This is the Introduction to the 2nd edition of a guidebook published by the NGO Search for Common Ground which the late, great Prof. Ross Howard and myself wrote in 2006. It was, I believe, the first such guidebook to look at the question of how to address the problem of conflict driving further conflict in the media. Now, 15 years later, it is commonplace to recognise the problem and to attempt to address it, but at the time this was groundbreaking. The guide was downloaded thousands of times all over the world, and it led on to a number of other such guides. The guidebook is as relevant today as it was when it first came out, and it is still downloadable from https://www.sfcg.org/programmes/rfpa/guidebooks.html
Conflict is a primary subject in the media. It dominates news reports and fills up radio talkshows. In fact, radio talkshows feed on conflict. Presenters and producers who are hungry for listeners often seek guests of wildly opposing views to shout at each other on the air.
These voices may attract an audience, but do such programmes achieve anything else? As talkshow presenters should we be using conflicts and disagreements as a way of attracting listeners? Do we risk doing more harm than good by intensifying the conflict under discussion?
Rather than informing and/or entertaining listeners do we leave them angry or fearful, or with the sense that the conflict will go on forever? Do we risk making violent or destructive conflict seem the inevitable response to all disagreements, and so destabilise whole communities?
Or should we be trying to have a positive impact on our listeners, which will contribute to a process that will eventually result in peace rather than violent conflict?
Good talkshows require diversity, spontaneity and flexibility, so there are no absolute rules about how to discuss conflict in a more constructive manner. Certainly it is a challenge to talk about conflict in a way which is interesting and informative, which offers positive alternatives, and which holds an audience. But as radio presenters we cannot just ignore conflict and assume it will go away. There are reliable techniques and some new skills which can help us, as journalists and presenters, to deal with conflict effectively on air.
The problem is that few radio talkshow presenters are specifically trained for their influential work. Most would agree that they need additional knowledge to help avoid the more dangerous pitfalls and worst negative practices. With nothing more than journalism training it is possible to present a fast-moving, audience-attracting radio talkshow. Unfortunately many such programmes contain a lot of talk but very little content. And there are presenters who go a step further, who exaggerate differences and encourage conflict. Sometimes this is inadvertent, but it can also be intentional. This is just as true for commercial as for private, statecontrolled or truly public radio broadcasters, even if the pressures are slightly different.
Clearly, as presenters and producers we need to be more aware of our role and the content of our shows, and need new skills to help us improve our talkshows.