t be ignored. And above all, it is crucial that none of these things be used to justify the actions of one side or the other. Lynch agreed, telling Peace News “we are at the stage where it is of particular importance to distinguish between justifying violence, on the one hand, and understanding and explaining it, on the other.”
Empathy, context, a focus on solutions, and a recognition of the shared humanity of both sides are essential elements of peace journalism. All three experts noted the ability of peace journalism to make a positive difference, empower its audience, and give a voice to solutions instead of spreading divisive rhetoric.