Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Foreign correspondents in a simulated civil war

The following piece, contributed by Lisa Lynch of the Department of Journalism at Concordia University, describes how we have used students from her JOUR 422 (International Journalism) class as reporters in my annual week-long POLI 450 (Peacebuilding) simulation at McGill University. This year the experiment worked particularly well, and certainly enriched the entire simulation experience for my political science and international development students. Many thanks to Lisa and her crew for taking part!


How to respond when the President himself asks you to spike a story?

As World News Service, a (fictional) media outlet covering a conflict in (imaginary) Equatorial Cyberspace, prepared to file a story about the mining of the ‘conflict diamonds’ in the region, they received a brief and pleading email from the president of the war-torn country of Brynania.  Concerned that media coverage might skew negotiations underway to end such mining, President Foldy noted that “given the sensitive nature of the issue at the moment” he would appreciate WNS ”not pursue this story.”

The WNS editorial team took a moment to consider: was this a legitimate request, or the suppression of important and timely information?  Even as they grappled with the ethics of putting their investigation on hold, further crises competed for their attention: frontier skirmishes, back-room meetings, munitions deals, aid efforts, slave labor, even mass graves.  What should they cover?  What worked best as a radio piece?  What should go to broadcast?  Was there time to create a data visualization?  And was the leader of the Icasian guerilla movement deliberately avoiding them, or was he just in class with his smartphone turned off?

WNS was the second group of students of my International Journalism course at Concordia University to embed themselves within a peacebuilding simulation run by Rex Brynen at McGill University.  Playing the roles of reporters and editors at an international media outlet that had ‘parachuted’ in to Equatorial Cyberspace to cover an ongoing conflict, my students spent a grueling week being were lied to, manipulated (especially by Foldy), insulted, threatened, and, occasionally, praised by their readers.  They loved it.  And by participating in the simulation, they learned (and sometimes taught) important lessons about the role of journalism in facilitating or undermining the complex policy processes that unfold in the transition from war to peace.

Brynen’s peacebuilding simulation has been ongoing since 1998. After a semester studying the intricate machinations of post-conflict stabilization, his students spend a week as political figures, aid workers, and editors at domestic media outlets.  In their roles, they oversee (or subvert) negotiations to quell insurgents, secure borders, and ensure harmony in a series of neighboring countries Brynen has carefully brought to life through background lectures and maps.

In April of 2011 and 2013, the residents of Equatorial Cyberspace had one more twist to contend with in their peacemaking process: the attentive scrutiny of an international media outlet.  Thrown into a world comprised entirely of actors with specific agendas, my students took on the role of the “neutral, objective” media, guided by media ethics and perhaps also by commercial imperatives.

To some of my colleagues, my decision to embed journalism students in a political science simulation run by a different university seemed to be something of a folly: journalism students, one argued, didn’t need to play at being journalists in a fictional world when they could simply cover the world at hand.  For me, however, offering the simulation as a course option helped surmount what I found to by the central pedagogical challenge of class that needed to serve competing interests.  International Journalism is an undergraduate course consisting largely of journalism majors, with a handful of political science and communications majors and at least two exchange students each semester.  Journalism majors often take the class because they actually want to be foreign correspondents: though some change their mind as the semester goes on, others have spend their post-graduation years as freelancers abroad.  Non-majors, on the other hand, tend to be more critical and analytical in their approach, wanting to discuss the structural and economic conditions that produced flawed or limited coverage of global events.

The challenge of the JOUR 442, then, has been how to establish a balance between theory and practice, so that journalism students have a chance to ‘test’ what they have learned in the field while non-majors feel as if the class allows them to apply their analytical and research training to the course material.  This balancing acting is further complicated by timing and budgetary constraints.  While other journalism programs —  notably the graduate journalism program at the University of British Columbia —do offer opportunities for students to do international reporting, Concordia won’t have the resources to do this any time soon.

When I learned about the McGill peacebuilding simulation, I wondered if allowing journalism students to ‘report’ from within the sim would provide an opportunity to bridge the divide between theory and practice.  I contacted Rex, who was game for the experiment, and equally curious about how the presence of trained journalists might alter the dynamics within Equatorial Cyberspace.

We decided Concordia students would be briefed on Brynania, but arrive as outsiders to the conflict.  Like the McGill students who participated in the simulation, they would learned the progress of events within the sim through a digest of public email communications between all the actors – moderated by Rex himself – but also private communications from those who wanted to tip off WNS about stories.  In turn, they could contact any actor in the simulation directly.

Given the training of most of the students in the class, prompting students to set up a news outlet was fairly straightforward.  They would be instructed to organize as an editorial team that would produce a real-time online news site during the same hours the simulation operated.   Collectively, they would need to set up a schedule so that two of them were on duty at any given time – one who could serve as editor and one who could work as a reporter in the field.   They would also need to develop a name and “brand” for their news organization and design a website using WordPress that conveyed their brand identity.

Since only a select group of students in the class would have the training, interest, or availability to participate in the sim, I decided to offer the simulation as one option for the course term project, the other being a substantial research paper.  In 2011, the first year of the simulation, nine students decided to participate.  They created the Global News Network, or GNN, and used a combination of text stories and radio broadcasts to cover events.  Of the sixty stories produced, their strongest pieces included a series of editorials that took a stance on events within the simulation from an outsider’s perspective, sometimes drawing on analogies with real-world events for inspiration.  Some stories — including one on the discovery of mass graves in an unexpected location — were less successful, as students discovered how errors made while reporting can have a serious impact on the credibility of a controversial story.

Overall, the first iteration was a success, as students expressed that the weeklong experience really transformed their understanding of the course material.  The stories they found themselves writing resonated strongly with the examples of international conflict and disaster reporting they’d discussed throughout the semester, alternately affirming and challenging the observations they had made about the practice of international journalism. They did, however, feel as if they were a bit too much on the outside of the simulation: they had to work harder than they’d imagined to convince the other actors within the simulation that it was important to respond to their interview queries or engage with their finished stories.  In the end, they felt, their primary interlocutors were less the political actors or aid groups than the domestic media outlets who championed or protested GNN’s reporting according to their only political agenda.

During the post-simulation debrief, Rex informed them that their feeling of marginalization was more perception than reality; behind the scenes, in meetings and conversations they were not privy to, GNN was an important part of the simulation conversation: their reporting had real consequences inside the simulation, prompting actors to shift positions and policy as they worked to broker a fragile peace in the war-torn region.

Given this feedback from my students, however, Rex and I made an effort to further integrate the McGill students with Concordia students during the 2013 simulation.  This second group (Word News Service, again comprised of 8 students) was invited to attend a UN Security Council meeting on the first day of the simulation so that they meet some of the key players in the simulation.  This created a different dynamic from the beginning, with Concordia participants feeling like they were more integrated into the simulation as a whole.  Perhaps equally important, the members of World News Service functioned more effectively as a unit than the first group, producing nearly 90 stories and a far more elaborate site which combined radio, text, simulated television broadcast, and information graphics.

As the week progressed, World News Service had far more direct contact with the inhabitant of Equatorial Cyberspace than Global News Network.  Interestingly, this meant that they may have been more cleverly manipulated by some of the more Machiavellian actors within the simulation; during the debrief, they ruefully acknowledged being ‘played’ by Brynanian President Foldy on a number of occasions.  On the other hand, their integration within the sim was far more seamless, to the point where their news copy functioned as information currency within the simulation; 60 of their stories were retweeted by other actors, and select information from stories was also circulated via email (often, as my students ruefully noted, without attribution).  And while GNS had a difficult time getting NGOs to communicate with them, NGOs went out of their way to urge WNS to cover events within the sim.

This increased attention to the WNS site did not come without consequences, however.  A story on diamond mining, illustrated with a questionable stock photograph of a buxom model in a diamond necklace, provoked the ire of a McGill student within the simulation who called it sexist and demanded that it be removed from the site.  The demand produced an interesting conundrum: was the request made from inside or outside of the simulation?  The student — a rebel leader — said it was made from outside the simulation.  In the end, WNS decided that the image needed to remain, though the editor in question agreed to ‘step down’ from his post: the rebel leader cut off communication.  Afterwards, the journalism students wondered whether the controversy affected the news organization’s credibility during the final day of the simulation, or whether the blowback from the image reflected the waning importance of the media as the conflict came to resolution.

Indeed, the most challenging moment for WNS came at the very end of the simulation, when — given the course of the final round of negotiations — the presence of the media was no longer seen as strategically useful to the actors within the simulation.  Having had such an impact in the previous days, my students felt the loss of access and influence keenly.  Their frustration with the end-stage negotiations left me wondering at first whether to better prepare the next group of “embeds” for what they might experience on their final day of reporting. On the other hand, like many of the experiences within the simulation, that moment was perhaps more ‘real’ than my students might yet realized: the frustration journalists feel when the story marches on without them, and they understand that they will always be outside of the course of events.

Embracing that necessary — if sometimes painful — outsider status is key to surviving as a journalist, especially a journalist working abroad.  For that reason, bringing Concordia students into the McGill simulation was perhaps even more effective than Rex and I anticipated, as it reproduced for my students the real-world mileu of reporters isolated in a conflict region, reluctantly beholden to a group of untrustworthy antagonists who, in turn, are reluctantly beholden to them.  After a semester spent studying international reporting from the outside, I couldn’t imagine a better pedagogical outcome for a group of aspiring journalists.

WNS by the Numbers (by WNS staff)

  • Days spent covering fake civil war: 7
  • Hours active: 73
  • Staff: 8
  • Stories published: 89 (per hour: 1.2)
  • WNS Stories Re-Tweeted: 60 instances
  • Twitter followers: 61 (compared to CONTROL: 81)
  • Tweets tweeted: 361 (per hour: 5)
  • Emails received: 878 (per hour: 12 = one email every 5 minutes)
  • Emails sent: 292 (per hour: 4)
  • Total page views: 3,271 (per hour: 45)
  • Most viewed article: “The Month in Review for May” (80 views)
  • Least viewed article: “MdsmYUFuPh5KlS3dukVYkTjG96b02auPvMQA9jLx-LM,hHAz_4eh52GUSBKW81oc_bWYMu11Eng8t6BZ4knUECA” (A.K.A, a picture of the U.S. Ambassador: 1 view)
  • Unique visitors: (min in a day: 71 | max in a day: 212)
  • Actors in Sim: 123 (non-sim visitors: 89)
  • Times booted out of UN meetings: 3 (UN meetings attended: 5 = 60% booting ratio)
  • Money accrued, despite rules saying we couldn’t get money: $2,000
  • Major scandals broken: 5
  • Enemies made: 4-5 (debatable)
  • People annoyed: [does not compute]
  • Times made fun of: come on, it’s McGill, and we’re Concordia J-School
  • Times #professionalnews used against us: 4 (counting #professionaljournalism)
  • Times original coverage cited without link or reference: ha.ha.ha.ha.
  • Photos grossly manipulated: 2
  • “Sexist” article titles: 1 (thanks for ruining our sterling reputation, Jacob)
  • Coffees consumed: ∞
  • Chimichangas consumed: 1.8 (which is 1.8 too many)
  • Beers drank: far too few

My students were surprised, as well, to learn that the audience for their work was broader than the 120-plus actors within the simulation: a globally-dispersed group of Brynen’s ex-students, themselves alumni of the sim, followed the action by visiting the WNS site or following WNS on Twitter.

Lisa Lynch, Concordia University 

7 responses to “Foreign correspondents in a simulated civil war

  1. Rex Brynen 06/12/2015 at 10:05 pm

    Feel free to drop me an email:rex.brynen (at)

  2. Orly Halpern 06/12/2015 at 6:35 pm

    This is fascinating! I’m teaching a course on conflict reporting and would love to get in touch with you, Rex!

  3. President Foldy 07/08/2013 at 12:42 pm

    I’ve been painting dogs. Lots of dogs.

  4. Rex Brynen 07/08/2013 at 12:38 pm

    Oh, are we at that point now where an ex-President begins to cultivate the media and reframe their image, prior to a planned political come-back?

  5. President Foldy 07/08/2013 at 12:23 pm

    Literally everyone I’ve ever spoken to from the sim thinks that I conned and played them. I managed the media presence the same way I learned from advisors on actual political campaigns- access when it helps you (I leaked three months of internal correspondence to the WNS), diversions when you don’t. I found the WNS folks to be professional and capable both in person and in correspondence. Hope they don’t hold too much of a grudge.

  6. Sameer Chauhan 07/08/2013 at 12:15 pm

    A wonderful idea. Synergy personified. I learnt a lot from this read. Thanks

  7. J Wells (@introtoir) 07/08/2013 at 11:58 am

    That is a great idea to bring in the journalism students. I had one student a few semesters ago who was an aspiring writer, so instead of giving her a leadership role I had her act as the lone reporter and keep a blog. She ended up getting university credit for her creative use of technology, and there is a (albeit limited) record of the simulation, so it worked out all around. It was also interesting to see her fighting the major powers for one story while the weaker groups were clamoring for her attention.

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