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The Geopolitics of Representation in Foreign News: Explaining Darfur

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DarfurPanel.1           The Geopolitics of Representation in Foreign News investigates if, when, and how well the world’s press addresses causes of under-development, explains unnatural disasters and presents remedies. The focus is on this century’s first genocide in Darfur, Sudan, a result of the increasing number of internal wars for regional representation among young countries in the global South cobbled together after World War II.
          No news organization had reported on persistent prior demands for local economic development in Western Sudan that might have brought attention to this imminent explosion.
          In February 2003, Darfur’s resentment of Khartoum’s fifty years of neglect burst out into the open. 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 laborers 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. It also does nothing to address maldevelopment. 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.
          The discourse in foreign news is arguably the only means of global public education. The provision of timely and comprehensive information is crucial. When, how, and how well was Darfur covered? A comparison of the timeliness and comprehensiveness of reporting on Darfur by ten news organizations (print and online, for foreign and domestic audiences, state and privately owned) over 26 months found only four organizations received a grade of 65 per cent or higher: the Washington Post, the BBC, and South Africa’s Mail & Guardian Online. Both the privately-owned press in the global North and the state-owned press in the global South let the people of Darfur down. Nearly two million live in refugee camps currently. When there was coverage of their plight, regression statistics show 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.

May 2011: Professor Mody receiving the Best Book of 2010 Award at the International Communication Association’s annual conference. Robert Huesca presents the award on behalf of the ICA’s Division of Global Communication and Social Change.