Thursday, 23 November 2006

Media on Darfur: Detached and Dehumanised?

This originally ran on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 23 November 2006.

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I met with a few well-placed Darfurians a couple days ago and asked them what they thought about the international media coverage of the ongoing conflict and crisis in their homeland. There was some downbeat head-shaking all around.

One said that there simply wasn't enough coverage of Darfur, but his colleague clarified this sentiment, saying while news coverage and ad campaigns had raised the overall profile of the crisis in the West, not enough attention was given to the conflict between the government and government-sponsored forces on one hand, and rebel groups on the other. There was very little information in the mass media about the latest developments in the fighting and even less understanding of what the fighting was about.

As for the western coverage of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, they said, it was being done in such a way as to separate the viewer/reader from the subject -- which is, after all, very real and very extreme human suffering. TV news packages are dehumanising the victims by making them seem like actors in a film. It is all packaged to create a certain response in the audience, who can say their "oh dear, how terrible" and then move on to the next story.

I think to some extent this is not an uncommon reaction: most people who are very close to those suffering a tragedy will feel this way about how the media present their crisis. But on the other hand, they have a point here that is especially true about Darfur coverage on Western television, which has now been reporting generally the same story in mostly the same way for two and a half years: with a few notable exceptions, of course, it has been stock footage of the janjaweed militias and burnt-out villages, followed by interviews in the IDP and refugee camps, and then, maybe, one or two words about the AU mission.

The number of TV news and documentary packages that have deviated from this approach over the past 30 months or so I can count on the fingers of one hand. The BBC's Karen Allen, for example, did a better job of it about two months ago with some reporting that managed to get beyond the common frame, trying to outline the fighting and explain the direction the international community was headed on this.

But for the most part, there's been very little on TV and too little in the print media that deals with the conflict aspect of this crisis and what can be done about it. We get some headline coverage every two or three months that a peace agreement has been reached between the warring parties, a UN resolution has been passed, or a deal has been made between Khartoum and the UN -- just enough to make the average viewer/reader feel it's safe to turn away. But when that ceasefire is broken, the resolution runs into trouble, or Sudanese ministers reject a deal -- that news is almost universally ignored by the very same mass media.

This kind of selective detachment from the dynamics of the conflict is exactly the opposite of what you might expect, given the media are usually quick to report bad news and slow to cover the good. What's going on here?

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