Sudan: The Untold Story
Thirty thousand people have died over the last year and a half in Darfur, Sudan. Even in a best-case scenario, 300,000 more Sudanese will die over the summer.
Have you heard?
Maybe you have. The New York Times has given more than 10,000 words to stories that mention Darfur since May 23, says Lexis-Nexus.
In the same period, the paper has devoted at least 17,000 words to stories mentioning Paris Hilton.
Editors I interviewed over the phone said stories from Sudan have a tough time finding a place in the international news hole, crowded out by stories about Iraq and terrorism.
"Americans have a very difficult time following more than one international story at a time," said Stephen Buckley, assistant managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by The Poynter Institute.
And it doesn't help, said Martha Malan, international editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, that this story comes from Africa. "I think we are less interested as an industry in African countries than we are in, for example, Europe," she said. "I think it's a journalistic failing, but it also reflects the public's interest."
No longer is the mass killing in Sudan "unnoticed," as it was described in a Washington Post headline in February. In fact, the Post dedicated a front-page story to the crisis this past Sunday. The Christian Science Monitor's June 14 story about it was headlined, "World turns attention to Darfur."
But the increased attention is "not even close to being enough to deal with this crisis," said the International Crisis Group's John Prendergast in the same article. Estimates of the death toll in Darfur since February of last year range from a conservative 10,000 to the International Crisis Group's 30,000.
When Sudan gets only a few column inches, how can readers understand the nuance and scope of the crises? Do journalists?Andrew Natsios, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said recently that if everything goes well from here on out -- if Sudan receives enough relief before the country's rainy season starts this month -- a third of a million people might die. If not, he said, it could be up to a million.
Even the good news out of Sudan gets underplayed. The 20-year civil war between factions in Sudan's north and south may finally be ending, after having taken two million lives — a large story in itself. But when Sudan gets only a few column inches, how can readers understand the nuance and scope of the crises? Do journalists?
When a country's been shattered by 20 years of violence, editors get numb, Buckley suggested. "Back in the late 1990s," he said, "I would get desperate calls from aid workers, saying, 'This is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now.' And perhaps it was. The problem was that they were saying that every 18 months, or every couple years. So I don't doubt that there is a profound humanitarian crisis in the Sudan. I'm sure it is absolutely staggering there. But my point is that it is very difficult to keep people's attention focused on a story like Sudan, because it goes on and on."
"Every three or four years," Buckley said, "people pop up and say, 'Hey, there's a genocide in Sudan. What are you going to do about it?'"
Whether or not genocide is happening in Sudan is "an interesting academic question," said Jerry Fowler, director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience. But at issue here, Fowler said, is whether the world can prevent genocide.
How much of that responsibility falls on journalists' shoulders?
"I think it's a high responsibility," said Malan.
Editors cite a number of obstacles to giving the story prominent play: lack of access to Darfur, lack of reader interest, the confusing political situation, an increasing local focus at news organizations.
But many journalists who have given the Sudan their attention have found powerful, compelling stories there. Fowler cited Nicholas Kristof's series of stories (registration required) filed from the Sudanese border as an example of coverage that can seize a reader's interest.
"There is no childhood here," Kristof wrote, in a June 23 article. "I saw an orphan girl, Nijah Ahmed, 4, carrying her 13-month-old brother, Nibraz, on her back. Their parents and 15-year-old brother are missing in Sudan and presumed dead."
Sudarsan Raghavan, Knight Ridder's Africa correspondent, had been interested in writing about the conflict for several months, said his editor, Mark Seibel. Finally, in May, he got the chance to go to a village in Darfur for a week. Surprisingly, said Seibel, the Sudanese government granted him a visa. (And a minder, who watched him as he reported.) He brought back these words about what he saw:
No one lives in Kailek today. Mud huts, their straw roofs gone, are empty. The red earth is scattered with pieces of women's clothing, broken pots and pans, and slippers. Charred trees stand like lone sentries protecting an ugly secret.
The village has fallen silent, save for the chirping of turquoise birds and the wind blowing across the sand. The only residents are stray dogs and limping donkeys that have taken over the homes of their former masters.
Around Kailek, village after village has been burned down, making a homecoming impossible.
Gripping stories are in Sudan, even without the question of whether we speak about "genocide" or its euphemistic sibling, "ethnic cleansing."
And editors can get them, said Doug McGill, who writes a column called "Global Rochester" for the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin, and who recently reported on atrocities in Ethiopia. Even editors outside the national papers can get them.
"It's just a matter of them deciding they want to cover it and finding a reason to cover it," McGill said. "Once they've got to that point, then they'll figure out how to do it," whether it's by talking to refugees in their communities, sending reporters or hiring freelancers to cover the conflict from Africa, or looking for economic angles into the story.
One of Mark Lacey's longer New York Times stories about Sudan, for example, focused on the country's rare gum arabic trees, which produce "an essential ingredient in everything from soft drinks to beauty products and pharmaceuticals," and many of which are dying amidst the violence.
Secretary of State Colin Powell will be in Darfur this week to deliver aid and call attention to the crisis, an opportunity for editors to focus on the issue.
History suggests those voices can matter when governments permit and commit atrocities in their countries. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general charged with "peacekeeping" during 1994's genocide in Rwanda, spoke with journalist Samantha Power about the importance of the media for her book "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide."
Dallaire said that a "reporter with a line to the West was worth a battalion on the ground." In the middle of the genocide, Dallaire was left with a skeleton staff of UN peacekeepers. "At that point," he told Power, "the journalists were really all I had."
While 300,000 corpses might be a story, 300,000 people starving to death one by one seems to be a harder sell.The media looked back to Rwanda in April for the 10th anniversary of the massacre's beginning. "On this anniversary," Power wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times, "Western and United Nations leaders are expressing their remorse and pledging their resolve to prevent future humanitarian catastrophes. But as they do so, the Sudanese government is teaming up with Arab Muslim militias in a campaign of ethnic slaughter and deportation that has already left nearly a million Africans displaced and more than 30,000 dead. Again, the United States and its allies are bystanders to slaughter, seemingly no more prepared to prevent genocide than they were a decade ago."
While 300,000 corpses might be a story, 300,000 people starving to death one by one seems to be a harder sell.
"The definition of news," said Stephen Buckley, "and I'm going to speak in very crass terms here, is news -- is new. What's new? So when a conflict has been going on for a couple of decades, it's really hard to keep people's interest."
Things have been bad in Sudan for quite a long time. And the slaughter of thousands is hardly new. In "A Problem from Hell," Power described the current crisis in Darfur before it ever happened — confusing "ethnic conflicts"; politicians hesitant to speak too loudly, lest they disturb a sensitive political situation; corrupt governments spreading lies, excuses, and misinformation; lack of access to the affected areas — over and over again, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere.
Even if it's not new, here's a news peg:
Thirty thousand people have been killed in the Sudan. This summer, a million more could die.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin was in New York.