New media report confirms violence to be much more important than peace

A new report by Media Tenor and the Institute for Economics and Peace shows that violence still outrules peace in the international TV media. Yet, certain aspects of the study are questionable – how to measure peace quantitatively?

By Jan Oberg and Ida Zidore

We all have a feeling of what peace is. Yet, defining it more precisely is not so easy. It belongs to the category that philosophers have called ‘essentially contested concepts’ – also used about freedom, justice and, say, democracy. Being somehow elusive, perhaps the best we can hope to achieve is intelligent discussions about how to approach peace, rather than defining it precisely.

There are those who jump the philosophy, conceptuality and definitions and go directly to quantifying peace. By means of some “indicators” readily available in data bases they put together a composite measure that enables them to rank-order countries. Developing such hit lists – for happiness, development, corruption, etc.- has become a kind of industry in recent years.

The Global Peace Index

The Global Peace Index, GPI, produced by the Institute for Economics & Peace is an example of that approach. Its mission is expressed as “Quantifying Peace and its Benefits” and it newly published a comprehensive report, Measuring Peace in the Media 2011, which is “an analysis of global TV networks coverage of peace and violence issues using a fact-based approach which compares various measures from the Global Peace Index against Media Tenor’s database of global media.”

The aim of the study is “to better understand the texture of new coverage and its accuracy. This was achieved by analysing Media Tenor’s extensive database consisting of 164,000 news items. These news items have been compiled from 31 news and current affairs programs that air on four continents. The data was further analysed and broken down by country coverage with news stories from 101 different countries. The aggregated country data was then compared to the Global Peace Index (GPI) so as to rate the accuracy of the coverage.”

This is a very valuable and much needed research endeavour. Many of us working in the field of peace – research, activism, journalism or otherwise – have long felt that the media are interested in violence to the point of obsession, while ignoring to a large extent news, events and trends that point in the direction of peace and, hence, offer citizens hope.

Typically, journalists do not turn up at a hot spot while a conflict is unfolding but they gather there once violence has been introduced. Thus, we have too much war reporting and too little conflict journalism. And as soon as there is a cease-fire agreement of some publicized peace accord, whether real or fake, they leave for another war theatre.

Key findings of the study

• The only two networks which were either 50% accurate or more were SABC News @ One and ABC World News with 56% and 50% accuracy, respectively.
• War, conflict and violence are the most widely covered events.
• The number violence reports aligned in direct proportion to the actual level of violence on the country being reported.
• The Arab Spring countries saw a rise in the number of reports, especially on topics such as ‘the functioning of government’ as well as war and violence.
• Based on the Structures of Peace taxonomy, critical topics such as the ‘Distribution of Resources’ received almost no coverage.
• On average, the number of negative reports far exceeds news reports which are positive in tone.
• Countries which have most declined in peacefulness received approximately thirteen times the level of coverage than countries which have most improved in peacefulness.
• Consistent with the data and observations, relatively peaceful countries tend to receive the majority of their international coverage due to exceptional violence or disaster related news stories.

It’s a delight, of course, to see these conclusions supporting what has been known intuitively for years. Some of us have referred repeatedly to the MIMAC – the Military-Industrial-MEDIA-Academic Complex to emphasize that media, grosso modo, are closer to war and war preparations than to peace, indeed that there are direct links between them, illustrated for instance by military corporations being large shareholders in privately-run media or the access the military has – in comparison to other expertise – to their prime time media in virtually all countries.

Reasons to be critical

Yet, something seems wrong with the Global Peace Study when you see that for the year 2011 Japan is ranked as the 3rd most peaceful country in the world; it happens to also be the world’s fifth largest military spender and hosting huge US bases and systematically violating its own peace constitution. Or take the 4th most peaceful country, Denmark, that has been involved in warfare in former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, been an occupying power for 4 years in Iraq and, precisely in 2011, was a major bomber nation in Libya. There are other intuitively rather odd examples over the years with other countries. For instance, one would spontaneously wonder why Rwanda – involved in war and with a highly authoritarian leadership (but, yes, stable) is ranked as number 99 while Burundi which has gone through a remarkable peace and reconciliation process since 2000 is number 132.

Since the GPI – and thus this report – is based on data sets already available and coordinated by the Economist Intelligence Unit, there is rather little innovation possible. What the Global Peace Index measures in the best of cases is the relative absence of direct violence – while it has nothing to say about, say, gender violence, cultural violence, structural violence, or violence against nature or – for that matter – anything related to positive peace, such as e.g. the existence of peace education, academies, non-violent behaviour patterns and events, mediation potentials, and actual peace policies and, say, mediation initiatives of countries.

It is difficult to see what exactly steered the selection of 23 indicators and not, say, 15 or 74. The conceptual basis for measuring the essentially contested concept of peace, is hard to find. An easily accessible overview of the 23 indicators the IEP uses can be found here.

It would be cheap in this noble case to refer to the computer principle of “garbage in, garbage out”. But it is true that the index ranking can only be as accurate as the quantitative data and their composite measures allow. And it may simply not be enough to really grasp peace – while it does seem to catch some of the violence, high or low.

In effect, perhaps, it might be more accurate to turn the index on its head and call it the Global Violence Index. Because, what it measures (to some extent) is peace understood as the absence (or low level) of violence.

TV: reactive and violence-oriented

The former British broadcast reporter Martin Bell puts it well when he says that “television gets warfare wrong. So do newspapers, but they lack the same power to shape impressions and responses. It is predominantly the TV networks who, by the contamination of their reporting, make it easier for the politicians to resort to it”. Bell also points out that, at worst, the media can contaminate the political environment to such a degree they may end up causing the wars on which they report. This is significant coming from a leading media professional, it’s a key fact of the overall situation (to which, of course, there are always exception) and it’s something that should be discussed more.

The TV media are perhaps the most vivid, powerful, authentic and emotionally alluring of all media types. Considering that they often distort the truth is therefore of deep concern. The Western TV media tend to report in a simplifying and dehumanising manner – particularly when reporting on political enemies – rather than to seek causes and transparency. The GPI report confirms the assumption that a violence-oriented practice still dominates the TV media and it shows that the reporting is reactive rather than proactive. It waits for violence to happen before reporting and then focuses on that, rather than the underlying conflicts.

What sort of impact does this violence-oriented practice of reporting have on its audience? Evidently, it gives people the impression that the world is much more violent than it actually is and, consequently, this miscommunication is likely to affect decision-makers at various levels of society. Conversely, if the media would were to cover better the key elements that create peace, either positively or negatively, then the audience – and, consequently, the society – is more likely to improve on those aspects.

Accuracy and over-reporting

The report uses the term accuracy in a rather confusing manner. Contrary to what one may think, it refers to neither factuality nor neutrality, but to the coherence between GPI and level of violence in the reporting. The report concludes that SABC News @ One and ABC World News were the only two TV networks with accuracy ranging higher than 50%. This means that even the two most accurate TV programs did not truly represent a country’s level of peacefulness for half of the countries they covered.

Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia saw an increase in violence during 2011 in relation to the wave of protests – the “Arab Spring” – in the region. According to the report, however, the violence in Egypt was over-reported compared to the actual level of violence in the country at the time (measured by GPI). The same can be said about Ireland and Sweden. Topics of politically motivated crime like terrorism saw an increase with around 135 violence-related reports out of a total of 343 reports. As for Denmark, 7 out of 9 programs over reported violence, primarily due to the attempted assassination of the Danish cartoonist who drew Mohammed.

As mentioned, the report’s method of measuring peace or violence is questionable. Gender violence, cultural violence and structural violence are not considered at all and the level of over-reporting should therefore be understood with considerable care.


Angela and John Powers wrote a great piece about the lessons learned by the media from the first Gulf War (often referred to as the greatest journalistic failure of all times). They pose the question: “What can be reasonably expected from reporters so that the Gulf War, or any future conflict, can be comprehended and acted upon accordingly?”

They then come up with a set of recommendations, which could be used in extension of the GPI report. Firstly, they attack the journalistic race to be “first” when reporting on violent conflicts because this type of coverage often results in too much speculation. Immediacy should instead be used to explore prospects for peace. Powers moreover recommend that, in the Middle East, the media must forthrightly analyze such topics as the relationships between the governing and the governed in the region, as well as the equitableness in the control and distribution of oil. It was exactly these types of news stories that never appeared on the TV networks according to the GPI report. The two structures “Acceptance of the rights of other” and the “Equitable distribution of resources” received little to no attention.

How to use the report

In recent weeks, the debate and rumours of an upcoming war against Iran and intervention in Syria have been escalating. Somehow, we should be happy that the GPI report is released simultaneously because, at best, it could raise awareness that TV reporting needs to be reconsidered by viewers as well as journalists. Simply put, we need to be much more critical.

As an example, some of the main headlines on Iran in the Danish media within the past weeks have been: Iran develops suicide boats; Iran increases internet censorship; Iran reveals new nuclear projects. It takes no thorough analysis to understand that the country is linguistically placed as the active, violence-oriented aggressor. It comes to appear destructive and dangerous by virtue of a one-sided “us versus them” discourse.

Read it!

In spite of all, we recommend reading “Measuring Peace in the Media 2011” because it reminds us that at least the mainstream media are mere reflections of society and its power structures. It confirms suspicions that propaganda-oriented war/violence journalism still outrules truth-oriented and peace/conflict-oriented journalism in quantity – and this matters; as the authors of the report note, “if there is no coverage of the issues, as in the case of the equitable distribution of resources, then it is unlikely these will be addressed.”

War and violence is extremely destructive for the world economy and also stands in the way of solving humanity’s major problems. In other words, the GPI and now its media report can help us raise an intelligent debate about something else than the index itself – namely, how on earth can we go on spending humanity’s and nature’s resources so perversely violence-oriented instead of reaping the – obvious – benefits of shaping more stable and peaceful societies for the common good.

Perhaps one explanation is that the media do far too little, if anything at all, to raise such a debate, indirectly by the way they cover violence and violence much more than war and through their utter ignorance of positive stories about peace and people making peace. We all know the names of the few war lords in war zones, but few can mention a single name among the millions around our globe who ought to be featured and highlighted as unsung heros, namely all the peace lords – and even more so the peace ladies the peace intellectuals and those who shape a culture of peace.

2 Responses to “New media report confirms violence to be much more important than peace”

  • Anette Carlsson says:

    I can’t but agree with most of your comments on the report . TV news media constantly over report war, violence, conflicts and terrorism and show very little interest in peace activities or peaceful conditions. Unfortunately the explanation is simple – media logics. As the main focus of the news media is what catches , upsets or excites the public they inevitably give priority to acts of violence, opression, abuse of power. In one way, of course, that coverage is necessary, people have to be informed to be able to act , protest, change things. But I agree that the GROWING proportion of crimes, accidents and, in political conflicts violence and war, is awesome.
    But, then, we should remember that news media is not ALL media. It is true that the news dominate the media world. Networks continously give more time to their news broadcasting. That, of course, leaves less space for other programs where the reporters have more time to analyze, reasearch on backgrounds, find the people and activities that the news media rushed by.
    So we shouldn’t despair but argue that the networks hold back the news expansion and intensify their discussions on news priorities. And we should watch the other well – researched, analyzing and penetrating programs and show the network managements that they HAVE an audience.

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