Michael Gleich is changing the practice of journalism by introducing new models of researching and reporting into mainstream media. Working with journalists, journalism schools, and media decision makers in Germany and abroad, Michael is changing the common perception that negative news and violence “sells,” proving that journalism can be a positive force for social change.
The New Idea
Michael shows journalists and the world, that peace, social change, and diversity represent good news fit to print. He does not believe in the paradigm that only catastrophes, death, and war stories attract readers, but rather encourages media to run stories about solutions, and trains journalists in conflict areas in the developing world, like Sri Lanka or Colombia, but also in Germany, to shift from sensationalist to what he calls “constructive” journalism with a focus on solutions. By building networks between journalists, universities, and local organizations, Michael collects stories about social transformation and overcoming “otherness” from around the globe, especially from war-torn regions, that illustrate how individuals and citizen organizations (COs) initiate change. Skillfully incentivizing radio, TV stations, and newspapers, he distributes this news through mainstream media outlets, both in Germany and areas of conflict in the developing world, allowing editors to learn from experience that positive, solution oriented news attracts an audience. Building the only international media project for peace journalism, he works with a network of partners to train journalists in conflict areas with investigative research skills and the know-how to locate and understand positive social change. Journalists build their own networks and learn to successfully cover peace and reconciliation processes in their surroundings—making these stories tangible, interesting, and empowering for readers. To increase leverage, Michael works on several levels: He is expanding his organization, Peace Counts, to shape and change curricula in journalism schools, both abroad and in Germany. He also organizes exhibitions, round tables, and seminars with opinion makers to make his stories palpable. Finally, he “feeds” his materials and teaching modules into national schools, presents young people with positive role models, showcases the power of citizens as social change agents, and trains them to scrutinize the media. Michael ultimately changes how media works by making journalists understand their own power as agents of change, and also influences societal opinion by featuring positive news. He has another project, Culture Counts, in Germany, that is similar to Peace Counts but the focus is closer to home—reporting on successful solutions to race, class, and gender conflicts.
From personal experience, Michael understood that journalists perceive themselves less and less as a democratic force in society, and more as part of an industry that produces sensational stories. An overwhelming amount of mainstream news coverage focuses on social problems, especially crime and war, natural disasters, ethnic conflict, and environmental destruction. This is what journalism students learn and what editors demand. Reporting is primarily event and problem focused instead of process and solution oriented. Peacemaking and social change are not often researched and written about because of the widespread belief that only disasters and catastrophes attract readers, and because research is time consuming and expensive for a media outlet.
Journalists are often unaware of their role and of the consequences of their work. In journalism school, they learn that sensational news matters most, and are taught to have journalistic objectivity, which leads them to become observers—not initiators. The impact of this style of reporting on public opinion is important, especially in conflict areas where democracy and the citizen sector are weak, but also in Germany, where readers have been convinced that negative stories are what matter.
Social change phenomena are addressed by academics, but their writing is scientific, and language and content are targeted at a small academic audiences and not the public. When mainstream media does feature positive examples of social change, the stories are typically drawn from the past and focus on internationally known heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. This removes the reader from the realm of the ordinary.
Deeply convinced that the people celebrating German reunification on the remnants of the Berlin Wall were a much stronger symbol and factor for the end of the Cold War than nuclear weapons, Michael built Peace Counts—a network of hand-picked journalists known for their excellence and ability to uncover positive social changes where you would least expect around the world.
These stories focus on the role people play in peace and change processes and are fascinating to read: They offer a detailed look at an individual changemaker and his or her vision, the obstacles he/she confronted, and the strategies he/she deployed to overcome them. The stories cover the process over time and detail the how-tos, including who had to talk with whom to move things forward, or what tools and methodologies proved to be successful and why. They describe how people can overcome barriers with others.
During the research and reporting process, Michael works with social scientists and academic experts, such as the International Center for Conversion or the renowned Institute for Peace Education in Tübingen, because he receives more credibility and convinces editors later more easily when he has professors conveying their authority to the stories and backing them with research findings. The win-win for the professors and institutions is that Peace Counts transports their findings to mass media and a broader audience. Stories from countries as diverse as Colombia, South Africa, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, Uganda, Cyprus, or the Balkans, are presented on Michael’s Peace Counts website, and are fed into mainstream media in Germany.
Michael convinces publishers to enter a media partnership with him because he offers academic authority (important in Germany) and because the research, pictures, films, and texts, he and his colleagues produce are of superb quality to editors. Thanks to the support from foundations or selected business partners—who are not allowed to influence content—Michael can afford to equip his Peace Counts reporters with time, good budgets, and all the tools they need to get the best footage and data. Publishers realize immediately that the production of this material—complete with images, statistics, graphical elements, and so on—would have far exceeded their budgets and that they would not have gotten the story—it’s a “scoop”. So they grant Michael prominent room in their outlets—TV, radio, and newspaper—for news they would normally never bring: Positive social change stories, without incurring the costs.
Once granted, the editors realize the positive effect of these news stories: Contrary to what they may have expected, Michael’s peace stories trigger an overwhelming positive response from readers, that can be measured in webpage clicks and the number of magazines/papers sold. With this incentive, editors start to see that positive stories can be an important tool to gain and retain readers or viewers. Michael has reached 35 million readers through mainstream newspapers and magazines from Die Zeit to Frankfurter Rundschau, TV, and radio stations. He recently created an 18-part series on local social change agents for the largest German news radio station, WDR, and feeds his news into Bahn TV—a channel watched by the masses while travelling on public trains.
Michael finances Peace Counts research projects through foundations and select businesses. Their incentive is to be portrayed as peace promoters and they help underline Michael’s claim that contrary to public opinion, it is far more economical for companies to support peace and not war. All reporting is protected from influence by financial contributors.
While entering mainstream media in Germany, Michael also feeds the findings back to the countries where they were taken: With “Peace Counts on Tour,” he started the first international network for peace and social change promotion by journalists for journalists. He takes his superb quality stories, images, and data back to the conflict regions where they originated, and shows a photo exhibit, gives a press conference, and manages trainings and workshops for journalists, editors, and decision makers. To do this, he partners with mainly German and international organizations with local partners who agree to locate and recruit reporters and to provide space for his workshops.
The impact on local journalists—who often travel to Michael’s workshops under life-threatening conditions—is enormous because the examples he uses are from their country. Often journalists are initially skeptical about the very existence of change agents in their society, but the fact that Michael uses examples from their country—his database covers thirty countries—helps him convince participants. Sometimes peacemakers are present at the workshops. Journalists begin to feel that peace is possible. To date, Michael has trained 150 journalists.
To strengthen the effects of his workshops on journalists, Michael and his partners link the participants between the countries (e.g. Sri Lanka with Macedonia) for exchange and mutual learning. Hence, a network starts to emerge. In Ivory Cote, journalists who participated in Peace Counts on Tour have now started their own national Peace Counts network and will systematically identify and report on local changemakers.
Michael feels that there is a unique opportunity to be seized for Peace Counts on Tour. He has discovered that since the start of the war in Iraq, demand for American and British journalism training programs, which have long dominated the international market, has fallen noticeably. He believes that his program can begin to fill this gap if he can quickly scale his training programs. He is therefore laying the groundwork for a more permanent journalism training academy. He will identify local partners to host these academies, is raising funds for his expansion, and has managed to attract numerous sources, including the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In addition to workshops and trainings where journalists learn about how much they can contribute to deescalating conflicts, Peace Counts holds press conferences in the region and spreads peace stories through local media outlets in areas of conflict. Michael again provides his library with up-to-date positive social change stories to local radios, newspapers, and TV channels. He and his associates tour media outlets and equip them with ready-made materials. Michael’s experience has taught him that radio is an especially important medium in conflict regions, and he tailors his outreach and training accordingly.
To support his movement to create positive news, Michael has started to work with journalism schools in Germany to reform curricula, to teach research methodology, and to expose students early to the idea of the reporter as change agent. He has listed the support of the renowned Institute for Peace Education in Tübingen to help bring his findings into national schools (Peace Counts in School). They run exhibits and workshops for students by beginning with images and stories of peace from across the world. They find it much more relevant to hear about a former IRA terrorist turned pacifist with whom they can talk, than to hear about historical peace heroes. The exhibitions and the teaching material encourage students to scrutinize media and understand the powerful role of the media in society.
In order to reach opinion makers in Germany, both in the media industry and in politics, Michael invites his role models to Germany for lectures, round tables, and exhibitions.
Michael recently launched a new initiative, Culture Counts, which broadens the focus of Peace Counts and brings it closer to home for a German audience: It considers peace as not just the absence of war, but in terms of overcoming “otherness,” showcasing successful examples where people solve a problem by moving beyond the boundaries of gender, race, or class. The Culture Counts website will be 2.0 based, enabling citizens to upload content, and will feature interactive dialogues.
Michael’s youth was characterized by poverty and brutality, though he came to realize that life was beautiful because he got support from teachers. Together with his biology teacher and classmates, he was active in the environmental movement, and managed to prevent a highway from being built through a natural park. He says this that is when he realized—at the age of sixteen—that a human being can make a difference. He wanted to join the Army, but changed his mind when he realized he would have been perpetuating his history of violence. He became a conscientious objector, (military service is obligatory in Germany), opting for civil service with a German environmental group.
By then the important building blocks of his life were together: A passion for the environment, a drive against violence, and a desire to help empower others.
In college, Michael and a few friends founded a small press company that specialized in creating and placing stories about environmental conservation. He already ran counter to mainstream environmental news and campaigns that focused on what went wrong. At twenty-seven, Michael won a scholarship, as a reporter, to visit and report on the developing country of his choice. He chose Somalia, and was there at the start of the civil war. He visited and reported on all twenty-two existing German-led development projects in the country, and found that many were poorly managed and dysfunctional. He returned to Germany with comprehensive material about development and social change, but was dismayed to find relatively little interest among editors. In subsequent years, he spent a great deal of time as a reporter in war-torn regions, and observed that the men and women who were doing the most to create and sustain peace were largely unrepresented in the media, both locally and globally. He resolved to change this pattern.
In preparation for the Millennium in 1999, he initiated his first project, Life Counts, to sensitize people about endangered species. Rather than portray how yet another tiger is killed, he enlisted COs, research institutes, companies, and UNEP in a movement to count every species on earth. They all participated and came up with fascinating stories and numbers, and also pragmatic ideas about how people could contribute to keep these species alive. Michael describes Life Counts as his first adventure in “thinking big” and overcoming sector divides by including business, public institutions, academia, and media. He secured over a million Euros from Aventis, a European pharmaceutical company with an interest in biodiversity, and contracted the scientists at the World Conservation Monitoring Center to do the research work. He and his journalist colleagues synthesized the stories and convinced UNEP to market the book. Life Counts became a bestseller in Germany and has been translated into English, Spanish, and Chinese. Michael also created a traveling exhibition, designed to raise money for conservation groups.
Shortly after, Michael founded Peace Counts in 2003.