conflict & communication online, Vol. 3, No. 1 & 2, 2004
ISSN 1618-0747




Austrian Study Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution (ed), 2003. Constructive Conflict Coverage - A Social Psychological Approach. Berlin: regener, 190 pp., € 29.90.*

The role of the media in war always interests the general public during major military conflicts, but afterward it rapidly fades from attention. Peace researchers, for their part, later often accuse the media of biased, stereotypical and escalation-oriented reporting, showing little concern for the deeper causes of conflict and alternative possibilities of conflict resolution. Media representatives also occasionally draw retrospectively self-critical conclusions in public - but this usually does not lead to fundamental changes in reportage during the next war. German media reportage, which both before and after the Iraq war was chiefly critical, was an exception. It seems more than a little doubtful, however, whether this will set the tone for reportage on future military interventions. Probably the critical and relatively distanced media coverage of the Iraq war was one reason Germany did not (unlike in Kosovo or in Afghanistan) formally participate, and not just the great majority of the population, but also the German government rejected the war.
In the past, however, not only researchers, but also practitioners have increasingly devoted attention, besides the analysis and critique of media reportage, to developing constructive journalistic alternatives. The concepts they have developed have previously circulated under various names, but by and large refer to the same things: "peace journalism", "de-escalation oriented reportage", "constructive conflict reporting", "ethical crisis journalism".
Wilhelm Kempf has now published a work that for the first time not only coherently describes the theoretical and empirical foundations of constructive conflict reportage, but also suggests how it can be put into practice. Published by the Austrian Study Center for Peace and Conflict Research (ÖSFK), this work, developed as a textbook, should open up new perspectives, especially for future journalists, and give teachers well-grounded teaching materials. The book can furthermore provide experienced journalists and all interested media users with thought-provoking new insights.
The book is divided into two main parts, the first of which is dedicated to the principles, sources and previous models of constructive conflict reportage, while the second part deals with training concepts and possible learning strategies.
In the first part a few fundamental concepts of conflict theory are presented, and the different dynamics of constructive and destructive conflict processes are demonstrated. The social-psychological approach which underlies the work focuses particularly on the cognitive and emotional processes that occur in the course of conflict escalation, i.e., on how perceptions, evaluations and feelings change as conflict escalates. Whether a conflict escalates and what psychological processes are involved depends particularly on whether it is conceived of as a process of competition or as a process of cooperation, on whether it appears possible to achieve one's aims only at the other party's expense ("win-lose" situation) or whether cooperation with the opponent is seen as necessary for realizing one's own interests ("win-win" situation).
These processes, this is one of the author's basic theses, can be transferred to conflict reportage. Consequently the media play a central role in the process of socially constructing reality, and it is up to them to decide how to fulfill this role. Propaganda and classical war reportage make use of social-psychological processes by linking conflicts with a win-lose logic and thereby provide an interpretive frame within which an increasing polarization of the conflict parties and an increasing willingness to escalate conflict appear practically inevitable. Kempf demonstrates and illustrates this on the basis of numerous empirical studies, above all of the wars in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Constructive conflict reportage, to the contrary, breaks with the logic of war discourse. Kempf regards a two-step process as necessary for the establishment of a "peace discourse": "de-escalation oriented reportage" is largely identical with conventional conceptions of quality journalism, characterized by neutrality and critical distance from all conflict parties. "Solution-oriented reportage," to the contrary, goes beyond this, questions basic societal convictions on collective security, focuses on shared interests and aims and actively searches for creative conflict solutions. In the author's opinion, the general public will accept this second step only in post-war phases, but it can, as a minority position, contribute to the gradual deconstruction of war discourse already during wars.
Kempf is convinced that journalists basically possess the ability and imagination to practice this sort of reportage. The question of how the necessary competencies can be furthered and stimulated is posed in the second, practice-oriented part of the book. Here we find very concrete concepts for training through which journalists can expand their know-how in regard to the conceptions presented in the first part of the book: conflict analysis, conflict dynamics and working through conflict. In addition, they should develop their own techniques in order to write reports which gain their "allure" from the struggle to find a peaceful solution and not from the polarization of the conflict parties or the mere representation of violence and atrocity. This demand formulated by Kempf is to be realized in training, above all through the rewriting of actual newspaper articles in constructive variants, as well as in group analysis and discussion. It remains to be seen whether the "checklists for escalation and de-escalation oriented aspects of conflict reportage" presented as a stimulus for this will prove to be helpful tools; for practical training purposes they seem somewhat unwieldy and possibly too complex.
Overall the volume seems quite suitable to meet the needs of textbook users. For one thing, it offers an excellent theoretically and empirically grounded introduction to the topic. For another, it is characterized by a clear organization and structure and a readable style, supported by many subheadings and marginal headings. A CD-ROM is included on which the most important contents are summarized as teaching and training material.

Burkhard Bläsi

*Mit freundlicher Genehmigung von Wissenschaft & Frieden. Die Rezension erschien erstmalig in Heft 2/2004 in deutscher Sprache.



On the author: Burkhard Bläsi, Diploma in Psychology, born 1973, studied psychology and sociology at University of Konstanz/Germany and University of Bath/UK. Research interests: nonviolent conflict resolution; conflict and the media. Currently member of the Peace Research Group at the University of Konstanz, doctoral thesis on peace journalism and the news production process.

Address: Fachbereich Psychologie, Universität Konstanz, D-78457 Konstanz, eMail:

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