How to take a peace journalism approach to covering Charlie Hebdo aftermath

by Steven Youngblood

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the latest edition of The Peace Journalist, a semi-annual publication of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in Parkville, Mo. It is being republished here with permission from the Center. Steven Youngblood is the director of the center.


In the months that have followed the Charlie Hebdo murders, media worldwide have offered up a mixed bag of sensationalism and occasionally insightful coverage.

In examining newspaper coverage from the days following the attacks, the language of sensationalism predominated in headlines that screamed “Bloody Climax” (Times of London), “Massacred in Minutes” (Daily Express), “Barbaric” (Daily Mirror), “War in Paris” (NY Post), “La liberte assassinee” (Paris Normandie), “Morder” (Bild-Germany), “Liberte 0, Barbarie 12” (L’Equipe-France), “They wanted to die martyrs…instead they died as vile, pathetic, murderous scum” (Daily Mirror), and several newspapers showing a graphic that extends the middle finger in defiance.

What’s wrong with these headlines? They certainly capture the anger associated with the attack. However, they do not reflect the array of other emotions ranging from grief to regret to empathy present in the days after the attacks. These sensational headlines (often accompanied by bloody images) do nothing but fuel the fires of anger, and practically beg for an emotional, violent outburst in response to the attacks.

A peace journalism approach, in contrast, would not sugarcoat what happened, but would also not seek to exacerbate an already anger-filled, tense situation.

More responsible headlines after the attacks included “Assault on Democracy” (Guardian), “The world stands with France” (International New York Times), “Manhunt follows terror attack” (Washington Post), “Paris Magazine Attack” (NBC News).

As for the front page images, an unscientific survey of front page images in the days following the attacks shows the dominance of three photos or illustrations. One is the aforementioned cartoon middle finger extended, the second is a photo of a police officer on the ground moments before he was shot, and the third is a surveillance picture of the gunmen leaving their car on the way into the Hebdo building.

These images, while not ideal from a peace journalism standpoint, could be much worse. Imagine the bloody possibilities, including detailed images of the dead and injured. One responsible front page, The Daily Telegraph, showed the picture of the gunmen with their car, but also had five large photos of some of the victims.

A peace journalist, when considering which images to use, might consider several guidelines that I wrote about several years ago in response to images published in The New York Times of a shooting at the Empire State Building (Peace Journalism Insights, Aug. 24, 2012):

1. Are these images sensational, or are they necessary for a complete understanding of the story?

2. Will these images needlessly inflame passions against a suspect, scuttling his right to a fair trial?

3. What about the families of the victims? Should we consider their feelings before we publish?

4. Do the pictures in any way glorify the crime, making it (in a sick way) attractive to copycats?

In terms of the content of the coverage, one key tenet of peace journalism is rejecting the traditional media narrative of “us vs. them,” which is an oversimplified, inaccurate lens through which to view the world. In the aftermath of the attack, reporters, commentators, and bloggers all too often seized the opportunity to promulgate their stale, East vs. West or Muslim vs. Christian narratives. These traditional narratives are deliberately polarizing, and do nothing but fuel more animosity between communities.

As The Guardian’s Nesrine Malik wrote: “The way to honour the dead and find a way out of what seems like a depressingly inevitable downward spiral would be to resist the polar narrative (us vs. them, good vs. bad) altogether. It will not only heal painful rifts, it might even save lives.”

Peace journalists would explore the legitimate grievances behind those who opposed Charlie Hebdo, without giving justification to the violence perpetrated against the newspaper. Journalists should explain the violence and its context without excusing it.

There was one encouraging sign in the coverage: The most important underlying issue explaining the attacks, the nature of blasphemy, was explored in depth by a number of responsible media outlets, including New York magazine, The Huffington Post), and the Washington Post.

In the weeks following the attacks, several online comments I read from Muslim friends/followers on Facebook and Twitter offered a tiny slice of opinion about blasphemy and its role in the Paris attack.  A number of these comments I saw were similar to this one:

“I’m against terrorism, I’m against what happened in Paris today and against all what happens in the world under the name of Islam, but I’m also against the freedom of expression that hurts or limits other people’s freedom of religious practice or any freedom in general! I’m sorry, I can never be a ‘JeSuisCharlie’ and am against this slogan to support regression (sic) of Muslims or any other group! Both parts are responsible (for) this event, war or terrorism is not just with guns and bloods. Sometimes words kill more than a bullet or a bomb and every single day!”

Another Muslim friend, an academic writing on Facebook, vehemently disagreed. “Words or images may hurt, especially when they touch what is ‘sacred’ for people. But words must be countered with words and not with guns. I don’t agree with the idea that both sides are equally responsible for this atrocity. Ridiculing of any religious belief can be criticized, but it does not legitimize any murderous act.”

What do Muslims think? A BBC poll showed 68% of British Muslims stating that violent acts like Hebdo can “never be justified.” Yet, a sizable number disagreed. Traditional media have, unfortunately, successfully created an inaccurate, one-dimensional narrative that depicts Muslims as a single minded, monolithic entity. Peace journalism should present Islam in a more accurate, multi-faceted manner that reflects its diversity.

The Charlie Hebdo incident, tragic though it may be, continues to offer Western media an opportunity to broaden and enhance the media portrayal of Islam while leading a discussion about the chilling effect the murders have had on legitimate public discourse about religion.


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