Post-conflict memory formation and the death toll in Colombian armed conflict

The article “How journalists do memory work with numbers: The case of the 220,000 deaths during the Colombian conflict (1958–2012)” by Jose Ortega from University of Leeds and Brendan Lawson from Loughborough University explored the relationship between memory, journalism and numbers. 

The case of numbers studied was the particular number of 220,000 casualties in the conflict reported originally the National Centre for Historical Memory in 2013 and shared widely in the media. The study looked at how journalists critically engaged with the statistic and to what extent did they contest it. 

The study employed mixed methods. First, there was a quantitative content analysis on how the figure was reported by news media, followed by a thematic analysis. The news articles were from four magazines: El Tiempo, Semana, El Espectador, and La Silla Vacia. The word ‘FARC’ was used to create a log of each website and some irrelevant articles were cleaned out and a filtering process was carried out, for a total corpus of 17,688 articles. 

The authors then searched for occurrences of the 220,000 number from the corpus. A total of 255 articles were initially found, and after manual cleaning up of irrelevant occurrences (e.g. 220,000 number in other contexts), 245 mentioning 220,000 deaths were left. A quantitative content analysis was then carried out. 

In this analysis, six variables were coded: “the article ID, the number of references to 220,000 in the text, identification of a source, articulation of details about the statistic, the presence of contestation and the use of ‘certainty markers’”. This was then complimented by the thematic analysis. 

The first research question was divided into two sub-parts, contextualisation and contestation. Only 12,2 % of the articles included a statistical source, whereas details on the number were even more rare, occurring in only 0,8 % of the articles. Contestation was even more rare, only one article in entire corpus challenged the number. 

The authors note that the emphasis on certainty either through certainty markers or through the lack of contextualisation or contestation ignores the level of uncertainty involved originally in the production of the number 220,000. This contrast highlights the necessity for journalists to engage critically with the numbers they use.

The second research question around the discourses of responsibility showed even more need for critical engagement. In many cases, FARC was consistently positioned as being responsible for the casualties. In reality, paramilitary groups were responsible for most of the deaths, while guerrilla groups like FARC were responsible for kidnappings.

This was done in three ways: first, FARC was positioned as the only actor responsible for the deaths, second, that FARC was depicted as the only illegal actor responsible for the death toll, and third, FARC was presented as being equally responsible for the deaths. 

The results have wider ramifications for journalism, memory and post-conflict situations. They show the employment of certainty and vagueness at the same time: certainty while discussing the number, and vagueness when discussing the actors responsible for the deaths. 

The authors argue that this combination can be misleading in the following peace negotiations as they show misleading account on the events, and call for comprehensive accuracy as a remedy to the problems of certainty and vagueness, rather than complete vagueness. One Semana article in the corpus fits this demand well. 

The study  “How journalists do memory work with numbers: The case of the 220,000 deaths during the Colombian conflict (1958–2012)” by Jose Ortega and Brendan Lawson is in Journalism. (open access).

Picture: Cocora Valley, Colombia. By Fernanda Fierro @0fernanda7

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