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'The stress is on conflict, not its resolution'

By Aditi Bhaduri

Conflict is at the heart of every interesting news story, says Chindu Sreedharan in this analysis of how the Indian and Pakistani media cover Kashmir. But journalism tends to simplify issues and see things in black and white, which won't do in reporting conflict

 Chindu Sreedharan is a journalist who covered the Kashmir conflict for rediff.com from 1997 to 2003, when he was Associate Editor with rediff.com and India Abroad. He edited their in-depth coverage on Kashmir. Prior to that he worked for the Sunday Observer from 1994.

Currently, Sreedharan lectures in journalism and communication at the Media School, Bournemouth University, one of the top media schools in the UK. His other research interests include journalism ethics, conflict journalism, online and creative non-fiction. He is currently researching Indian and Pakistani media coverage of the Kashmir conflict at the Media School.

What is the particular thrust of your research on media and conflict? What aspects of the media coverage are you focusing on?
It is a study of media ethics and responsibilities in conflict situations -- how the news media goes about its job when asked to cover what I would call 'extraordinary events'. It looks at how the fog of war affects what journalists produce, and, to an extent, what effect such news products have on the conflict per se. Whether it exacerbates the conflict, whether it neutralises it, or what effect it has.

Studies elsewhere -- in Northern Ireland, in Israel -- show the media generally plays a negative role. My effort is to see how far this is true in Kashmir, and what we can learn from the way the Indian and Pakistani media have covered the situation over the years.

Essentially what I have done is examine the way certain key events in the history of Kashmir have been presented in three newspapers (two in India, one in Pakistan), get an idea of the trends, and try and make sense out of that. For this, I make use of data from personal interviews with people who are part of the conflict -- separatists, political leaders, military and intelligence personnel, and, of course, journalists. So this is a strategic study that looks at the broader presentation of the conflict to the publics of India and Pakistan.

Based on your study, how would you evaluate media coverage of the Kashmir conflict in India?
Short answer: not supportive of a solution. Let me talk about the English national newspapers I analysed -- The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and Dawn. The stress was on conflict, on violence. Even when peace attempts were on, there is a strong indication that the media was on the lookout for 'conflict'.

In a way, this is expected. Every interesting story, feature, interview, script, short story, news report -- every interesting story has some sort of conflict at its heart. Journalism academics see conflict as one of the core 'news values', a particular quality that makes a story 'newsworthy'. So conflict has an allure for the media; it's what makes a story interesting. But when there's such stress on violence, it creates an atmosphere that doesn't help a resolution.

Secondly, the journalists who report on these events are part of society. As journalists, they focus on conflicts -- and as members of society they focus on reporting the conflict in a particular manner, which might not be the 'reality'. Without getting into a discussion on the existence of reality out there, or on the mythical objectivity, it is safe to say that journalists, by their choice of language, their stance, their entry into the story, tend to present the event in a way they think will suit their society best. So there's a lot of self-censorship going on at the ground level itself (and there's more of this to come at the hands of the editors). The result is that -- here I run the risk of over-simplification -- the public in India and Pakistan has been mostly presented with stories that portray the self as 'good' and the other as 'evil'. There have been very few discussions of substance or reports that promote peace -- hardly any on the front pages.

What did your study throw up as the biggest challenge for the media while covering the Kashmir conflict?
A certain illiteracy about Kashmir and its complexity. For many, Kashmir is a gung-ho assignment -- and this is particularly true of parachute reporters (let me also plead guilty to this) who treat it with the same superficiality. There are honourable exceptions, of course. But by and large, journalists haven't done their research, nor have they stopped to apply their mind, nor, more worryingly, are they really bothered. Many have already written their leads in their heads. Many are happy to report from the safety of Srinagar, visiting the same places, the same sources in Badami Bagh, Gupkar Road, or Raj Bagh. And the sources, they know this. In the memorable words of an army officer I interviewed for this study: "Here comes another ass. We know what he wants, so let's give him that."

Is this challenge for the media a Kashmir-specific challenge or is it inherent in the coverage of any conflict?
What I mentioned above is possibly a manifestation of something more deep-rooted: a lack of thought about journalistic ethics, perhaps, or a misplaced sense of social responsibility. Trouble is, conflicts -- especially such protracted ones -- fall beyond the pale of ordinary journalistic norms. Journalism, because of the demands on it, tends to simplify issues, see things in black-and-white, and construct simple, easy-to-follow storylines.

While this may be fine for ordinary events, it is not so for abnormal events such as conflicts. The norms journalists mostly work with are meant for ordinary situations. Those are square pegs. Forcing them into round holes may not be productive. This problem is endemic to most conflict coverage, I would think. I do get the impression that the current Indian scenario -- the profusion of media channels has produced an army of ill-trained journalists -- might not be particularly suited for 'good' journalism.

What are the positive aspects of the media coverage on the Kashmir conflict?
It brought the problem out into the public sphere. It told the people, nationally and internationally, that look, there's a problem here. To an extent, the media did what it is supposed to do in a democratic society: through its coverage it provided an arena where citizens can exchange thoughts and ideas and question political will. However, the contours of this public sphere, and the quality of discussions the media encouraged are questionable.

What are the negative aspects of media coverage of the conflict?
I am not sure the media has succeeded in educating the public about the conflict properly. By and large, it has been partisan in the way it has presented the conflict. It has not questioned enough, nor placed things in perspective.

What are the differences, if any, between your perceptions while you were working as a journalist and now that you have studied the media as a researcher? Did the fact that you had experience as a journalist make any difference to the way you approached the subject as a researcher?
As a researcher I have a broader view than I did as a journalist, I think. My interest doesn't stop with getting the story. Yes, it did help my research that I had field experience. Academics mostly rely on existing literature -- books, journals, newspapers -- to decide how to go about their study, to contextualise it, etc. For my part, I had the advantage of 'knowledge by direct acquaintance', my personal experiences as a journalist in Kashmir. This also provided me access to sources -- for instance, interviews with key decision-makers in the conflict -- I would otherwise not have had.

The media is not a homogenous entity. Do your studies find much difference in the quality of coverage on Kashmir by different media houses in India?
My study was limited to two newspapers in India -- The Hindustan Times and The Times of India. When it came to Kashmir, both exhibited similar tendencies.

What are the similarities you found in media coverage of the Kashmir conflict in the Indian and Pakistani media?
Both are State-led. Both look at Kashmir as an issue of national prestige. Journalists -- and here I talk of the mainstream media -- have taken the lead from mainstream politicians, and have mostly attested establishment views. If you look at it, most of the stories are sourced from government figures. There has been criticism in Pakistan, in recent years, but by and large the media has treated Kashmir as something that would affect "us" -- more as societal members and less as professionals. The result is that the narratives on both sides have been high-pitched -- and the pitch varies depending on how good or bad state-to-state relations are -- and antagonistic. Both sides make selective use of human rights violations, for instance, as a weapon against the other.

What are the differences you found in the coverage of Kashmir by the Indian and Pakistani media?
The main difference is that the Pakistani media presents Kashmir through the prism of 'freedom struggle' and 'State terrorism'. The Indians frame it as 'cross-border terrorism'.

Which media did a better job of covering the Kashmir conflict?
This is a black-or-white question, something typical of the media coverage of Kashmir. Can we see a complicated issue such as this is those simplistic terms?

Does the Kashmiri media differ a great deal from the mainstream Indian media (English/Hindi/Urdu) in its coverage of Kashmir?
My analysis was limited to the 'national' newspapers in India and Pakistan, so I do not have empirical evidence about the content in Kashmiri newspapers. From what I could see, I think both the media ended up presenting the conflict in counterproductive, partisan ways. The national media comes across a bit more restrained, if you can call it that, in its approach, but we need to consider the context in which the Kashmiri media functions. It has survived -- and continues to survive -- under tremendous pressure. First you need to live to write a story. And after you have written it, you need to be able to continue living. Unlike visiting correspondents, you can't retreat to the safety of Delhi or Mumbai. So it's not an easy situation for the local journalists.

Regarding the local Kashmiri media, some of the mainstream publications like, say, Greater Kashmir have a distinctly communal perspective. Would you put this down to Kashmiri journalists having to continue living in Kashmir after their stories are published?
There could be other real-world reasons as well, the same pressures that every newspaper faces. Finance, personal views of the reporters concerned, editorial policy, access to information (or the lack thereof), readership demands...

Would you say that extremely little media coverage of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, where discontent has been brewing for a long time (though, of course, no armed insurgency has broken out) has been a definite shortcoming of the media, both Pakistani and Indian?

Based on your study, what can be done to improve the quality of media coverage of the Kashmir conflict? What recommendations would you make to media people who are covering the conflict?
We need to approach conflicts with more care, more sensitivity. These are extraordinary situations demanding an extraordinary measure of responsibility from journalists -- and we need to realise that. The traditional model of reporting that most journalists still seem to draw on might not work in this situation. Here you might need reportage that goes beyond textbook norms; it is not enough to say, okay, I have quoted both sides, so my job is done. Journalists need to look at alternative ways of reportage -- at the peace journalism concept put forward by Johan Galtung, the 'journalism of attachment' practised by Martin Bell and others, even the expansive field of New Journalism promoted by Tom Wolfe in the 1970s. Perhaps an adaptation of these is what we need. Perhaps what we need in such situations is not the pretence of objectivity, but what you could term 'informed subjectivity'. Scholars have written about this, but most of such work, unfortunately, goes unnoticed by media practitioners. Which makes me believe that we need to show a willingness to question our own traditions and practices, show some flexibility. Without that, the responsibility that conflict situations demands of journalists -- in reportage, in research, in gatekeeping -- will not be possible.

Finally, what do you intend doing with your research? Will you publish a book, a teaching/training manual or any other publication?
What I hope to do is present to my colleagues in the media a profile of the coverage of the conflict, a measure of the productive and counter-productive statements. Hopefully, it will encourage reporters and gatekeepers to think about their responsibilities more. Theses and academic papers have a specialised audience, so a book is another way of presenting interesting findings to the wider world, yes. But we hope to do more than that. Within my research institution, we are developing some expertise in this field -- quite a few of my colleagues are engaged in similar work -- and we hope to make that available to the media industry and institutions that are part of the conflict scenario, perhaps in the form of trainings and consultancies. Communication is crucial in such a scenario, and it would be a pity if what we have learnt from Kashmir lives out its life on dusty academic shelves.

(Aditi Bhaduri is an independent journalist and researcher writing for the Indian and international print and electronic media. She is one of the few journalists to have lived and reported from the West Bank and Palestinian Territories)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009