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Book reviews

Ralf Hering, Bernd Schuppener & Nina Schuppener

Kommunikation in der Krise. Einsichten und Erfahrungen
Bern, Stuttgart, Wien: Haupt Verlag; 2009
ISBN 978-3-258-07484-9

Reviewed by Martin Löffelholz for Rezensionsforum r:k:m


Gadi Wolfsfeld

Media and the Path to Peace
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 271 pp.,
ISBN 0-521-83136-9

Reviewed by Thomas Hanitzsch, Ilmenau University of Technology

There is a vast body of literature dealing with the role the media play in times of war and conflict. On the contrary, only a few scholars attempted to assess the news media’s workings in an ongoing peace process. Gadi Wolfsfeld, Professor of Political Science and Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is one of those scholars who converted their focus on communication about war to communication about peace. In this regard, his recent book Media and the Path to Peace is an expansion of his previous volume Media and Political Conflict.

Wolfsfeld, who believes that journalists have an ethical obligation to encourage reconciliation between hostile populations, examined three major cases: the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the peace process between Israel and Jordan and the process surrounding the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. His central argument is that due to a fundamental contradiction between the nature of a peace process and news values, the media tend to play a destructive role. To put it bluntly, peace and news make for awkward bedfellows as peace building is a complex process which requires patience, while the news media deal with simple events and demand immediacy.

Consequently, the news media are more likely to sour the political atmosphere than to improve it, more likely to encourage violence than to discourage it, more likely to lower and intensify the level of internal debate than to raise it, and more likely to lower the legitimacy of a pro-peace government than to enhance it. Nevertheless, variations in the political and media environment affect how the media behave. While the media played a mainly destructive role in the Oslo peace process, it was more constructive during the Israel-Jordan process and in Northern Ireland.

With his recent book, Wolfsfeld delivered a valuable and systematic account on how the media communicate peace processes. The analysis goes well beyond single, and sometimes singular, case studies. One particular virtue of the book is that it identified some essential conditions under which the news media may give a constructive contribution to efforts at making peace. While Wolfsfeld’s first study emphasized the importance of the political environment, his recent work also examines the effects of varying media environments and the ways in which the news media and the political environment interact with one another.

The focus on media environments, however, invited some conceptual problems which could have been solved through taking advantage of the rich literature on structural aspects of corporate journalism. Notwithstanding the state-of-the-art of theorizing journalism, the news media remain a rather vague idea in Wolfsfeld’s book. No distinction is made between the media and journalism, both representing different types of organizations pursuing different goals. There is no theoretical framework or coherent heuristic which guides the author through the assessment of media environments.

More specifically, Wolfsfeld seems to suggest that it is the journalists who are responsible for the news media focusing on conflict rather than on peace building. The author holds that journalists become famous and win awards for covering stories about wars and conflict; and becoming war correspondents is considered the height of professional accomplishment. In the next paragraph, Wolfsfeld maintains that the flaws of journalism are rooted in the professional norms and routines that dictate how journalists construct news about peace. Subsequently, he tries to bridge the obvious gap between individual and structural explanations with a reference to the “principle of unintended consequences”.

Another problem of the book is that the nuances of journalism’s workings are not adequately emphasized. There is no consensus among the news media on how to report conflict and peace building. The popular media operates differently from the so-called “serious” press. Public media mostly emphasize different aspects of reality as do their commercial counterparts. And most importantly, the audience has a choice and does choose, as we know from many studies across cultural boundaries.

And this brings us to news values, which have been permanently criticized by peace research from Galtung’s work to present. As do many others in this line of thinking, Wolfsfeld conceptualizes news values as exclusive structures of journalism. Most research on audiences, however, provided empirical evidence supporting the view that news values evolved from public communication, including journalism and its audiences. There is, in fact, a great deal of commonality between what is considered newsworthy by journalists and their readers, viewers and listeners. Consequently, the critical assessment of news values has to also make reference to the audience, instead of limiting the discussion to journalism.

Finally, I see some problems with the research design. Wolfsfeld selected three cases of peace building processes for comparison. Although the discussion of comparative methodology in the field of communication studies just has begun, we know that case selection is essential for meaningful comparison. This raises the question of what makes the three cases, the Oslo and Israel-Jordan peace processes and the Good Friday agreement, eligible for comparison. What are the criteria of selection? The differences between the political and media environments alone do not explain case selection.

Overall, Media and the Path to Peace will definitely serve as prominent source in the ongoing discussion on media coverage of conflict and peace building. The scope of the analysis is not limited to a particular case and thus useful for an approximation to a general theory of media and conflict/peace. To embed the study in recent journalism theory and extend it to other conflicts across the globe would be a fascinating job for the years to come.