You might have noticed that Israel’s in the news a lot lately. You might have also noticed that there aren’t nearly as many stories about Africa as there were this time last year, in the aftermath of a G8 summit with a strong Africa focus. You may or may not consider this a problem. I do.
I got interested in media attention in 2000 when I started travelling regularly to Ghana where Geekcorps was launching new programs from the US. I tried to follow the news from Ghana while I was at home, and found it was almost impossible. Ghana’s succesful election in 2000 – where a peaceful, democratic election brought the opposition to power – got almost no coverage in American newspapers. I noticed, at the same time, that Israel, with roughly a third of Ghana’s population, received a great deal more media attention. Interest in what I believe is a global overfocus on Israel and the middle east as a whole led me to some of the more interesting research I’ve had the chance to do on patterns of media attention and, indirectly, to my work on Global Voices. (Yes, I’m aware that lots of my scripts on my media attention page aren’t working at present – I have high hopes of fixing some of them soon…)
That surge in media attention to Israel was connected to the beginning of the second Intifada, which began in September 2000. While the US response to the September 11th attacks brought a focus to Afghanistan and Iraq, the center of the international news coverage – in the US, at least – continues to be the Middle East. And, of course, the current Israel/Lebanon/Gaza conflict has put Israel back in the center of global media attention.
This makes sense, of course. The Middle East is the most conflict-ridden, tense, deadly part of the world, right?
Well, uh, no. Over the past decade, it’s difficult to challenge central Africa in terms of conflict, instability and (most tragically) death toll.
BBC reports the death toll from the second intifada at roughly 4000. Iraq Body Count offers an estimate of civilian deaths in Iraq between 39,000 and 43,000 – a study from Johns Hopkins projects a much larger number, 100,000 by October 2004. Marc Herold at UNH projects between 3 and 4,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan from October 2001 – June 2004. Military casualties include 407 coalition casualties in Afghanistan and 2,564 coalition deaths in Iraq. Using the JHU study’s controversial (but, in my opinion, highly defensible) calculation, the Middle East has seen at least 111,000 military and civilian casualites in the past decade.
A recent study in the Lancet projects 3.8 million deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo, using estimation techniques to compare death counts prior to and following the years of war in DRC. Estimates of deaths in Darfur begin as low as 70,000 and go up to 350,000. Ongoing conflicts in northern Uganda have displaced 1.6 million people and has a likely death rate that exceeds that of Iraq during the first months of the US invasion. In total, it’s likely that, over the past decade, at least forty times as many people have died directly or indirectly from violent conflict in central Africa as have died in the Middle East.
With forty times the violent death toll, you’d expect to hear a bit more about conflicts in central Africa – instead, Congo, Uganda and Sudan rank #1, #2, and #3 on Alertnet’s list of “forgotten emergencies.” Through hard work and advocacy by activists and journalists, many Americans have some awareness of the conflict in Darfur. But the deteriorating peace process in Sudan gets lots less attention than the details of the current Israeli incursion in Lebanon.
The other two conflicts almost never make the news, even when major developments occur. DR Congo will have elections on July 30th, a chance for the first democratically elected government in that unhappy nation since the assassination of Patrice Lumumba (allegedly with US and Belgian cooperation) and rise of Africa’s greatest kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko. The elections are difficult, fraught with infrastructure issues, political tensions, flares of violence and accusations of fraud. But they’ve merited 6,180 stories for “congo” on Google News over the past month, while “lebanon” yields 96,100 and “israel” yields 136,000.
There are lots of reasons why conflicts in the Middle East garner so much attention. Some are newsgathering factors – news happens where there are reporters to cover it. While many US newspapers are cutting overseas bureaus, most have maintained a major presence in the middle east, often in Baghdad and Jerusalem. And most don’t have bureaus in Kinshasa, Kisengani, or even Nairobi. Newspapers have finite staff resources, and the conflict in Lebanon is demanding the attention from those reporters, as Joe Strupp reports in a story for Editor and Publisher:
“It has totally hijacked our foreign coverage,” Ethan Bronner, deputy foreign editor at The New York Times, said about the new violence. “It is taking up an enormous percentage of our attention. It is not unlimited, what can do in the paper.”
The Times, which has sought to keep at least four staffers in Baghdad during the past 18 months, has been able to maintain that number during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict, Bronner said. But he said other reporters, from New York to Paris, have had to relocate to the Middle East to handle the new skirmishes.
Translation: even if the elections in Congo lead to widespread violent clashes, expect to hear about it only via African sources and international newswires. Papers like the Times simply aren’t going to be able to spare reporters to cover the story.
But there are other reasons as well – newspapers in the US are businesses. Their goal is to sell newspapers, which requires writing stories that people want to read. In 1965, Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge wrote a brilliant paper – “The Structure of Foreign News” – offering an excellent theoretical framework (and less convincing quantitative data) about what stories people pay attention to. Two of their observations are especially useful in considering the current coverage of the Lebanon crisis in contrast with situations in central Africa.
“F5: The more consonant the signal is with the mental image of what expects to find, the more probable that it will be recorded as worth listening to.”
Most newspaper readers can give you an opinion on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. This opinion may be well- or ill-informed, but it’s quite likely to be passionately held. For those who believe that Israel is protecting democracy in the Middle East against brutal terrorists, well, there’s evidence consistent with your mental image. For those who believe Israel is reacting disproportionately to provocation, exacerbating an ugly situation for political and ideological gains, there’s evidence consistent with that mental image as well. If you’re of a particular religious bent, you’ll find evidence consistent with your mental image that the world is heading towards armageddon.
By contrast, most people don’t have a clear mental image of what’s gone on in DRC, what caused Rwanda’s incursions into eastern DRC, the rise and fall of Laurent Kabila, the struggle for mineral resources, the regional involvement. I follow the situation pretty closely, and I can’t tell you who I’d like to see elected on the 30th or how I think a new government can best control rebel groups in the east, prevent corruption around extractive industries and integrate the east and west of the nation. Information comes in about the Congo elections – but without a mental image to incorporate it into, it’s just data, not a chapter in a story. It doesn’t provoke an emotional response of outrage or pride, it doesn’t confirm what you always believed to be true about one party or another.
Worse, it’s complicated and confusing. The situation in Congo is far from black and white – smart people don’t know who to root for, and are settling for rooting for elections to go peacefully and for things to get better. It’s complicated in Lebanon as well, but most people have an opinion on who’s right and who’s wrong. And this, in turn, makes it easier to process the news – Galtung and Ruge suggest, “the more clear and unambiguous the signal (the less noise there is), the more probable that it will be recorded as worth listening to.”
This helps explain why Congo has gotten less attention than the conflict in Darfur, or the conflict over a decade ago in Rwanda. Those conflicts – accurately or not – have been described in stark, black and white terms – evil people are killing innocent people… the sorts of terms Israel/Lebanon is often reduced to by partisans on one side or another. As the situation in Darfur gets more complicated, it may get less attention, because the story becomes harder to tell. As Lydia Polgren observes in today’s NYT Week in Review, “the greatest tragedy in Darfur may not be that it could become the next Rwanda. It is that it could easily become the next Congo.”
I mourn the deaths of everyone killed on both sides of the current conflict in the Middle East and I pray for a speedy end to the conflict, followed by negotiations that lead to progress, not a resumption of conflict. But I also pray that elections go smoothly in Congo, that they augur progress towards stability… and that somebody outside of Africa notices.
I believe that it is a responsibility of all global citizens to read the news, to discuss issues and to be knowledgeable about global events. But I wonder whether people are a bit too knowledgeable about the Middle East. That if we heard fewer opinions, less analysis, less constant rehashing of every event, we might view situations like the current conflict with new eyes and see different possible outcomes. Far be it from me to suggest that anyone stop reading the newspaper. Let me suggest an experiment instead:
When you read a story on the Israel/Lebanon conflict, assign yourself some homework: a story on the ongoing conflicts in northern Uganda, DRC or Sudan. You won’t find many on Google News – you’ll need to lean on AllAfrica.com or Global Voices. If you find yourself interested in the role of minerals in the DRC – critical to understanding the situation, IMHO – I recommend Global Witness’s reports on the region. You’ll likely find the news confusing, complicated, incomplete and unhelpful in forming your opinions about how Central Africa can move towards a peaceful future. And that, oddly enough, is a useful first step.
This post was inspired by a post earlier this week by Zimpundit, which I found compelling and challenging, though I don’t wholly agree with it. Thanks for making me think, ZP.