Why do journalists love tensions rather than peace?

Last November I was honoured to be invited as keynote speaker at the second Great Lakes Diaspora Conference discussing “The role of media in conflict and peacebuilding in the Great Lakes Region”. The 24–26 November 2016 conference was co-organised by The Hague Peace Project and the Erasmus University’s International Institute of Social Studies, and brought together scholars, academics and professionals in a variety of areas, including journalism, citizen journalism, diaspora studies, social media, etc.


I spoke on the very first day and shared the findings of my research on tension reporting in Africa’s Great Lakes region. With a paper titled “Fueling or Easing Tensions? A Content Analysis of inter-state tension coverage by Rwandan and Burundian Newspapers”, I wanted to share my concern about ways in which journalists both in Rwanda and Burundi tend to encourage more tension rather than trying to ease them. I selected three popular newspapers from each country and focused on two tensions. I did not want to focus on open conflicts where the two parties have already launched hostilities against each other. I chose those cases where there is a profound disagreement that could lead to a violent confrontation. For the sake of my research, tension referred to that period when there is electricity in air. The situation can evolve either way. The questions I was trying to explore were: What role do journalists play while reporting about mounting tensions? Are they contributing more to the escalation or the de-escalation of tensions?


The first case I chose was the May 2013–October 2015 diplomatic tension between Rwanda and Tanzania, following the proposal of Tanzania’s president Jakaya Kikwete that Rwanda should negotiate with Hutu rebels in eastern DR Congo. The second case concerns the April 2015–to present tension between Burundi and Rwanda, following allegations that Rwanda helped the coup plotters in May 2015 and is providing military training to Burundian refugees on its soil.


The results are astounding: all six newspapers predominantly adopted an escalatory approach. Amongst the 52 articles from three Rwandan papers, 73% attributed ill-intensions to President Kikwete; 42.3% contained outright insulting remarks against President Kikwete; whereas 40.3% contained despising observations about him. The 58 articles from Burundi papers were less inflammatory with less insults (6.8%), less despising observations (10.3%). However, Burundian papers tended to blame one side (65.5%) and to use war vocabulary (44.8%). The most surprising of all is that de-escalation seem almost absent in the reporting. None of the articles from Rwandan papers warned against escalation, whereas only 3.8% of Burundi newspaper articles did so. Papers from both countries have dedicated about 10 % percent of articles to initiatives that foster non-violent solutions.


My conclusion was that we, educators and practitioners, need to do something about it. The main challenge seems to be that peace is a boring thing, especially for journalists. Journalism curricula are strongly entrenched in conflicts, the odd, the unusual, etc. , and less in the usual, the peaceful, etc. To overcome that challenge, we will have to find a creative way to make peace attractive and sexy. One radical way would be to have an entire department of journalism boldly standing up and deciding to embrace peace thinking as the guiding philosophy of all the teachings.