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Northern Ireland media teaches lesson on responsible coverage

By Steven Youngblood (@PeaceJourn), director, Center for Global Peace Journalism

In any conflict or post-conflict zone, the hundreds of journalists I’ve worked with agree that they bear a particular responsibility to serve their communities by not exacerbating ongoing conflicts or re-ignite simmering ones.

Sadly, this point was driven home last weekend with the murder of 29-year old journalist Lyra McKee during civil unrest in Derry.

It would have been understandable, if regrettable, if the press in Northern Ireland had gone on a rampage after the murder, making false accusations, inflaming sectarian passions, using extreme and demonizing language, and generally pouring gasoline on the fire.

A small study of reporting about McKee’s murder shows that this did not happen, and that instead Northern Irish media actively sought to not make a bad situation even worse.

I randomly chose 15 articles* about the murder and its aftermath, and analyzed them using a content analysis rubric developed by my students at Park University and I. 8 of the 15 articles were classified as non-inflammatory journalism; 5 of the 15 showed some characteristics of inflammatory and traditional (inflammatory) journalism; and only 2 were considered traditional journalism.

One of the two traditional journalism stories was an opinion column that appeared in the Independent. Especially noteworthy was its angry tone, name calling (“dinosaurs”), and homage to the Troubles (“blood spattered past.”)

Otherwise, the reporting worked hard to remain informative and objective without exacerbating the situation. Sectarian bias was seldom on display. Many voices across the political spectrum were heard, and they universally condemned the murder. Most of the language used in the articles was measured, although overly sympathetic, victimizing language (seem in 9 of 15 articles) was hard for many writers to avoid.

One key point: Historical wrongs (the Troubles, in this instance) were mentioned in only four of the 15 articles. Imagine covering every contemporary Northern Irish news story, like this murder, through the prism of the Troubles. The impact, to continuously re-open wounds and re-stoke the flames of sectarianism, could be devastating to peace.

Many of the stories analyzed featured portrayals of McKee—an emphasis aligned with responsible journalism that focuses on victims instead of perpetrators. There were several excellent articles featuring memories fromMcKee’s partner, and one other article about the outpouring of support McKee’s family has received. In addition, her picture, and links to her outstanding Ted Talk, were posted everywhere.

How could this reporting be even better? I would have liked to see a few more of the articles look forward, the way that Alex Kane’s column does in the News Letter. Is this murder, and the underlying unrest and political turmoil, part of a growing trend? What lessons can be learned from this tragedy, and how can it be a gateway to a more peaceful future for Northern Ireland? In fact, this theme was prevalent in articles about McKee’s funeral in Belfast. More of the coverage could have examined solutions, especially those that transcend merely catching and punishing the perpetrator(s).

I will be in Northern Ireland next month working with journalists and students on a State Department project that deals with just these issues of responsible, non-inflammatory reporting. Based on the coverage of this incident, it looks like my Northern Irish colleagues will be teaching me a thing or two.

*Articles analyzed from Irish News, News Letter, Independent, Derry Journal, Belfast Telegraph.

NOTE: Lyra McKee’s friends and family have set up a GoFundMe page. The money will go towards her funeral expenses and “to decide her legacy.”


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