Northern Ireland Student Blogger Study Abroad

The Role of the Media: A Look Inside My Independent Study Project

St. Stephen's Green park in Dublin, Ireland.

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Josey McClain is HECUA’s student blogger for Northern Ireland Fall 2021. Josey is a student at Lawrence University, majoring in government. Read on to hear their reflections about their independent study project focused on media and the peace process. 

The topic of the independent study project I have decided to research revolves around the role the media plays in the Northern Ireland peace process. I’ve decided to research the media’s role because of how individuals, not only in my internship organization but around me have mentioned its impact. There are strategies news sources take to further a specific narrative. In the United States, media is used to further specific agendas. Former President, Donald Trump, popularized the term “fake news” when describing news coverage of his policies, agenda, and personal life. We can argue whether those news stories were in fact ‘fake news,’ but I believe it’s more important to see how people are swayed by the media into believing narratives. 

For context, the news sources Northern Ireland has are not only United Kingdom news sources, but ones from the Republic of Ireland as well. The issue surrounding the media affects both Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist (PUL) and Catholic, Republican, Nationalist (CRN) communities because the media solely covers the most extreme and most sectarian stories and narrative. I would compare it to coverage of the US’s radical right and left. 

From the conference I attended (and spoke about in my last blog), I have learned so much about the impact media has had on PUL community workers. One woman shared how she had been invited to do an interview about her organization and a specific topic unrelated to ‘The Troubles,’ but was instead only asked ‘Troubles’ related questions. She shared how unprepared and disappointed she was with the interviewers because of the position she was forced into by the interviewer. 

Unfair interviews, like the one this woman was subjected to, are a fraction of the many other corrupt actions the media takes on both communities to make headlines. One phrase I have heard multiple times since being here is “if it bleeds, it leads.” I believe this to be accurate because of what I have heard from those who have been interviewed and pressed to discuss only the negatives of their beliefs. To me, it seems as though the media is only interested in covering the extremes of both communities instead of the progressing reality of a shared, peaceful, and civil Northern Ireland. 

With my research, I hope to shed light on the many misconceptions PUL community workers deal with because of the media’s agenda. Like I mentioned in my last blog, I do not know where my own assumptions and misconceptions of working for a PUL organization (NWCP) come from. Since my last blog, I have thought more about my assumptions. With the research I have done thus far on the media and the accounts I have heard from close contacts, I believe the media may be partially at fault. Before starting the Northern Ireland program, I had watched a few episodes of the BBC documentary series Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History. Now that I have heard from people in both communities who have been directly and indirectly affected by ‘The Troubles’ and read articles and journals on the topic, I can clearly see how I had been persuaded to subscribe to a specific side through the docuseries. Although I think the BBC documentary series has had an impact on my understanding of ‘The Troubles’ and each individual community, I still highly recommend watching the series. If you do watch the series, I suggest rounding out your  understanding of the conflict by furthering your education by reading accounts and research papers, and from listening to stories from people who’ve been affected by ‘The Troubles.’ 

The Atlantic Ocean from Castlerock beach at night. Photo credit Josey McClain.

Writing on the impact the media has on people is not a new topic for me since I have written about Chinese state media for previous classes. For my senior research paper for my International Relations major at my home University, I wrote on the role of religion in relation to the internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China. Media indirectly made its way into the research paper because state sponsored media supported the internment and played a role in fabricating the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the internment camps. 

To me, the role of the media is extremely interesting because of how easily it seems people fall into rabbit holes and how people become trapped in their ideology. The media feeds us the news and the stories they want us to believe regardless if the story had been fabricated or tweaked. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to develop a rounded understanding of the conflict here in Northern Ireland and the issues both communities face in the aftermath. I think that my development will allow me to better understand both perspectives of issues I encounter moving forward. 

I’ve thought about how the essays I’ve written on the media’s role and presence will feed into my future career and at first I had no idea where they would lead me. Now, I feel confident! My plan after graduation is to work for US Immigration as an appeals officer because I’d like to give those whose asylum cases have been rejected a second chance. Immigration–especially asylum seeking–is a touchy and confusing subject in the US because of the way the media has depicted immigrants. Immigration has no longer become a means to help those vulnerable, but instead has transformed into a political stance based on the assumption that immigrants will destroy the country. As an appeals officer, I hope to help those misrepresented by the media to have a chance at a better life, free of persecution. I hope my work here at the NWCP and in Northern Ireland will help me reach my goal. 

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