May 9, 2006

Why the media refuses to talk about Darfur

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an ongoing series on the crisis in Sudan.

Why are we seeing so little of Sudan in the media? Consider these headlines: “Two million Sudanese have died of war-related causes in the past 17 years. That’s more deaths than in Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone combined.” What about this: “This year Sudanese government planes have bombed U.N. relief aircraft on the ground.” How do these stories not merit coverage?

To be considered reportable material, events must occur in places journalists can access and must come from reliable and predictable sources. Distance, difficult environmental conditions, and practicalities like obtaining a visa have been impediments to reporting on Sudan for quite some time.

The news media, particularly in the U.S., are unwilling to devote resources to covering Africa because of our country’s general disinterest in the continent. As Kearsley Stewart, senior lecturer in anthropology at Northwestern University, points out, all we ever read about Africa pertains to famine, corruption, or war, and, hence, we don’t have a sense of Africa’s diverse culture and the way its people live. Unbalanced coverage affects people’s ability to identify with and feel compassion for the population’s suffering.

Since the news media are unwilling to spend money on overcoming these challenges, freelance journalists must often struggle on a paper-thin budget. Emily Wax of The Washington Post risked life and limb, sneaking across borders, carpooling with rebel leaders, and drinking mud-colored water to tell her story.

Apart from physical danger, complexity deters many journalists from reporting on a situation. A recent survey by the Fritz Institute of more than 500 journalists from around the world revealed that journalists shy away from complex stories because, finding them hard to understand, they cannot imagine how their readers would cope. Since the bureaucracy within today’s media conglomerates have blocked the channel of communication that once existed between journalists and media executives, even the most stubborn journalists are unable to report on less marketable situations.

There is no clear consensus about the nature of the conflict in Sudan. It is not a religious conflict of Muslims versus Christians, and by most expert accounts, not a racial conflict of blacks versus Arabs. While the conflict is often pinned as Arab versus non-Arab, this characterization is misleading. In the context of Darfur, most experts agree that the term “Arab” refers to nomadic-pastoralists, not ethnicity. Arab/non-Arab status is the basis for the mass killing and rapes taking place. The conflict seems to demand more orientation than the news media is willing to provide.

Orientation is determined by two components, relevance and uncertainty. If a situation has high relevance and low uncertainty, individuals will monitor the news media for new developments and occasionally seek additional background information. If a situation has both high relevance and high uncertainty, the need for orientation is high and individuals will actively monitor the news and seek out additional information. The deficiency of field journalists who can break down complexity and show relevance has been a cause of the public’s lack of interest in Sudan.

Because people cannot pay attention to everything, the news media draws the public’s attention to certain stories at the expense of others. The news media influences the salience of the topics in daily news through a variety of cues. Newspapers define the lead story and control headline size, while television news opens the newscast with a certain story and controls length of time devoted to the story. Repeating these cues day after day effectively communicates the importance of each topic. The news media can effectively set the agenda for the public’s attention.

Though many people are now finally aware that a genocide is taking place, most do not understand its underlying motivations. The media’s fear of losing the public’s attention is a basis for this gatekeeping. Perhaps this is why our University student newspaper has just recently begun discussing Sudan.

We cannot be dependent on the news media’s presentation of current affairs. We must conscientiously discriminate for important stories and be critical of the news media’s presentation. We must also be willing to seek out news from less popular sources like International Crisis Group or Africa Confidential, for example. If we are unwilling to be agents for our news, we run the risk of being receptacles.