By Laura Rodríguez-Davis
This year, 2023, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), a watershed moment in Northern Irish history that brought the formal end to decades of violent conflict — known colloquially as ‘The Troubles’ —between the Irish/Nationalist/Catholic/Republican community and the British/Unionist/Protestant/Loyalist community. Over the past several months, numerous events and commemorations have been held throughout Northern Ireland in honour of the occasion.
This landmark anniversary has inspired reflection on the significant progress achieved since April 1998 and what remains to be done to fully establish peace. In this spirit, understanding the impact and role of media and journalism during and since the conflict offers a meaningful perspective on the responsibility of the media in reporting conflict.
Gone are the days of reporters stationed at the Europa Hotel, often remembered as the most bombed hotel in Europe during the Troubles, and gathering in pubs in the evenings to cathartically debrief the day’s events. Remembering such times, Reporting the Troubles 2 is a compilation of stories from journalists who lived through and reported on the Northern Ireland conflict collected by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little, following the success of their first book.
The Role and Challenges of a Journalist in Northern Ireland’s Conflict
These first-hand accounts detailing reporters’ experiences showcase the myriad of challenges they faced while covering decades of violence and tension. Many commented on the emotional toll reporting on such carnage took as they struggled to maintain a professional affective distance and uphold journalistic standards of neutrality. Journalist Simon Cole, working for ITN during the conflict, recalled, “…I was always staggered by bereaved families wanting to go on camera and pay tribute to victims of the Troubles. They were wiped out emotionally but still came…It was hard to stay neutral in those moments.” The memories of trauma were not always easy to cast off.
At times, journalists themselves became targets of sectarian violence. In September 1976, the Belfast Telegraph was bombed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). As former Tele reporter Don McAleer stated reflecting on the statements received from paramilitaries, “When these statements dropped on the news desk, the very journalists who had been targeted were then expected to deal with the issue impartially, and they did.” Some journalists were physically injured or killed.
Peace scholar Johan Galtung proposed a journalistic paradigm known as peace journalism to contrast with war-focused methods. In peace journalism, news stories aim to promote empathy and understanding, and to explore the roots of conflict and the experiences of everyday people beyond sectarian partisanship. This model, however, has been criticised for placing the responsibility of peacebuilding on unequipped journalists and potentially interfering with journalistic standards of objectivity.
Perspectives on the responsibility of journalists reporting on the Troubles often varied. Journalist-turned-MLA Fearghal McKinney stated their job, as the media, was “to reflect, to challenge, and to test.” Broadcaster Malachi O’ Doherty questioned if journalism was an appropriate response to the Troubles. Elsewhere, Mark Carruthers, presenter for BBC Northern Ireland, asserted that, “Journalism, at its simplest, should be about the search for the truth”.
During Northern Ireland’s conflict, this “search for truth,” however, came with many questions and difficulties in decisions regarding newsworthiness. Scholars have observed that news norms typically define newsworthiness as events and happenings that are novel, dramatic, subversive, and/or controversial. A 2020 study revealed that non-profit leaders in Northern Ireland believe the media is perpetuating the legacy of conflict and tension by being overly preoccupied with negativity and violence at the expense of evidence of progress.
The old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” certainly does not want for application during violent conflict. During the Troubles, the perpetrators of the most violent atrocities, paramilitaries, naturally received significant media coverage.
Paramilitaries and the Media
Decisions regarding coverage of paramilitary activity were especially contentious as journalists navigated the tension between wanting to tell the truth and not providing free publicity for terrorists. Even after the signing of the GFA, ethical questions about covering paramilitaries lingered according to columnist Jonny McCambridge, whose 2002 news report about a police clinic in an area heavily controlled by loyalist paramilitaries resulted in an attack from the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
The IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein were frequently found in headlines. A 2016 study found that, of the political parties in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein received more coverage compared to others across a variety of news publications regardless of community affiliation. This was likely due to the fact that republican efforts challenged the status quo and were conflict-inciting and highly dramatic, thus fitting the bill for newsworthiness.
Paramilitaries were often strategic in using the media to their advantage. As journalist and presenter Sir Trevor McDonald reported, “…the rioters appeared on the streets in late afternoon to guarantee they would be seen on the teatime bulletins.” It was common for paramilitaries to contact the press with a prepared statement following a planned attack. A 1995 journal article written by Shane Kingston* identified the following primary objectives of paramilitaries’ use of the media: claim responsibility for violent events, garner wider support by justifying their cause, and make a demonstration of power to the government and authorities.
At different times, both the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland imposed bans on media interviews with paramilitary combatants. These bans were severely criticised, and eventually the Irish government relented while the UK’s remained in place until the 1994 IRA ceasefire. Kingston warned against reckless reporting on terrorist activity that, in addition to unintentionally aiding in spreading paramilitary propaganda, also could inspire retaliatory behaviour from other terrorist organisations. This raised important questions regarding journalistic responsibility in reporting on the actions of terrorists.
Women and the Media
There is also evidence to suggest that female representation in Northern Ireland media was impacted by paradigms of newsworthiness. During the peace talks that resulted in the GFA, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) adopted an inclusive, solutions-oriented approach to their involvement in the negotiations. Indeed, they were represented by Monica McWilliams, a Catholic, and Pearl Sagar, a Protestant, thus implementing cross-community efforts in the peace process. However, media hyper fixation on conflict and tension inadvertently led to disproportionate coverage for warring male-dominated parties at the expense of the NIWC’s collaborative initiatives.
Working across the political divide, the NIWC defied dominant conflict narratives often favoured by the media. According to one 2004 analysis**, media portrayals of the NIWC relegated them to the role of mediator among the other parties rather than a political party with its own legitimate agenda. Despite perceptions that women are more inclined to “peace-making” than men, they are often left out or marginalised in peace processes. This phenomenon was, unfortunately, perpetuated by Northern Irish peace talks reporters in their exclusion of female-led political efforts.
Female combatants also flouted the woman-as-peace-maker stereotype yet were nonetheless subjected to highly gendered portrayals by the press, according to a 2021 study on media portrayals of political violence and women during the Troubles. There was often a special focus on Republican female combatants, though there were certainly Loyalist female combatants as well. Women, affected by structural violence, took up arms for both personal and political reasons. Nevertheless, the stories reported in the press often relied on gendered tropes, such as blaming failed mothers for resulting violence.
From diminished reporting on women’s collaborative political efforts to sensationalising female participation in sectarian violence, the representation of women in media during the Troubles was largely dictated by norms of newsworthiness determined by the press, which ultimately helped shaped narratives surrounding the conflict. This awareness lends itself to questions regarding the role of the media amid violent, protracted conflict.
Role of Media in Northern Ireland’s Conflict
While few will deny the influence of the media, there is not always a consensus regarding its role, especially during times of political conflict. As previously discussed, some question the appropriateness of journalism as the response to conflict. Journalist Gegham Baghdasaryn, however, contended that during violent conflict, the role of the journalist is to “conscientiously inform the public, so that people have access to objective and comprehensive information about the events taking place”.
In addition to familiar principles about journalists’ role to hold those in power to account, Carruthers observed that journalists must also balance avoiding further aggravating a fragile situation without glossing over difficult realities. Elsewhere, it has been argued that while it is the duty of journalists to observe and report without prejudice, they, nevertheless, inevitably bring their own perspectives to their office.
Newspapers also catered to the interests of their affiliated community. It was understood that the Catholic Community read The Irish News and the Protestant community took the Ulster News Letter. The Belfast Telegraph, while technically considered unionist, was known for being ideologically moderate and therefore, has had the most success in cross-community reception. Paramilitary-connected publications such as the republican An Phoblact and the loyalist Combat were ideologically very strong and tended to place more focus on the actions of adversarial extremists than moderates.
Paramilitaries were not the only ones to use the media for their aims. Experts have noted that the British government played a role in influencing media content and conflict narratives, particularly in framing the violence of the conflict as criminal activity from terrorists rather than political counter-insurgency. Essentially, the British viewed the press as another medium of security, and British media generally aligned with government explanations of the Troubles, narrating the Northern Irish conflict as a problem with “terrorism” and highlighting the role of the British army in safeguarding the peace.
In covering the peace talks leading to the GFA, the media was not always well-received. According to a study interviewing politicians involved in the negotiations, there was an awareness that journalistic norms in reporting on conflict, division, and drama were at odds with the conditions necessary for productive reconciliatory discussion in a fragile state. Talks participants were more likely to try to avoid the media in an attempt to preserve the needed confidentiality. However, it was also understood the media was key in communicating important information and introducing dialogue to the public, pressuring opponents, and persuading the public towards peace.
As Northern Ireland began to move past violent conflict into a peace process, some broadcasters, accustomed to reporting on war, struggled to report on peace, according to one analysis. Nevertheless, there is evidence that media and the press aided in Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Media as Peace Facilitator
Despite perceptions that the media is overly preoccupied with violent, sensational stories, many op-eds from various newspapers supported the peace agreement, demonstrating how the media’s role promoted peace and transforming conflict. As former editor of the Irish Times Conor Brady reflected, “The Irish Times played no insignificant role in facilitating the dialogue that eventually yielded the peace process and the Belfast Agreement of Good Friday 1998.”
The media also shared redemptive stories of forgiveness. In 1987, in the aftermath of an IRA bombing at Enniskillen, BBC journalist Mike Gaston interviewed Gordon Wilson, who had lost his daughter in the violence. Wilson, rather than showing contempt for the bombers, instead reported bearing no ill will towards the combatants, understanding that hatred of the enemy would not bring his daughter back. The broadcasted interview moved listeners and is believed have reduced retaliatory attempts from loyalists.
In a similar vein, BBC programme Facing the Truth was a notable endeavour by the media to contribute to the peace and reconciliation process. The three-part televised programme featured encounters between conflict “victims” and “perpetrators” overseen by three panellists, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was suggested that the programme would serve as a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” for Northern Ireland amid debate regarding how to deal with Northern Ireland’s past.
While certainly ambitious and well-intended, there were some notable shortcomings of Facing The Truth. Researcher Bill Rolston*** critiqued that the programme relied on strict, simplistic binaries of “victim” and “perpetrator,” which the latter was reluctant to accept as it diminished the often complicated realities that lead to participation in violence. While the show allowed victims to share their stories, there were no investigative efforts to further uncover the “truth”.
Additionally, the emphasis on reconciliation between adversaries, especially under the supervision of Archbishop Tutu, had a religious implication and in turn, alienated other non-religious constructions of forgiveness and reconciliation. Finally, Facing The Truth created a format for the “ideal” victim as one who could forgive their perpetrator. In essence, the programme failed to fairly represent the full range of conflict victims and their needs.
A 2001 study analysing the impact of television news on the peace process pointed to the mediating role of the televised news programmes in providing a communicative space for dialogue among adversaries who will not speak to each other directly. Additionally, some journalists interviewed in the study noted the pressure the media applied to politicians forced them to clearly communicate their message. Indeed, it has been suggested that media coverage helped facilitate the passing of the GFA by pressuring participants to continue talking and fostering hope in the public.
Peter Cardwell, former special adviser to the Northern Ireland Secretary, observed the difficulty of addressing the needs of Troubles victims in tackling the legacy of the conflict. “Some victims want truth, some want justice, and some want to move on with their lives. And for many…there is simply a desire to be listened to, even once…And that is how, sometimes, even in a very small way, journalism can contribute.”
Media in Northern Ireland Today
Though much has changed in Northern Ireland twenty-five years on from the GFA, there remains evidence of unresolved, residual tension. Community segregation persists, and paramilitary activity continues along with sectarian violence. Additionally, memories of the Troubles and the accompanying trauma and grief linger among survivors, impacting subsequent generations in the form of generational trauma. As Northern Ireland continues to contend with its past while also looking towards the future, the local media is challenged with reporting in a post-conflict era.
Post-Brexit, there were many concerns regarding the fragility of Northern Ireland’s peace, and currently, the passing of the controversial Legacy and Reconciliation Bill has created a stir among families seeking justice for their losses during the Troubles. Journalists are charged with navigating these contentious issues and providing crucial information on related political developments to the public.
Community activists in Northern Ireland promoting peace progress are disappointed when their positive efforts go unreported in the press, highlighting an important area for potential coverage to help reflect the changed interests of a society in recovery. Research suggests that local community leaders involved in peacebuilding believe the media should steward their influence responsibly for bridging differences rather than perpetuating outdated, divisive narratives.
Former UTV Live reporter Peter Cardwell observed that for many survivors of the Troubles, by the time they are ready to share their stories, the news crews have already moved on, denying them the opportunity to be heard. For this reason, he advocates for an impartial oral archive to allow victims and survivors the chance to share their experiences on their own terms. While not a formal oral archive, the documentary miniseries Once Upon a Time in Northern Irelandcurated interviews and testimonials, many previously unheard, of those who lived through the Troubles. The project received many accolades.
While the shortcomings of peace journalism likely make it ill-fitted for practical application, conflict sensitive journalism offers some insightful guidance for reporters covering conflict and peace processes. Some recommended practices include profiling peacemakers, conducting joint interviews from opposing parties, providing opportunities for adversaries to ask each other questions, and assisting people in understanding each other’s values.
Constructive journalism, a forward-thinking framework that offers a nuanced approach to reporting rather than a negative focus on problems, consists of three elements: focus on solutions, multiple perspectives, and constructive dialogue. This enables journalists to help improve societal discourse, resist oversimplification and polarization, and promote agency among media consumers by highlighting potential options for solving problems.
Based on the findings of research conducted over the course of two years by Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in conjunction with the Commission for Victims and Survivors Northern Ireland (CVSNI), researchers developed guidelines for journalists reporting on victims and survivors of violent conflict and trauma. Recommendations include being clear about your role as a journalist, sensitivity to the difficulty of the topic, and ensuring any interviewees are capable of providing informed consent.
According to Handbook: A Conflict Sensitive Approach to Reporting on Conflict and Violent Extremismfrom Internews and the European Union, journalists are encouraged to speak with more than just the elite and include those who are directly impacted by the conflict. Furthermore, taking time to consider the fundamental needs to resolve a conflict can help reporters ask better questions.
Presenter Mark Carruthers reminds readers that the local journalists who report on daily events have a personal stake in happenings as fellow citizens. He asserts, “…we’re invested in this place just the same as everyone else”. This further emphasises the importance of meaningful, responsible local journalism in the media. Not only do journalists have a role in recording the history around them, they are also inherently involved in shaping it for others and themselves.
As Northern Ireland reflects on its own legacy during this milestone anniversary, may the lessons learned from the history keepers of yesterday inform the work of history shapers both today and tomorrow.
*Shane Kingston (1995) Terrorism, the media, and the Northern Ireland conflict, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 18:3, 203-231, DOI: 10.1080/10576109508435980
Henderson, D. and Little, I. (2022). Reporting the Troubles 2 : Journalists Tell Their Stories of the Northern Ireland Conflict. Newtownards: Blackstaff Press
** Spencer, G. (2004). Reporting Inclusivity: The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, the News Media and the North Ireland Peace Process. Irish Journal of Sociology, 13(2), 43–65. https://doi-org.elib.tcd.ie/10.1177/079160350401300204
*** Bill Rolston, “Facing reality: The media, the past and conflict transformation in Northern Ireland,” Crime Media Culture 3, no. 3 (December 2007): 345-364
Charis Rice & Maureen Taylor (2020) “Reconciliation Isn’t Sexy”: Perceptions of News Media in Post-Conflict Northern Ireland, Journalism Studies, 21:6, 820-837, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2020.1724183
REUBEN, RICHARD C. 2009. “The Impact of News Coverage on Conflict: Toward Greater Understanding.” Marquette Law Review 93 (1): 45–85.
Introducing new datasets on Northern Ireland’s media in the peace process and a test of newsworthiness in times of ‘troubles’ Maria Armoudian
Media, War & Conflict , August 2016, Vol. 9, No. 2 (August 2016), pp. 137-161 Sage Publications, Ltd.
Joyce P. Kaufman (2021) Women and political violence in Northern Ireland: newspaper imagery during the troubles, Women’s History Review, 30:7, 1141-1161, DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2020.1827535
Graham Spencer (2000) Negotiating Peace: Politics, Television News and the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Irish Studies Review, 8:2, 217-231, DOI: 10.1080/713674245