War Stories, Peace Stories: Shifting the Narrative from War to Peace

May 9, 2018
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War Stories, Peace Stories Conference Event in NYC

Melanie Greenberg – President and CEO, Alliance for Peacebuilding
On April 11, a remarkable group of journalists and peacebuilding experts came together at the “War Stories, Peace Stories” symposium to explore the new frontier of “peace reporting.” Seeking to move away from a mentality of “if it bleeds, it leads,” panelists, keynote speakers, and young civil society leaders outlined the challenges of portraying peace in ways equally dynamic to the drama of war. I had the honor to serve as emcee for the day, tying together the different strands of conversation and connecting the peacebuilding community with a thoughtful and creative group of journalistic storytellers, working in print, photography and social media.  The symposium took place at the New York Times Center in Manhattan, with support from Peace Direct, the Stanley Foundation, and a broad range of partners (see www.warstoriespeacestories.org for more).

Framing the day were powerful stories from peacebuilders and journalists changing the face of war reporting. Alexis Okeowo, staff writer for the New Yorker, and author of A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, spoke of allowing the extremists she interviewed to portray the complexity of their choices and landscapes in their own words. Sebastian Junger, bestselling author, writer of The Perfect Storm, and director of the documentary Restrepo, explained how his portrayals of war actually make a strong argument for peace, by showing the violence and corrosiveness of the everyday practice of war. Young peacebuilders who survived childhoods wreathed in conflict told their stories. Saba Ismail, Founder of Aware Girls, shared the powerful story of the courage her father showed in allowing his daughters to go to school in the tribal regions of Pakistan, and to become leaders in helping boys avoid turning to the Taliban.

Several important themes emerged from these conversations on the changing nature of war and peace reporting:

1) The Changing Nature of Peace and War
The most important insight to emerge from the day was the recognition among journalists that there is no longer such thing as a “front line” in war, with conflict taking place in and among civilian populations, often without clear combatants. The challenge for journalists is to learn to uncover the root causes of conflict and to move beyond the “bang bang” to reveal stories of how civilians are solving problems on a wide range of issues, from drugs and land use to reintegration, and reconciliation. Journalists must move beyond simplistic frameworks like “ethnic hatreds,” to shed light on the true root causes of war. Journalists recognize that war is “compelling and grotesque,” and that we need to highlight peace as equally complex and dynamic.

2) Re-Imagining the Peace Story
In reimagining peace reporting, journalists have a golden opportunity to present what is possible in complex conflict landscapes. Often, shedding light on what is possible means presenting the stories of local actors in their own voices, giving them agency over their own stories. It means asking the deeper questions that get behind easy frameworks, to find the core motivations for conflict, and perhaps the conflicting incentives for peace. Neuroscientific literacy plays a role in conflict reporting, with stories that upend the “us versus them” logic of war, and that overcome the hold that violence and fear have on readers’ brains. Most of all, journalists acknowledged that the elements of a good story – the drama, the voice, the narrative arc – are just as compelling and necessary in peace journalism, as they are in war reporting.

3) Challenges to the Industry
The conversation took place in the context of revolutionary changes to the media landscape. Journalists acknowledge that, in some ways, this is a golden age for media, because of the ability to reach audiences in so many ways, and also for the public’s voracious appetite for compelling stories. At the same time, the human toll of peace reporting is extremely high. Danger lurks at every step, and journalists are operating in a shrinking space, as they increasingly become targets of violence themselves (as illustrated by the recent death in Afghanistan of nine journalists killed by a suicide attack). There is also a tension between the need for deep reporting, and the shorter attention span of viewers and readers, who often want stories wrapped up in a tight bow, and who do not have the patience to connect local stories to a more nuanced set of global dynamics.

What’s Next?
The symposium created a safe space for journalists and peacebuilders to continue their exploration of storytelling in a new conflict landscape. It is easier to diagnose the problems than to solve them. Participants recognize that we need to make peace stories as compelling as war stories and to shape a new discourse on peace.

The Alliance for Peacebuilding (AfP) is working actively on several narrative projects. We are partnering with the News Deeply organization to create in-depth stories of peace, for an expert audience, and are engaged with PartnersGlobal in an ongoing project to bring professional marketers, advertisers, and Hollywood storytellers together with peacebuilders, to create a “core story” and compelling sets of narratives around peace in the public imagination. AfP is also supporting an innovative initiative of more than a dozen large peacebuilding organizations, to build a movement for peace that will shift the political landscape toward peacebuilding approaches to security.