By Erin Niemela
U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeting the Islamic State (ISIL) have opened the floodgates of war journalism reporting by corporate mainstream media – to the detriment of American democracy and peace. This has been recently evident in a traditionally democratic tool used by American press: public opinion polls. These war polls, as they should be called during wartime, are an affront to both respectable journalism and an informed civil society. They’re byproducts of rally-round-the-flag war journalism and without constant scrutiny, war polls results make public opinion look a lot more pro-war than it actually is.
Public polling is meant to signify and reinforce the role of media in a democracy as reflecting or representing mass opinion. Corporate mainstream media are considered credible in providing this reflection based on assumptions of objectivity and balance, and politicians have been known to consider polls in their policy decisions. In some cases, polls may be useful in engaging the feedback loop between political elites, media and the public.
The trouble comes when public polling meets war journalism; internal newsroom goals of fairness and balance may transform temporarily into advocacy and persuasion – intentional or not – in favor of war and violence.
War journalism, first identified in the 1970s by peace and conflict scholar Johan Galtung, is characterized by several core components, all of which tend to privilege elite voices and interests. But one of its hallmarks is a pro-violence bias. War journalism presupposes that violence is the only reasonable conflict management option. Engagement is necessary, violence is engagement, anything else is inaction and, for the most part, inaction is wrong.
Peace journalism, in contrast, takes a pro-peace approach, and assumes that there are an infinite number of nonviolent conflict management options. The standard definition of peace journalismis “when editors and reporters make choices – about what to report, and how to report it – that create opportunities for society at large to consider and to value non-violent responses to conflict.” Journalists taking a pro-violence stance also make choices about what to report and how to report it, but instead of emphasizing (or even including) nonviolent options, they often move straight to “last resort” treatment recommendations and stay put until told otherwise. Like a guard dog.
Public opinion war polls reflect war journalism’s pro-violence bias in the way questions are worded and the number and type of options provided as answers. “Do you support or oppose U.S. air strikes against the Sunni insurgents in Iraq?” “Do you support or oppose expanding U.S. air strikes against the Sunni insurgents into Syria?” Both questions come from a Washington Post war poll in early September 2014in response to President Obama’s strategy to defeat ISIL. The first question showed 71 percent in support. The second showed 65 percent in support.
The use of “Sunni insurgents” should be discussed another time, but one problem with these either/or war poll questions is that they assume that violence and inaction are the only available options – airstrikes or nothing, support or oppose. No question in the Washington Post’s war poll asked if Americans might support pressuring Saudi Arabia to stop arming and funding ISILor halting our own arms transfers into the Middle East. And yet, these nonviolent options, among many, many others, do exist.
Another example is the widely cited Wall Street Journal/NBC News war poll from mid-September 2014 in which 60 percent of participants agreed that military action against ISIL is in the national interest of the US. But that war poll failed to ask whether Americans agreed that peacebuilding action in response to ISIL is in our national interest.
Since war journalism already assumes there’s only one kind of action – military action – the WSJ/NBC war poll options narrowed: Should military action be limited to airstrikes or include combat? Violent option A or violent option B? If you’re unsure or unwilling to choose, war journalism says you simply “have no opinion.”
War poll results are published, circulated and repeated as fact until the other 30-35 percent, those of us unwilling to choose between violent options A and B or informed about alternative, empirically supported peace building options, have been pushed aside. “Americans want bombs and boots, see, and majority rules,” they’ll say. But, war polls don’t really reflect or measure public opinion. They encourage and cement opinion in favor of one thing: war.
Peace journalism recognizes and spotlights the many nonviolent options often neglected by war journalists and political hawks. A peace journalism “peace poll” would give citizens the opportunity to question and contextualize the use of violence in response to conflict and consider and value nonviolent options by asking questions like, “how concerned are you that bombing parts of Syria and Iraq will promote cohesion among anti-Western terrorist groups?” Or, “do you support the U.S. following international law in its response to the Islamic State’s actions?” Or maybe, “How strongly would you support a multilateral arms embargo in the region where the Islamic State operates?” When will a poll ask, “Do you believe military attacks will tend to aid recruitment of new terrorists?” What would these poll results look like?
The credibility of journalists, political elites and unelected opinion leaders should be called into question with any use of war polling or war poll results where the efficacy or morality of violence is assumed. Opponents of violence should not humor the use of war poll results in debate and should actively ask for the results of polls about peacebuilding alternatives, instead. If the one structure meant to keep us informed as a democratic society ignores or silences the vast majority of possible response options beyond violence, we cannot make truly informed decisions as democratic citizens. We need more peace journalism – journalists, editors, commentators and certainly polls – to offer more than violence A and B. If we’re going to make good decisions about conflict, we need nonviolence A through Z.
Erin Niemela is a Master’s Candidate in the Conflict Resolution program at Portland State University and Editor for PeaceVoice.