In recent years cash-strapped media services have closed foreign bureaus around the world and dropped foreign correspondents from their permanent payrolls. Inevitably, the quality of journalism has declined, with correspondents reporting from distant cities or traveling abroad only when a promising story develops (called ‘parachute journalists,’ they often lack the regional expertise necessary for effective reporting). The trend towards lean coverage is worrying, with reporters failing to convey the many ambiguities that make conflicts so difficult to resolve. Worse, with such diminished numbers of correspondents in the field, the public no longer benefits from the “diversity [of opinions and analysis] and competition” that once defined foreign correspondence. Darfur itself has been effortlessly described as an ethnic struggle between identifiable aggressors and victims, invaders and invaded, foreigners and natives. This frame is sufficiently concise to satisfy the lean editorial standards of the ‘wire,’ but not the kind of image Darfur needs to establish a lasting peace.
Of course, so long as media consumers show no appetite for more comprehensive and time-consuming analysis, media outlets will not bother to front the money necessary to provide it. But in a world where global problems demand global solutions, where even the distant conflict in Sudan is only days away by plane, reliable and accurate journalism must be joined with an attentive public. Without a committed public, the thinning ranks of foreign correspondents have little choice but to rewrite Darfur in sensationalist frames. These frames offer nothing to the conflict’s resolution but are vastly more user friendly, that is, they pack a lot of excitement and emotion in a very small package.
The power to reverse media’s march towards bare-bones sensationalism lies in the internet, both in its ability to globalize local political issues and to redefine the functions of more traditional mediums such as newspapers. More detailed and problematic coverage has already appeared among some major publications, owing largely to the growing dominance of internet news feeds. The Wall Street Journal, for example, is “shifting the coverage of breaking news to its website, while directing longer, in-depth stories to the print newspaper.” The Los Angeles Times has announced similar plans for its web and paper publications, while the Globe and Mail may adopt the new format in 2010. If media users take advantage of the more comprehensive coverage offered in the remodeled newspapers, the quality of journalism may very well improve.
However, because media providers are owned and operated by business moguls with implicit political agendas and the power to label people and actors, major news providers are never entirely dependable. While Western citizens were shocked by the violent British response to the Irish Troubles of the 1980’s, particularly the events of Bloody Sunday, journalists and editors insisted on describing the warring factions as mindless religious extremists and the British military as benevolent but hapless peacekeepers. Alternatives to mainstream media are readily available online, and in Darfur radio broadcasters have used the web to relay their local programming across the world. A new point of resistance (this time a badly needed pacifist one) has emerged in Darfur’s Radio Dabanga. Established by the Project of the Radio Darfur Network –a coalition of non-governmental organizations, Sudanese journalists and international sponsors- the new station employs fifty correspondents covering Darfur and provides news in three, soon to be four, local languages. English transcripts of broadcasts are posted on the station’s website.
More broadly, the entire Sudanese press is vibrant and relatively free of dissident persecution, while also available in English. Op-ed pieces, columns, editorials and letters on Darfur make frequent appearances in Sudanese papers, while six papers maintain their own correspondents in Darfur. Sudanese journalists have the advantage of being Sudanese and understanding the culture and politics of their own country in a way parachute correspondents rarely can.
The benefits of local journalism are obvious, with plenty of critical coverage of issues often ignored by Western media (such as the atrocities committed by Darfur rebel groups). In addition, by utilizing the Sudanese press international media providers can supplement their meager presence on the ground. Finally, if media audiences are more willing to learn about the complex realities of a conflict by following local coverage, correspondents may respond with more nuanced coverage of their own.
Radio Dabanga: http://www.radiodabanga.org/
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, “The Darfur Deception,” http://dissidentvoice.org/2009/06/the-darfur-deception/
John Hughes, “US media can’t cover the news if they don’t cover the world,” Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0207/p09s01-cojh.html
Fred Hiatt. “The Vanishing Correspondent,” http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/vp01.cfm?outfit=pmt&folder=193&paper=2770