Most of the conflicts about which I know anything, I learned about through reporters. And today, I wonder what I should think about that.
At a conference I attended yesterday, on “Interest-Based Reporting,” faculty from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication and the University of Missouri’s Center for Conflict, Law, and the Media surveyed some traditional methods of reporting and discussed the viability of alternate methods of reporting on conflicts in a variety of contexts.
Interest-based reporting, as summarized by Professor Richard Reuben, is “a mode of reporting about conflict that is deeper and provides the public more useful information than is often currently seen.”
The way the media report on a conflict can undoubtedly affect the way a conflict unfolds. None of us who have worked to resolve conflict of public concern would ever contend otherwise. And the advocates on each side of a dispute virtually always appreciate this reality. Commonly, in matters of public concern, each side seeks to use the media as a mechanism for influencing public opinion, for framing the dispute, and so on.
Some of the cases I have mediated have been sufficiently mundane that I doubt the newspaper would have even printed an account even if I had paid for full-page ad. In other cases, however, the parties and I have judged that the media’s presence would inhibit the kind of creative problem-solving each party desired. Meeting in secret locations as if we were engaged in some form of espionage, I’ve been part of crafting more than one “surprise” settlement.
In general, I don’t feel great about hiding from the media. The media play a vital part in the maintenance of public participation in government, for example.
Of course, the media’s function is not to promote settlement. Nor is that unwaveringly how I perceive my function when I am mediating.
But if I’m honest, I have only one experience in which the media reported on a conflict in a way that promoted settlement. And as a result, I can certainly understand (and often respect) parties’ desires to keep their settlement efforts out of the media spotlight.
I cannot fully imagine what it might be like to view the media as an agent of deepening (rather than polarizing or sensationalizing) the public’s perception of the dynamics at play in a conflict. I welcome the thought experiment with enthusiasm.