Journalist Maggie Fick is covering South Sudan’s self-determination referendum for the AP. She’s only one of hundreds of other reporters who have set up camp, for what The New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman described earlier this week as “Africa’s big divorce.” (Yes, he did.) Not surprisingly, the bulk of “foreign correspondent” reporting on the January 2011 referendum follows the template of “war,” “tensions,” “flashpoint” and “pending genocide” against southerners living in the north. The focus is on the disputed border between the north and the south over who could control oil resources. The other major theme is the aforementioned genocide. Informed comment suggests such obsessions are not very useful or insightful. Fick, who used to work for the Enough Project (an organization known for hyperbole), has also done this kind of reporting, but to her credit she recently wrote this about her profession on her blog (it is worth quoting at length):
If you’ve read any news articles lately about Southern Sudan’s upcoming self-determination referendum and are basing your opinion on where Sudan is headed in the immediate future solely on this information, you would be hard pressed not to have a quite negative outlook … [The coverage] illustrate[s] the tendency—rather, modus operandi—of the international media coverage of Sudan to highlight the worst case scenarios surrounding the key upcoming events instead of the best possible outcomes. Since I’m a member of this media corps, I can affirm that this is the case. My short experience to date as a journalist has taught me that—surprise!—editors do not think a story with a headline to the effect of “All looks set to go smoothly in Southern Sudan’s crucial independence vote” is newsworthy. Instead, a headline to the effect of “tensions rising,” “concern mounting,” and the like is what editors want to read, because they know it is what readers online around the globe will be likely to click on as they skim the news.
One question I struggle with is, is it better to have this “worst case scenario” news coverage of Sudan, or very little coverage at all? Or perhaps a more important question is, is it possible for the media to accept a narrative that is not about doom and gloom when covering a country that has experienced a great deal of conflict and suffering throughout its independent history? Or is it the role of the media to highlight the worst possible outcomes of a contentious, politicized event such as a self-determination referendum in order to encourage “action” to prevent such outcomes? Where does media coverage end and advocacy and activism begin in the age of constant online information exchange?
The Carter Center’s recent statement on Sudan’s two referenda processes offers a fair and merited critique of the media for contributing to an already negative environment as the referenda approach. The statement acknowledges the role of the two Sudanese parties to the 2005 peace deal in making inflammatory statements. However, it rightly chastises the media for furthering the reach of these statements through coverage that focuses on the most aggressive rhetoric by Khartoum and Juba instead of the more balanced assurances issued by certain officials from both sides—including the southern Sudanese president himself.
Journalists writing on Sudan from Juba to Johannesburg to New York could do well to consider the Carter Center’s critique; I’m trying personally trying to take it to heart in my own reporting in the coming weeks and months on the January referenda.
Thought journalists have been reluctant to publicly engage with Fick’s blog post linked above, at least The Christian Science Monitor’s Africa Monitor blog reposted it unchanged. That led to journalist Rob Crilly, who has written about Sudan before, to raise some heckles about Fick’s mea culpa and Fick also posted a follow-up post on her blog.
The image, unrelated to the original Fick post, is by Pete Muller (See his photo blog from Juba.)
Via Texas in Africa