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Peace journalism and the value in process: Working with children in Northern Ireland


Published onApr 06, 2024
Peace journalism and the value in process: Working with children in Northern Ireland

This paper advances understandings of peace journalism theory by identifying a value that lies in the journalistic process rather than in its products (Jarvis 2009; Robinson 2011, 2013). It considers how journalism can be deployed as ethical practice to foster resolution and reconciliation in post-conflict contexts: not by simply changing the manner in which journalists frame conflict, but by opening up ‘spaces for participation’ within communities where dialogue can be created (Popplewell 2017). The paper adopts a case study approach, exploring and analysing Distinctive Voices, Collective Choices, a project undertaken in post-conflict Northern Ireland in 2013-2014 in which youth workers who also possessed skills and experience as journalists helped children and young people to bridge the sectarian divide by developing what Mark Deuze calls the ‘critical-reflective skillset, toolkit and outlook of a journalist’ (2017: 321) and work collaboratively to explore each other’s world view. The paper also conceptualises community as process rather than as a formed, static social grouping (Studdert and Walkerdine 2016). A brief account of the Distinctive Voices project and the context in Northern Ireland in which that was undertaken is followed by an explanation of the methodological approach. It then discusses the findings and concludes with an argument that research into peace journalism and peacebuilding should focus as much on participatory community-as-process outcomes by the encouragement and wider dissemination of journalists’ skills and outlook as on the texts journalists create.

Key words: peace journalism, journalistic process, Northern Ireland


The word ‘journalism’ normally incorporates, in everyday speech and academic inquiry, journalistic processes and the body of work journalists produce. Accordingly, peace journalism has been conceptualised primarily in terms of the products rather than the processes of journalism. In other words, the main focus is on alternative interpretive frames, narratives and discourses by which conflict is represented in order to defuse conflict and engender resolution and reconciliation (see, for example, Galtung 1998; Hanitzsch 2004; Lynch and McGoldrick 2005; Zelizer and Allan 2010; Keeble 2015; Hackett and Schroeder 2017; Hussain and Lynch 2018).

But the primary purpose of Distinctive Voices, Collective Choices, a project undertaken in post-conflict Northern Ireland in 2013-14 in which youth workers who also possessed skills and experience as journalists helped children and young people to bridge the sectarian divide, did not focus on journalistic outputs (texts, reports, images, publications, videos). Rather, it concentrated on achieving specific outcomes for young people: an increased feeling of inclusion, improved confidence, empathy, understandings of shared, participative space. And to do so by developing a critical, questioning, journalistic approach to making sense of the world around them. In short, an emphasis on the processes and practices of journalism

Peace journalism

According to Zelizer and Allan, peace journalism is characterised as a form of advocacy journalism with its roots in early 19th century religious peace movements and Christian periodicals such as Advocate of peace (2010: 110). It grew in prominence as a mode of practice in the 1970s and as a subject for study and theorisation following the publishing of a seminal paper in 1998 (as the peace process in Northern Ireland neared resolution) by academic and former broadcast journalist Johan Galtung. The dominant media focus, he said, presented conflict as a battle, sports arena or gladiator-circus whereas peace journalism would focus on conflict transformation. Such journalism would be oriented towards truth rather than propaganda, ordinary people as opposed to elites, solutions rather than victories (1998: 96). Peace journalism gave a voice to the voiceless and in the process, explored avenues to resolution, re-construction and reconciliation (ibid: 98).

More reporting of this kind, and the conflict in and over Northern Ireland would have entered a more peaceful phase long ago. Focus on the violence of IRA/RUC [Irish Republican Army/Royal Ulster Constabulary] only hid the conflict and nourished more violence. Focus on nonviolent outcomes, empathy with all parties, creativity: and peace may come (ibid: 97).

Galtung’s overriding concern was with the frames journalists adopted, agendas they followed and which voices gained prominence. The role of the peace journalist was to retain control of the narrative, but consciously direct that control to more peaceful ends than was the norm in reporting conflict.

Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick also considered ways in which journalists might improve their reporting of conflict. Writing after The New York Times, Washington Post and New Republic magazine had issued unprecedented apologies for their misleading coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and their promotion of the lies about Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction, they said peace journalism:

... is when editors and reporters make choices – of what stories to report and about how to report them – that create opportunities for society at large to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict (Lynch and McGoldrick 2005: 5).

But Richard Lance Keeble later criticised peace journalism theory for concentrating too much on professional, mainstream media while failing to recognise the critical tradition (citing Althusser 1969; Parkin 1979; Collins 1990) and the crucial role played by the alternative media – both historically and today – in promoting peace (Keeble 2015: 336). He cites Chris Atton’s observation that such media models:

... typically go beyond simply providing a platform for radical or alternative points of view: they emphasise the organisation of media to enable wider social participation in their creation, production and dissemination than is possible in the mass media (Atton 2002: 25, my emphasis).

According to Atton, ‘knowledge production has become the province of the ’activist’ and the common reader in media that hope to be participatory and non-hierarchical’ (ibid: 104). He cites Michelle Rau’s analysis that such media have more to do with ‘the search for community and the construction of alternative value systems’ (1994: 13). Atton and Rau were writing before social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter emerged in around 2006. Significantly the emergence of social media platforms gave rise to the term ‘citizen journalist’ (Allan 2006) which Melissa Wall describes as the ‘act of ordinary people creating content that includes information (“news”)’ (Wall 2015: 807). Initial research looked at the ways in which citizen journalism interacted with professional news media (ibid: 798). Mark Deuze highlights the connections between journalist and community, suggesting that journalism teaching and training, rather than being seen as ‘helping students internalize the occupational ideology and practices of journalism as is’ should be rather considered a process of ‘educating super citizens ... the heart of what it takes to perform successfully in the information age’. He continues: ‘After all, journalism cannot be separated from the community in which it exists: the intimate, pervasive, and unstable ways in which people (and professionals) navigate their “oceans of media”’ (2017: 321).

Journalism as process and practice

In a Buzzmachine blog, ‘Product v. process journalism: The myth of perfection v. beta culture’, Jeff Jarvis (2009) focuses on the importance of regarding ‘journalism as process’ and cites Robert Picard (2009) writing earlier that year of ‘journalism as activity ... a body of practices by which information and knowledge is gathered, processed, and conveyed’. Jarvis and Picard highlight the value that emerges from collaboration between professionals and non-professionals in that process in which authority over knowledge production is shared between journalist and, in Alvin Toffler’s coinage, ‘prosumer’ (1981). In relation to peace journalism, this collaboration is of central concern when ‘citizen journalists’ are providing content from war zones (Wall 2015).

Sue Robinson points out, however, that Jarvis still ‘positioned the article in the center of a series of productive actions ...’ in this increasingly collaborative process (Robinson 2013: 1, my emphasis). So although critical academic and professional interest is turning to the exploration of the changing processes and practices of journalism, it does so primarily in order to explain the final product, the journalistic text. It is these texts which have the capacity to influence attitudes, understandings and opinions and so the qualities of such texts are the prime foci of study.

Yet Baines and Li (2013) found that value could emerge from the processes of journalism, even when intended products – report, article, video – were absent. Their study concerned a community journalism project which ended without the community members producing any journalistic outputs, but nevertheless gave rise to personal and public benefits. Newcastle University journalism students in the UK shared their skills with local people to help them report for and about their community. When none of the participants had produced reports, the students initially regarded the project as a failure. But further inquiry revealed that all the community participants had derived value from their participation and each reported putting their newly acquired knowledge and skills to good purpose in personal or professional lives. One said that in aggregate, the exercise ‘had increased the stock of social capital for the community as a whole’ (Baines and Li 2013 n.p.) The value they all identified lay not in outputs, but outcomes for themselves and their community. The students also reported that, on reflection, the process of sharing their skills and knowledge had developed their ability to reflect on their own practice and they had learned to communicate and engage with others more effectively by collaborating with members of the wider community.

This indicates that new knowledge and understandings of the processes of journalism can be applied to generate personal and social value beyond the production of journalistic texts. Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller embrace this notion of media as process and practices in the concept of ‘polymedia’, which regards media technologies not as an array of tools, but ‘an environment of practice’ (2013: 173). This concept resonates with Deuze’s proposition that social life is lived in, rather than with, different media practices and mediated interactions (Deuze 2011), and underpins his recognition of value inherent in the processes and practices which constitute journalism, when he explores the goals and benefits of journalism education:

Journalism, in this sense, should be considered to be the heart of what it takes to perform successfully in the information age ... and a critical-reflective skillset, toolkit and outlook of a journalist would benefit all in the global economy (Deuze 2017: 321).

He argues that learning journalism should not be conceived of primarily as a preparation for employment but recognised as a critical form of media literacy, which delivers a wider social benefit: preparing young people to play full and active roles in society.

This opens a new perspective on peace journalism: that equipping people to deploy in their lives ‘lived in media’, the ‘critical-reflective skillset, toolkit and outlook of a journalist’ might help to question taken- for granted understandings of their world. As Lynch and McGoldrick suggest, peace journalism offers a normative set of practices ‘intended to equip journalists to offer a better public service’ (2005: 5). They remind us that journalism is a means to an end, the delivery of a public service – an outcome, rather than an output.

A focus on journalism as process invites us to conceptualise community itself as social interaction, rather than a static, formed social grouping. Social psychologists David Studdert and Valerie Walkerdine (2016) theorise community as action, activity, process – a place where people interact and, in so doing, create a ‘communal being-ness’, a sense of belonging and shared meanings: conceptualising ‘community’ as a verb, rather than a noun. Baines (2024) argues that when journalists engage with people in the course of their work – meeting them, attending functions, listening, interviewing, photographing them, recording their words – they are doing community. This list is far from exhaustive but demonstrates the capacity of journalists to generate instances and processes of sociality that give rise to a sense of communal ‘being- ness’, of shared meanings and facilitate further interaction. In other words, doing journalism is also doing community. It has the capacity to contribute to the development, maintenance and sustainability of community, and to develop a sense of belonging that can bridge spatial, cultural, political and religious barriers.

The next section describes the context in which the Distinctive Voices, Collective Choices project came about and the project itself.

Northern Ireland and communities divided

Following centuries of colonial rule from London, the island of Ireland was divided after the 1919-1921 war for independence into the Catholic-majority Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, and the Protestant-majority six counties of Northern Ireland in the northeast, which remained in the UK. Tensions remained in the North where Catholic nationalists continued to seek unification with the Irish Republic while Protestant Unionists maintained loyalty to the UK. These tensions culminated in three decades of conflict from 1968 until the Belfast Agreement (the Good Friday Agreement) was signed on 10 April 1998 by the governments of the UK and Ireland (see Tonge 2000).

During this period (‘the Troubles’), some 3,600 people were killed and 50,000 wounded. As a percentage of the population, it was twice the casualty rate the US Army suffered in either the Korean or Vietnam wars (Kennedy-Pipe 2014: viii).

Under the 1998 agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly was created as an elected devolved legislature. Inter-community violence is now largely in the past. But at the time of writing, the devolved assembly is in the process of reconvening after its seventh period of suspension. The most recent hiatus left Northern Ireland without devolved government for two years (from February 2022 to February 2024) and the peace process, underpinned by the EU membership of both the Republic and UK (Gillespie 2014), rendered more precarious by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in 2020. While armed conflict is in the past, much of Northern Ireland remains structurally divided – in housing, education and the use of public space. Many areas are predominantly or wholly occupied by Unionist/Protestant or Nationalist/ Catholic communities. National flags on lampposts and their colours on kerbstones serve as boundary markers. In some areas, walls and fences (‘peace walls’) physically divide neighbourhoods. Social networks rarely cross such boundaries and ‘can act to create silos which, by maintaining intra-group integrity and inter-group separation, render it difficult to change or improve intergroup relations’ (Duffy and Gallagher 2016: 108). Such silos, Duffy and Gallagher say, result in circumstances of ‘bounded contentment’ where the status quo goes unchallenged, few means are available to deal with diversity and there are few moves towards reconciliation. So while this post-conflict period is marked by a cessation of inter-community violence, processes of resolution and reconciliation remain largely absent and communities occupy separate spaces.


Since partition there have been two separate and parallel school systems. The Catholic Church owns and runs schools serving its communities; Protestant schools are under local authority control but churches maintain strong influence over governance, curricula and teacher recruitment. Since 1981, ‘integrated schools’ have been open to pupils of all faiths and none, but these accommodate only 7.3 per cent of students (Education and Training Inspectorate Northern Ireland 2013: 8), and where space is so starkly demarcated, even non-segregated schools can have intakes almost exclusively from one tradition or another. School uniforms are, therefore, immediate indicators of the religious and political alignment of the child and her or his family. This structure was little changed by the 1998 agreement. However, a range of interventions have attempted to erode divisions. In particular, since 2007 the Shared Education project has sought to reconceptualise the school system as ‘an interdependent network, rather than a system of largely autonomous units’ (Duffy and Gallagher 2016: 111). This has involved:

The Education Act Northern Ireland 2014 and Shared Education Act 2016 now place a duty on the education authority and Department of Education to ‘encourage, facilitate and support’ shared education, which the latter statute also defines in law.1 In so doing, they seek to challenge processes which maintain intra-group integrity and inter- group separation. The Distinctive Voices project was one of those interventions introduced under the Shared Education policy, but instead of simply providing opportunities for Catholic and Protestant children to work alongside each other, it asked them to question collaboratively the divisions within their society.

Distinctive Voices, Collective Choices

Headliners, a youth-work charity, aims to enable young people to solve problems themselves and make good choices (Gillespie 2014). As part of its work it assists young people to take on journalistic tasks to help them develop critical thinking, reflexivity and skills in problem-solving, to investigate issues which concern them and their peers – and use their journalism skills to bring their findings to wider attention.

The Distinctive Voices project, which ran from 2011-2013, was one of many financed by the International Fund for Ireland, set up by the British and Irish governments in 1986 to develop the peace process through projects reaching all communities. Distinctive Voices’ primary purpose was to give the 398 children and young people who took part the ability and opportunities to question social norms, construct their own meanings and develop their own interpretive frames. It encouraged children and young people to adopt journalistic approaches and practices that would allow them to question accepted meanings and understandings and develop new ones. ‘Facilitators’ – youth workers with journalistic experience – first worked with children and young people in workshops in their own schools to help them talk about their own communities and difficult issues and develop greater self-awareness.

Groups from different religious backgrounds were then paired to deliver collaboratively a journalism project exploring both traditions: Nationalist and Unionist. The project encouraged students actively and collaboratively to question their own and each other’s understandings and critically explore each other’s world view. The participants used video and still cameras, audio recording equipment and critical questioning approaches ‘to tackle together the hard issues of sectarianism and conflict and the consequences for others ... demonstrating how the two communities could work together by giving the children a much- needed voice’ (Kyle 2014).

The students produced a total of 81 articles exploring the past and envisaging a different future. Each piece of journalism was in itself an example of cross-community collaboration. The students presented and explained their work to fellow pupils and, in some cases, audiences of parents. It was taken home to families and the wider community. The journalistic outputs were essential in that they provided the children with a substantive, tangible output which demonstrated their achievement – but were incidental to the key outcomes sought for the child participants:

  • an increased feeling of inclusion in the wider community;

  • improved confidence and the ability to develop and express their own views;

  • increased understanding and appreciation of and respect for the cultures of young people from different traditions.

  • increased understanding of shared space.

Methodological approach

The purpose of this paper is not to evaluate the success of Distinctive Voices in achieving the intended outcomes set out above, but to explore how processes of journalism as a set of ethical practices can be deployed to open up participative spaces for dialogue and reconciliation at the grassroots within communities. The project, adopted as a case study came to the author’s attention three years after its completion, so it was not possible to gather and analyse data at the time of delivery. However, several approaches were adopted to mitigate this limitation and enable development of reliable conclusions about its significance in developing new understandings about peace journalism and the processes by which journalism might contribute to the resolution of conflict. Distinctive Voices was one of 19 projects funded by the International Fund for Ireland between 2011 and 2013 and involved 398 children and young people and 29 teachers and classroom assistants in 224 workshops in 28 schools across three areas – Belfast, Strabane and Foyle. The author initially gained access to the project documentation: two intermediate evaluations undertaken during delivery by the Education and Training Inspectorate for Northern Ireland; the ETI’s final evaluation in a report evaluating all 19 projects and the Distinctive Voices project director’s final evaluation submitted to the International Fund for Ireland in January 2014.

The author’s initial analysis of this data gave rise to the notion that a distinction could be drawn between the value inherent in the processes of journalism which the children had adopted and in the journalistic texts (podcasts, videos, magazines) which they had created in terms of the project’s contribution to post-conflict inter-community resolution and reconciliation. To further investigate whether such value had, indeed, emerged the author conducted a set of in-depth, semi- structured interviews with teachers who had taken part and the project team.

The study was supported by institutional funding from the author’s university and resources and time constraints did not allow for the extensive field work which would have been required to have covered all three delivery areas. It was also considered likely that the results would not have been significantly different in each of the three areas. So the teacher interviews took place in one of those and included all nine participating schools: three Catholic and three Protestant primaries which had worked together in three pairings; two secondary schools which had been paired (one Catholic and one Protestant) and a cross- denominational school for children with special educational needs. In-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with the project director and the two journalist-youth workers who had worked with the children and teachers. The project team also provided access to further qualitative and quantitative data in the form of all entry and exit survey questionnaire responses from participant pupils and qualitative feedback from teachers at the end of the project which provided the raw data informing the director’s final report to the International Fund for Ireland.

The interviews took place in 2016 and allowed the author to explore the teachers’ considered reflections on the exercise. In one instance, the teacher directly involved in delivery had retired and was not available for interview, but her contemporaneous evaluation was included in the documentation, and the head teacher at that school was interviewed. It would have been beneficial to speak to the participant children, but the primary school cohort had been in their final year before moving to secondary schools and secondary students had since taken their GCSE exams. By the time the project had come to the author’s notice, the children had all dispersed to different schools or had left school. However, their contemporaneous reflections had been captured by the project team’s entry and exit surveys.

To preserve anonymity, neither the schools concerned, nor the area in which interviews were conducted have been identified.


The project manager collected qualitative and quantitative data from survey questionnaires during and at the end of the project’s delivery from the children, teachers and parents who attended presentations. His evaluation showed that at the end of the project, 97 per cent of the participants reported that they felt more comfortable mixing with other communities; 94 per cent found it easier to talk about community issues; 93 per cent reported a better understanding of ‘shared space’ while 84 per cent were more hopeful about the future (Kyle 2014). Teachers reported that they had learned peace-building activities and gained capacity to deliver similar future programmes. Schools gained understandings about embedding community relations and peace building in the curriculum. Several schools which partnered with each other formed relationships that ensured a legacy of collaborative peace-building. Parents gained understandings of the importance their children placed on peace building.

However, interviews with the director, journalist-youth workers and teachers who were able to reflect on the project, its outcomes and its legacy three years later offered a more nuanced account of the outcomes. One journalist youth-worker said the children were immediately engaged with the processes of journalism because the media equipment, though basic, was novel and the project was a break with their everyday experience. But the team had avoided framing the project in terms of ‘journalism’. They wanted the children to use the ‘toolkit’ to explore their own and each-others’ world view, rather than apply pre-conceived ideas about journalism. They were alert to the possibility that children might otherwise regard ‘being a journalist’ as a role-play or performance. But the nature and depth of the children’s engagement with the ‘processes of journalism’ emerged across several dimensions:

So we have had young people who have been fantastic in group work, who will be really opinionated, but won’t stand in front of a camera, won’t be involved in photography. But having that forum to say what is important to them has been empowering. .... Other young people just want to be involved in the photography, in the film-making. So there is a whole range of stuff going on there. And it is about being patient with that (Kyle, personal interview).

Children found personal value in the variety of journalistic activities and were excited by the things they were making – the magazine, podcast, video. These motivated them and they were proud of their accomplishments. The project leader said:

You can’t just go in working with young people and do personal development because after about three sessions they are saying: ‘Right, I’ve had enough of this. So what are we doing?’ Young people, when they have this piece of work produced, it’s quite overwhelming when they see what has been produced.

That sense of empowerment and ownership is fantastic for them where before they started in the project they didn’t feel they had a voice, they didn’t feel people listened to them, they didn’t feel what they had to say mattered. So, it [the journalism output] is really about reinforcing that. ... And when they get it out there in the public domain, it is fantastic for them (Kyle, personal interview).

The value of magazines, podcasts, videos and photographic images is usually assessed in terms of their utility to an audience (see, for example, Shapiro 2010). In this case, the value of these outputs was as authenticators of the children’s achievements, abilities and insights. And as evidence that they could collaborate across community boundaries and thus of the personal benefits they had gained by working together to erode those divisions and challenge the ‘bounded contentment’ of parallel lives. One teacher at a Protestant primary school said:

They don’t really know an awful lot about other traditions, even though they are only round the corner. So they were able to sit down and have people ask them questions that makes them think about somebody else’s point of view. So you know, they get that, ‘Oh, wait a minute, things work differently for you than they do for me’. They could tend to be quite insular ... but by the second or third session with the other school they were going: ‘Oh there’s .. Jimmy’ or whatever ... they, you know, they opened up quite a lot (‘Alan’, personal interview).

In thinking about somebody else’s point of view the children were gaining perspectives and thinking critically about them, in opening up, building relationships developing understandings and demonstrating trust.

‘Alan’ noted, however, that while the children recorded interviews, took photographs and wrote reports, at the time of the project they lacked editing equipment, so the journalist-youth workers produced from their material the finished podcasts, magazines and videos. Alan thought it would have been better for the children to take greater ownership and control by undertaking the editing themselves. That editing, an essentially analytical process, would have enhanced their ability to adopt a critical reflexivity as they decided how to shape the narratives and build meaning. Since then, the school has invested in such equipment and the children now produce and edit their own videos and shape their own narratives as part of the wider curriculum.

A secondary school class for young people with learning difficulties, from both communities, did take the media projects through to final production. The school’s primary aims are not success in standard exam assessments, but to develop students’ life skills and independence. The project enabled them to address critical social issues through role play and the production of story-boards before going on to produce podcasts. The school later invested in iPads to extend and enhance the range of media skills and engagement they could deploy and they continued to use the journalistic approach introduced by Distinctive Voices to explore complex social and moral problems.

Teacher ‘Jane’ recounted a current drama project the students had developed for production as a video in which two mothers, one wealthy, one poor, had become friends as they tried to cope with their respective sons’ involvement in drugs and vigilante violence.

Taking a social situation, and then saying: ‘Right, how does that relate to us in this school?’ That is very important really (Jane, personal interview).

Creating a narrative, story-boarding, filming and editing are sophisticated analytical processes and these young people, by deploying them, were developing personal agency in critically exploring issues of conflict and resolution. They had integrated into their learning complex social concerns and the ability to understand and relate to such matters as they impact their communities.

‘Elaine’, a teacher at a Catholic primary school which had also invested in iPads, said the children were using media technologies and approaches to research both the Easter Rising and the battle of the Somme during World War One in what was the centenary year of both events.2 This included exploring the symbolism of both the Easter Lilly for Republicans commemorating the rising and the Poppy more usually worn by Unionists. And the journalistic approach enhanced their learning:

You know, it helps them how to look at facts and how to find out, do research, because there is so much available to children now, online, in newspapers. ... So it makes them more questioning ... and they love creating their own things.

Kyle, the project manager, noted in his evaluation that children from two of the primary schools involved said that ‘they would now say hello to each other if they met in the street’. This might sound trivial, but these schools lay within rigid sectarian boundaries which had been demarcated, often violently, for generations. Before Distinctive Voices, some of the children had never met others from a different tradition or ventured into their neighbourhoods. To be able to greet each other indicates that the project was enabling processes and practices of community to emerge.

An increasing consciousness of developing attitudes which were eroding past tensions was highlighted by ‘Elaine’, a teacher from a Catholic primary where all but a very few families were Protestant. Painted kerbs and lampposts announce the dominant tradition and, annually on 12 July, a ceremonial arch, Union flags and an Orange Order parade celebrate the victory of King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Such celebrations have often been catalysts for violent confrontation. But since the Distinctive Voices project, the Catholic and Protestant schools in this community had developed strong collaborative bonds and Elaine described the scale of change. When they see the Orange Day arch going up...

... our children just associate it with being near the summer holidays. ‘It must be near the summer, the flags are going up.’ They don’t have any other awareness (personal interview).

She believes the focus on children understanding each other’s traditions has resulted in a change of attitude within the children’s wider communities.

So the links are there and ... I think it is important that the children are educated about it because they are the ones who bring the message home.

Elaine also highlighted the erosion of boundaries in wider social contexts.

It’s not about Catholic and Protestant any more. It’s about your Chinese people, your Filipino people, the wider (emphasis) community growing in Northern Ireland. ... There are now Poles ... people who have come from Indian backgrounds. We’re seeing that in our schools more. And it is all about respecting diversity.

This change is reflected at policy level: Northern Ireland’s Education for Mutual Understanding programme (EMU) has been renamed Community Relations, Equality and Diversity in Education (CRED). Schools now find themselves playing a critical role in supporting the integration of, and challenging intolerance towards, migrant communities.

However, a common concern among all the teachers interviewed was the limited nature of Distinctive Voices and similar projects. Funds focused on short-term projects can make it difficult for schools to capitalise on successes when the project ends. While some schools had been able to build on Distinctive Voices and maintain rich, enduring relationships with their partner institutions, others found the outcomes beneficial, but ephemeral.

‘Tony’, the head of one Catholic primary, doubted whether the project had had any enduring effect on the children involved because for most of their lives ...

... they are separated by ... their communities and their opportunities. Whatever fledgling kind of friendships they might have over such a short time dissipates. Just dissipates. What it does, if the project does anything, it gives you kind of a slice [of communal harmony] at that moment in time.

Age was also a factor. Tony noted that children of the age group involved, 10 and 11, often ‘carried prejudice lightly’, were repeating the views of others and, should they move out of their communities and into a mixed environment as they grew up, such prejudices would likely be eroded by experience. Kyle offered some confirmation of this. He had found that adolescent boys from the same neighbourhoods as that Catholic primary and the Protestant school with which it had been partnered, had arrived in the project with deep-seated prejudices against each other’s tradition. But when they had explored the impacts of conflict on their families and communities they shared a common recognition of the constraints that conflict was imposing on their lives.

One of the planned outcomes of the Distinctive Voices project was to develop understandings of ‘shared space’ by children from communities where space is physically and symbolically demarcated. Boundary zones are known by local communities and government in Northern Ireland as ‘interface areas’, often regarded as liminal zones where inter- community conflict can occur, often at a recreational level (Jarman and O’Halloran 2001: 7). Tony observed:

Those interface issues are obviously a lot less than they ever would have been in the past and they might ... be down to only once or twice in the year now when there’s some kind of issue.

But rarely if ever would children from his school venture into a neighbourhood other than their own. So bringing children into each other’s schools has been an achievement of the Shared Education initiative and project such as Distinctive Voices. And there are signs that schools can become ‘shared spaces’. Elaine said:

We opened our school for parents’ community fitness sessions and our parents are not local to the school, so there is probably somewhere handier for them to go and do keep-fit. So out of maybe 23 people who came regularly on Wednesday night for the keep fit, four were parents from our school and 19 were parents from the other school. Historically, they wouldn’t have come into a Catholic school. It just wouldn’t have happened.

Where social spaces bear profound meanings relating to identity, history, religion and politics, the Protestant community has come to view the Catholic school within its boundaries as a common asset, a space to share. The teacher noted that such renegotiations take time to develop yet believed that the children, learning together about each other’s communities in a manner that framed difference as interesting, rather than threatening, were translating those into a deeper understanding of the experiences of and intersections between those communities.


The Distinctive Voices project set out to encourage reconciliation through dialogue and support peaceful cohabitation within communities. It did so by inviting its young participants to explore each other’s world – and world view – by adopting the outlook of a reporter and engaging in the processes of journalism; to discover what they, as individuals and communities, had in common and what differentiated them; and to see those differences as intriguing, rather than something to be feared. The project aimed to give the children the confidence to instigate contacts with their peers across sectarian boundaries and to reshape their mental maps of their communities to erode the potency of physical and symbolic boundary lines demarcating the social silos that emerged during the decades of conflict and violence. The evaluation for the Education and Training Inspectorate for Northern Ireland indicates that it was largely successful in these aims. Teachers who took part took a more nuanced view and although they largely valued the exercise, were critical of the fixed-term nature of the project and short-term funding for such initiatives.

However, this investigation demonstrates that it created in and between the schools taking part participatory spaces where ‘emancipatory and transformative thinking on peace can appear’ (Popplewell 2017: 19). It did so by enabling the children who participated to adopt the critical, questioning outlook of a journalist and engage in the processes of journalism as ethical practice. Those children embodied the collaborative, community-centred approach to which Jarvis, Picard and Robinson refer and the importance of which Keeble and Atton stress when considering the ability of peace journalism to enable wider social participation in the processes of journalism and in the creation of active communities. This investigation provides strong evidence for the argument that the most effective peace journalism projects may be those which emerge from the grassroots.


1 ‘The education together of (a) those of different religious belief, including reasonable numbers of both Protestant and Roman Catholic children or young persons; and (b) those who are experiencing socio-economic deprivation and those who are not, which is secured by the working together and co-operation of two or more relevant providers,’ Shared Education Act 2016, S2.2

2 2016, when these interviews were conducted, marked the centenary of the Easter Rising, or Easter Rebellion, an armed revolt in Ireland against British rule and the first significant action for independence in the country since 1798. 2016 also marked the centenary of the battle of the Somme which claimed the lives of many soldiers from both communities


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Note on the contributor

Dr David Baines, a senior lecturer in journalism at Newcastle University, worked in regional daily newspapers for 30 years. The primary focus of his research is on local and community journalism. It interrogates changing roles and practices of journalists in communities and explores how young journalists might best be prepared to negotiate these, and future, transformations. He is a founding member of the MeCCSA Local and Community Journalism Network, a member and past chair of the NUJ’s professional training committee and, after conducting the research for this paper, became a trustee of journalism-orientated youth charity Headliners.

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