816 Opinion

As I See It: Steven Youngblood | Peace journalists reveal truth of Paris tragedy but avoid the ‘us vs. them’ motif

Steven Youngblood
Steven Youngblood

The aftermath of the reprehensible murders of Charlie Hebdo journalists gives media an opportunity to use the principles of peace journalism to turn down the heat while shedding light on what happened and why.

First, responsible peace journalists would give a full report about what happened in Paris without ignoring any of the violent reality. (A mistaken notion about peace journalists is that they sugarcoat the truth). However, responsible journalists would avoid sensationalism, stereotyping and any other depiction that would make this bad situation even worse. Peace journalists would publish images that capture the event without highlighting or exploiting the blood and gore.

One key tenet of peace journalism is rejecting the traditional media notion of “us vs. them,” which is an oversimplified, inaccurate lens through which to view the world. In the aftermath of the attack, don’t be surprised to see this East vs. West or Muslim vs. Christian narrative splashed all over the media. This traditional approach is polarizing, and can possibly fuel more violence.

Writing in a column in the Guardian newspaper (UK) last week, Nesrine Malik said, “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 oppose the newspaper, without giving justification to the violence perpetrated against Charlie Hebdo. We should explain the violence and its context without excusing it. Therefore, the most important underlying issue explaining the attacks, the nature of blasphemy, must be explored in depth by responsible journalists.

Several online comments I have read from Muslim friends/followers on Facebook and Twitter offer 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.”

While there is no survey data yet regarding worldwide Muslim opinion on the Paris attack and its causes, I would be willing to predict that Muslim opinions are as diverse as the two statements above. Traditional media have, unfortunately, successfully created an inaccurate, one-dimensional narrative that depicts Muslims as a single-minded, monolithic entity.

The Charlie Hebdo incident, although tragic, offers Western media an opportunity to broaden and enhance the media portrayal of Islam while simultaneously leading a discussion about the chilling effect the murders may have on legitimate public discourse about religion.

Associate Professor Steven Youngblood is the director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University.