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Why we pay attention to Darfur

I’d hoped that spending three weeks offline would be a great time for ideas to ferment, much as they do when I’m on vacation. Turns out that this healing thing is harder work than I’d anticipated. Rather than a wealth of insights to write about, I’ve mostly got a backlog of unanswered research questions that I wish I’d been able to research. That, and a new addiction to episodic dramas produced by HBO.

One of the questions I’ve wanted an answer to for some time is how the community focused on Darfur has managed to attract so much attention to their cause. While the situation in Darfur is dramatic and dire, there are a number of other situations on the African continent that demand attention and, generally, receive a small fraction of the attention paid to Darfur. Medicines Sans Frontieres publishes an annual list of stories they feel are underreported, including situations in Somalia, eastern DRC and the Central African Republic. (I wrote at some length on the topic of “underreporting” and these top-ten lists some months earlier.)

My interest in this question about Darfur isn’t because I want to wag a finger at the Darfur movement, but because I hope other movements can learn from it. There aren’t a ton of examples of situations where a large number of Americans have become passionately interested in political and security situations in developing nations without a strong indicator that the US might become militarily involved in those countries. (In other words, Iraq doesn’t count.) Tibet and Darfur are the main ones that come to mind. And while Tibet has been a celebrity cause du jour for years now (and benefits from the substantial charisma and media savvy of the Dalai Lama), interest in Darfur has developed quite rapidly and may have preceded mainstream media coverage of the issue.

(On the to do list is some searching through blog search engines, Lexis/Nexis and the NYTimes site to see when Nicholas Kristof picked up on the issue, in comparison to early blogs like Passion of the Present. A quick bit of research suggests that Kristof wrote his first major piece on Darfur in March 2004, titled “Ethnic Cleansing, Again“. Passion of the Present began publishing in March 2004 as well. I just glanced back at the personal blogs of Jim Moore (a former Berkman colleague) and Ingrid Jones, two bloggers who’ve been passionate and vocal on this issue since early 2004, and wasn’t able to find references before March 2004. Please send links if I’ve got this wrong – it would be very interesting to see a blog conversation about Darfur preceding Kristof’s article. (For what it’s worth, the earliest refernce I found on my own blog is February 4, 2004. And that post refers to BBC coverage, suggesting that it’s an instance of the blogger – me – following the mainstream media.))

One of the core arguments I’ve been making about media attention and the developing world is that it’s difficult to expect people in the developed world to choose to read about stories in the developing world unless someone makes the case that a particular story has relevance for that individual. It’s hard to discover these stories unless either someone in authority (a newspaper editor, a television anchor) leads you to the story, or unless your peer group leads you to it… in which case the homophily problem kicks in. Even if led to the story, it can be very difficult to connect with it – something Joi Ito has refered to as “the caring problem“. The Darfur story is an intriguing exception to these generalizations, and is worth studying as such.

Fortunately, that study is taking place. Charlie Beckett at the London School of Economics POLIS thinktank announced earlier this month that their center will study the emergence of the Darfur story in depth. He’s invited readers to offer their own theories – Rob Crilly, an excellent freelance journalist based in Nairobi, has weighed in with a compelling case:

The roots lie in the civil war of the south, when evangelical Christians from America found it easy to identify with a largely Christian population in the south pitted agains a Muslim, arab government in the north.

They carried their activity across to Darfur, bringing it the attention of many people who wouldn’t otherwise be aware of Sudan’s problems. But it has also attracted a bizarre mishmash of often conservative, religious groupings in an anti-Khartoum alliance.

Their black and white analysis has generally done more harm than good, and has sucked in people with a liberal viewpoint – including many of my esteemed colleagues in the press, who have a romantic notion that rebels are always the good guys.

I’ll be very interested to read the POLIS study and see whether they concur with Crilly’s analysis. I’ll also be interested to see whether there was activist media leading authors like Kristof to the story, or whether the movement picked up with mainstream media recognition and legitimation.

18 thoughts on “Why we pay attention to Darfur”

  1. I just finished reading THE TRANSLATOR a book written by Daoud Hari a darfurian immigrant. Before Daoud came to US, he used to work as a translator for some news company including –BBC, New York Time etc.

    The more American politicians talk about problem the more ordinary people focused or try to learn about the problem. The more politician talked about the problem, the more media cover. vise-versa .

    I have met a lot of South Sudan refuge in Boston and US —but I haven’t meet any Darfur refuge yet you are right Darfur get a media coverage. Interesting

  2. The other point I would make is that there are few analysts who might offer a corrective to the black-and-white analysis that has proved so compelling. The Oxfams and Cares of this world have thousands of staff in Darfur but are silenced by a government in Khartoum that threatens organisations with expulsion if they stray from purely humanitarian work into the political (although we can debate the distinction another time).

    Off the record conversations with aid workers who actually see what is happening in Darfur give a much more nuanced, complex and muddy picture of the conflict. Talk to them about rebels using civilians as human shields or rebel commanders hijacking aid vehicles and it becomes more difficult to paint the conflict as good guys against bad guys.

    Once those factors are taken into account it becomes more like those other messy conflicts in Africa – northern Uganda, Ogaden, Somalia, DRC – which so often drop off the media radar.

  3. I am a reporter for the public radio program PRI’s The World. The first story I did on Darfur ran on December 18, 2003. It quoted UN officials Jan Egeland (then Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs) and Mukesh Kapila (then the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan)who were at the time becoming increasingly concerned about reports of atrocities in Darfur. Egeland spoke at the time about how difficult it was to raise awareness about Darfur because the news media was so focused on Iraq. I found out about Darfur by reading the email bulletins of Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College and activist on Sudan issues. I remember how coverage in the U.S. began to grow in early 2004 especially after the BBC quoted Mukesh Kapila likening Darfur to Rwanda and prominent journalists like Nicholas Kristof began travelling to the region. April 2004 was the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide so there was lots of talk of “never again” which gave a boost to the coverage as well. Ken Bacon of Refugees International wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review a few years ago looking at who had covered Darfur and why and what sort of traction the story got. I remember at the time feeling as if the story were slow to get off the ground. But it’s interesting in retrospect to see just how much coverage it’s received compared to other conflicts. I’m really intrigued to see the results of this study on how the story emerged.

  4. Jeb, thanks for weighing in. I think tracking Professor Reeves’s work may prove to be one of the better ways to analyze the “Darfur meme” – archives of his work at http://www.sudanreeves.org/Page-2.html show intense focus on Sudan from 2000 and extensive writing on the topic. I’d be very interested in going through his back writing and figuring out when his focus shifted from the South to the West of Sudan.

  5. Maybe on the surface the Dafour story is very easy for people to comprehend. People like a picture of a staving African. They are like the fact that there is a right and wrong. And they can easily feel better about it by sending a cheque to the charity of thier choice.

    The real question about Dafour, is who has reported the real story. The real complexities of the of what has happened there.

    If you use the Herman C Hesse model of African reporting. The first story on the MSF list does not contain starving African babies. The second story no journalists can get access to Zim. The tuberculosis story again no mass starving babies.

    If you go through the lists the stories that break have one thing in common a high concentration of starving babies in one easy place for journalists to get to.

    It used to be that the news orginsations led the news agenda. Now we have a situation where the ngo’s lead… Is that good? African reporting has become part of the marketing arm of the NGO’s!

  6. well I just think about it. when ever this is a Chinese government envelopment —you get good media coverage.(example sudan, venezuela etc) so in-order to get the media coverage we should also try to highlight the business Chinese government caring on in Somalia , Uganda, Ethiopia etc.

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  9. I honestly still don’t think people are paying attention. To any of these places. I recently started my own organization to raise awareness and what I found when I talked to people is that most of them have no idea anything is happening in Africa. On the rare occurences that Africa is in the news, people tune out. It’s overwhelming and it’s always been a problem. I’m trying to bring awareness to them in an easier and less dramatic way and hope that I can cover Darfur, Uganda and the DRC in a one-stop-shop. let me know whatever i can do to help!
    Be Aware | Know Their Stories | Send Their Message

  10. Once those factors are taken into account it becomes more like those other messy conflicts in Africa – northern Uganda, Ogaden, Somalia, DRC – which so often drop off the media radar.

  11. While the situation in Darfur is dramatic and dire, there are a number of other situations on the African continent that demand attention and, generally, receive a small fraction of the attention paid to Darfur

  12. hi good thank you On the rare occurences that Africa is in the news, people tune out. It?s overwhelming and it?s always been a problem

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