Roundtable Tackles Challenges Faced by Media When Covering Mass Atrocities

By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by Chris Roussakis

“In a world numbed by terrorism and death, what stories, what evidence, will finally pierce apathy?”

This is media’s biggest challenge when it comes to covering mass atrocities, according to Martha Steffens, chair of Business and Financial Journalism at the University of Missouri.

Her view was one of many, all part of the closing plenary of the three-day conference Media and Mass Atrocity: the Rwanda Genocide and Beyond on Sunday, Dec. 3.

“The majority of the public does care, but they are sick of being presented problems without solutions,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Watson said in a keynote speech.

“We need to figure out how to make sure a fractured public is engaged. Because if they’re not, large numbers of people die because the rest of us turn away. It is good journalism that keeps people from turning away.”

The symposium brought together 35 experts from around the world to grapple with questions about the media’s role in mass atrocities, how social media is used as a weapon of shame and hate, and whether journalism can actually shape policy in the midst of conflict.

Carleton Journalism Prof. Allan Thompson convened the symposium with the help of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), and the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS). He hired a team of Carleton journalism students to run an online forum on Medium, produce podcasts, and broadcast the panels on Facebook during the symposium.

Watson, a Carleton grad and renowned war correspondent, set the tone of the weekend in describing his reporting in Somalia and Rwanda for the Toronto Star. On Saturday morning, former commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, Roméo Dallaire, added another layer of reality to the Rwandan genocide, now 23 years past.

The retired commander gave a rare keynote speech about the nation’s implosion in 1994. Previously a UN advisor and Canadian senator, Dallaire now focuses his efforts on an NGO called the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

“It is true that I don’t speak that often on this subject,” he said. “[But] I’m still very much involved in not letting the Rwandan genocide disappear from the map.”

He described the experiences that emotionally tormented him for years and how he interacted with media during the operation.

“I think one horrific, overarching situation was that we were falling on the heels of Mogadishu,” said Dallaire. It was Paul Watson’s 1993 picture of an angry mob dragging a dead American soldier that sparked the United States to pull out its military forces. A year later, the killing of 10 Belgian soldiers in Rwanda “literally put the fear of death into all nations considering intervention or prevention,” said Dallaire.

Although local media reported on the raging conflict between Hutu and Tutsi before it became catastrophic, a lack of western media coverage kept the international community unaware of the calamity. The local station Radio Libre des Milles Collines made things far worse by inciting violence in their broadcasts.

A day and a half of panels discussed and debated how media could be used to stop mass atrocities from happening again. In spring of 2019, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the genocide, a book based on the discussions of the event will be published by CIGI Press, edited by Thompson and with a foreword by Dallaire.

“We covered an awful lot of terrain in two and a half days,” said Thompson on Sunday, “but this is not the end of the discussion, this is just the beginning.”