John J. Pauly


For anyone seeking the peaceful resolution of international conflicts and disputes, and hoping journalism might contribute to that goal, an unasked question hangs uncomfortably over this analysis: Is journalism as deeply committed to the resolution of human conflict as it is to its meticulous documentation? For violent conflicts such as war, genocide, and terrorism, the stakes are particularly high. Is journalism’s possessive investment in disorder so great that it lacks the will or ability to change its habits, presuming that such change would be desirable for all of us?

Journalists’ own way of talking about their work can blur the moral issues at stake. Reporters who have covered international events for decades sometimes describe themselves as eyewitnesses to history or scribes of its first draft. In such usages, journalists cite their presence at actual events as a guarantee of the reality and truthfulness of their accounts. But media scholars have noted that the term witness carries a wider range of moral implication, for we think of a witness not just as someone present at an event but as someone present to its implications and charged with testifying to others about what was seen. Journalists struggle to carry the burdens of this role, however, for it seemingly conflicts with their professional norms of nonpartisanship. Members of the profession more comfortably describe themselves as observers on the sidelines, forever present as history unfolds, but as themselves only incidental to the action.

I wish to explore the implications of American journalists’ understanding of their profession for the study of international conflict. My conclusions affirm a general point made in this symposium—that journalists tend to concentrate on some phases of conflict rather than others, particularly on its build-up and the violence itself, with little attention to the processes of peacemaking or the ultimate resolution. I arrive at a similar end by a different path—by describing how the historical contradictions of journalists’ own profession have led to what seems to others an apparent preference for conflict narratives and an apparent indifference to resolution.

Included in

Law Commons