Both the privately-owned press in the global North and the state-owned press in the global South let the people of Darfur down. When there was coverage of their plight, the news was distorted by four lenses: current national interest of the state in which the organization is located, the state’s historical solidarity with Sudan, ownership of the news organization, and the intended audience.
Foreign news is arguably the only means of global public education. The provision of timely and comprehensive information is crucial. The Geopolitics of Representation in Foreign News (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010) investigates if, when, and how the world’s press spoke “truth to power” about Darfur, Sudan. The book compares data on reporting by ten news organizations in seven countries from both the global North and South over 26 months: when, how, and how well was Darfur covered?
In February 2003, Darfur’s resentment of Khartoum’s fifty years of neglect burst out into the open. No news organization had reported on persistent prior demands for local economic development that might have prevented this imminent explosion. When did the press alert the world after the uprising? The websites of the BBC and the Arabic-language Al-Ahram in Egypt reported on the rebellion within a month. Al-Jazeera’s English-language website covered it two months later. With staff employed in the oil and weapons industry in Sudan, China’s party press had access to local information but covered it only in its English-language China Daily for foreign readers and this too, only six months later. Reputed for its reporting against apartheid but strapped for funds, the South African Mail & Guardian Online used available news agency accounts to report on the struggle, but only nine months into the conflict. The Western press covered Darfur in January 2004, only after nearly 300,000 Darfuris were massacred from December 2003 into January 2004—eleven months after the initial uprising. The party-controlled People’s Daily allowed its domestic readership to know of the rebellion only in March 2004, when Chinese labourers in Sudan were kidnapped by one of the rebel groups thirteen months into the conflict.
The lack of explanation of causes is a longstanding complaint against journalism. In the era of unparalleled news supply, there were few articles that predominantly focused on causes, limiting the possibility of problem prevention. Regional inequity was mentioned most often as a cause in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Al-Jazeera’s English-language website, while ethnicity and race were discussed most often in the press of Europe’s former colonizers (BBC.co.uk, Le Monde) and in the Mail & Guardian Online from the former apartheid state of South Africa. China’s state press and France’s Le Monde focused on remedies.
A comparison of the timeliness and comprehensiveness of genocide reporting in Darfur by ten news organizations (print and online, for foreign and domestic audiences, state and privately owned) over 26 months found only three organizations received a grade of 65 percent or higher: the Washington Post, the BBC, and South Africa’s Mail & Guardian Online. Going beyond frequently asked questions about a business model for printed news in the internet era, this book begs the question: how should both print and online news organizations be owned, financed, and operated if they are to provide universal public education on human rights and social justice in a more timely and comprehensive manner?
By Professor Bella Mody, de Castro Chair in Global Media, University of Colorado http://spot.colorado.edu/~mody