The Stories We Tell

For those of us who do not live in areas of violent conflict, our experience of war is via the media—in stark newspaper headlines and conflict reporting, in Twitter timelines and blogs, in magazines and television images and in the sounds of voices and gunfire on the radio.

We are consumers of stories—refugees desperate to escape violence, special forces on the trail of terrorists, dictators and strongmen overthrown. On Sunday mornings, we listen to experts explain military strategy in between ads for defense contractors. Bombs dropped, targets destroyed, civilian casualties, body count—we know what to listen for. The details and pictures haunt us and we worry about the reporters who put themselves in danger to share what they see with us.

PHOTO: Manhhai
Reporters, from left, David Halberstam of the New York Times, AP Saigon Correspondent Malcolm Browne and Neil Sheehan of UPI, and later the New York Times, chat beside a helicopter in Vietnam, ca. 1964.(AP Photo)

Reporting shapes perceptions. We all know war isn’t the only way to resolve conflict, but the drama of peacebuilding and nonviolence do not have the same visceral impact as the drama of war.

Every story is different. Every reporter sees and tells the story in a different way. Every witness comes with preconceptions and sometimes an agenda.

But still the coverage we consume shapes our collective understanding of what can be done—what should be done. Stories can influence peace processes, sway the escalation or reduction of conflict, and undermine—or enhance—the confidence, trust and expectations of the parties involved. We have seen it happen. We have seen stories change hearts and minds.

How should we tell war stories and peace stories? What are the responsibilities of storytellers?

What are the questions we should be asking about the media? What is the role of the reporter? How do we balance the need for peace with a media marketplace hungry for drama?

We’re asking these questions in a day-long symposium. War Stories Peace Stories challenges journalists, peacebuilders and others to explore the ways in which we communicate the world’s stories of violent conflict and nonviolent responses. We’ll discuss the unique challenges and dangers of conflict reporting, and examine how and if the stories of the diplomat, peacebuilder or local activist can be told in ways that are as compelling as those of the bravest soldiers.

Stories have power. War Stories Peace Stories challenges us to think about how we can deploy it.