Thursday, 7 June 2007

Darfur: Unhelpful Media Diversions

This appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog and was crossposted on the Globe for Darfur group blog, on 7 June 2007.

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Over the past few months, some media attention on Darfur has shifted away from the issue itself and on to the activist movement and its cast of characters. At the risk of navel-gazing, it seems worth a quick summary, because it leads, hopefully, to some lessons for all of us in the NGO sector.

The problem first seemed to develop -- at least from my European perspective -- in France, where Darfur activists and intellectuals trying to capture public attention with their pet proposals in the midst of a heated presidential campaign spent weeks attacking each other in public meetings and on the pages of the major dailies. Writing in openDemocracy, K A Dilday captured the mood back in April:
...while the subject-matter is serious, the argument has still had the whiff of narcissism, as the crème of the French leftist intelligentsia took potshots at each other in the name of Darfurian victims
The movement and the personalities had become the story.

Then the problem moved to the US, where major stories in top papers focused last week on divisions in the activist community over Save Darfur Coalition's extensive ad campaigns and on the dismissal of Save Darfur director David Rubenstein. (see, for example, the piece in The New York Times or the one in the Washington Post) Speculation over the rifts inside the broader movement drifted into the blogosphere, where various angles of the matter were dissected and discussed -- including an inspired attempt to demonstrate a similarity between Rubenstein's case and the case of euthanasia advocate Jack Kevorkian.

Once again, the core issue of Darfur and how to resolve the crisis was lost. As in France, the movement had become the story.

Why has this been happening lately? Scepticism about money spent on pricy adverts -- which I have to admit, I share to some extent -- has been standard NGO chatter for as long as I can remember money being spent on pricy adverts, so it was hardly a big journalistic scoop. I suspect part of the new attention is just ordinary primate behaviour: the transfer of attention from ideas to egos is just inevitable when a motivating concept becomes a movement populated by people with motives. But that does not exactly explain why now.

Reflecting on the success of the wider Darfur movement -- and I mean that in the big tent sense, inside which I certainly have to include myself, having worked media for three and a half years on this issue, though not exclusively -- I think a certain frustration may be setting in that is also to blame.

The issue has ripened and people both inside and outside the movement are starting to ask: what has it all achieved? I don't just mean the ads, but the op-eds, the speeches, the quotes, the interviews, the movie star endorsements and helping journalists get to the region? This massive media effort has raised the issue of Darfur without question. The message is clearly getting out there, but as I've written before:
...non-governmental organisations such as the International Crisis Group have been ringing alarm-bells for over three years, yet effective international action to stop the state-sponsored violence has not materialised.
Has wide-spread public knowledge in the US and Europe resolved the crisis? The answer is clearly no. The problem persists. In fact, over the past year, when media attention has never been greater, the humanitarian and security situation in Darfur has only deteriorated, the essential deployment of the AU/UN hybrid force to protect civilians remains elusive, and the peace process is moribund.

We've run up against the limits of what media work can achieve: everyone knows about a horrific problem, but that does not translate into effective action to stop it. The frustration in the NGO world is not new, of course. I wrote about this "Darfur Disconnect" almost a year ago in my blog, saying:
...the basic equation so many of us work under, that public knowledge equals political action, has fallen apart.
I don't think anything has improved in the intervening year, either.

But more importantly for our discussion here, the media are getting frustrated, too. They don't see movement in the political or humanitarian sides of the story, and so their attention naturally turns elsewhere: to the players, to those people they have been talking with about Darfur for years and who are now known names in an activist microcosm. In the absence of news, the drama switches from suffering to soap opera.

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I remember talking to journalists in early 2004 and showing them where Darfur was on a map of Sudan only to realise I should have brought along a map of Africa to show them where Sudan was. I no longer have any conversations like that. We -- again, big tent "we", not just my organisation -- put Darfur on the Western media map. But that was never the goal.

The aim was supposed to be to spark effective political action to resolve the conflict and start to reverse the catastrophe, not just create front row seats for the world to watch Darfur's suffering.

About the only thing we can say for sure in our defence so far is that increased media attention world wide has almost certainly resulted in more donations to aid agencies working in Darfur. That is no small feat: we've helped save some lives.

To get back to the core business of ending the crisis through effective political action, those of us working media on this issue should take note of a few things:

1. Don't give up, but don't keep hitting your head against the same wall either. For those, like me, who budget their time between various disaster zones, it always pays to evaluate priorities: is an hour spent on crisis A as effective as an hour spent on crisis B? For those who focus solely on Darfur, ask yourself similarly hard questions about every media effort: is there another, more useful aspect of this I could be working on? Am I just going through the motions here out of inertia?

2. Don't feed the beast with internal intrigues. It is tempting to gossip with journalists -- many old friends -- about the who and how, but if it only results in a newspaper article about personalities rather than issues, you've wasted your time. Always direct journalists back to the real story as quickly as possible.

3. Keep focused, yet realistic. Understand that massive media attention is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for political action to happen.

***

Not very long ago, I was on a conference call with a half dozen or so other senior NGO media people discussing Darfur in relation to a particular upcoming political meeting and our associated advocacy goals. After exhausting some preliminary ideas, someone asked if anyone had anything fresh. Silence. Every person on that line has been working media on Darfur for years: liaising with journalists, pitching stories, setting up events, organising speakers, arranging media stunts, placing op-eds in newspapers... between us, there is nothing we haven't tried.

On the one hand, that sounds pretty depressing: so much effort for little result on the ground. But, on the other hand, not one person on that call was about to give up. Darfur is still too important to ignore, and we all know we will help convince the world into action, even if it takes us longer than we would like and longer than basic decency demands.

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