Catching the World’s Attention

How much can newspaper coverage do to prevent atrocity?

Hardly a day goes by that we do not confront the mixed reality of living in an increasingly globalized world on an increasingly small planet. We are all connected.

Today there can be no horrific events taking place in a faraway land we know nothing about with no implications for those of us who live in peaceful developed western countries. Today it is Ebola, yesterday it was SARS. Today it is Yazidi refugees fleeing ISIS in Syria. Yesterday it was the genocide in Bosnia, in Rwanda and in South Sudan. All too frequently it has been South Sudan.

There is a sad irony to The Independence of South Sudan: The Role of Mass Media in the Responsibility to Prevent, a succinctly written and informative book by Walter C. Soderlund and E. Donald Briggs. It focuses on the media’s role in how the doctrine of the responsibility to protect played out in South Sudan.

But it is likely that most members of the media have never even heard of the responsibility to protect, let alone considered how to include it in news reporting.

So, first, a little background.

The core idea of the responsibility to protect, or R2P as it is called in United Nations circles, is that under certain circumstances the international community has the responsibility to intervene in the affairs of sovereign states.

R2P was introduced at the United Nations General Assembly in 1999 by Secretary General Kofi Annan, who “posed the central question starkly and directly … if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on the sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica—to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”

The responsibility to protect encompasses three broad ideas: the responsibility to prevent civil war, genocide or other catastrophes by addressing root causes; the responsibility to react when catastrophes happen; and the responsibility to rebuild in the aftermath.

The ongoing crisis in South Sudan, a country the size of France with fewer than 100 kilometres of paved roads, remains one of the world’s most intractable political and human rights challenges, involving race hatred, religious differences and disputed oil wealth. For centuries, before the British colonial era, before the Ottoman Empire, the southern region of Sudan—the African south—was where the Arab north captured and transported slaves for sale throughout the Middle East, Europe and beyond. There were Nubian slaves in Pharaoh’s army.

Independence came in 1956 with the birth of Sudan and included promises that would not be fulfilled concerning autonomy for the African south. When oil was discovered in 1978, mainly in the south, the Arab north suppressed the various southern separatist movements that had sprung up against forced “Arabisation and Islamisation,” a suppression that resulted in burned villages, concentration camps, human rights abuses and recurring floods of refugees.

It is in this historical context that this book analyzes the media coverage of three key events—the 2010 Sudanese election, the 2011 referendum on independence for the South and the July 2011 independence of the South (which has led to ongoing strife displacing at least a million people and killing an estimated 10,000). The media analysis sets out to answer the question of “to what extent did North American press coverage influence governments to consider intervention to prevent another humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.”

Soderlund and Briggs begin with an overview of the academic literature showing that mass media influences public opinion and thereby public policy. They quote media theorist Bernard Cohen’s famous comment that the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, … [but] it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.”

The media does this by “agenda setting”—when journalists and editors decide which issues to cover—and by “framing”—when journalists decide how to interpret the meaning of a story.

The academic overview is followed by a content analysis of 200 stories in four newspapers—The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen.

Unfortunately, the study did not include television, where most people get their news. There simply was not enough television coverage of events in Sudan.

Without television, arguably, it is not possible to mobilize public opinion to the point of influencing public policy. And given that newspapers often drive television and radio content, the implication is that the print coverage was neither extensive enough nor compelling enough to overcome the reticence of television line-up editors. So the outcome of the research was something of a foregone conclusion. The answer to their question of whether media—that is, newspaper—coverage of events in Sudan led to the implementation of R2P, is no, it did not.

The media analysis examined agenda setting and framing both quantitatively and qualitatively by looking at the number of stories, date of publication, type of content and affiliation of the reporter. The authors assessed the 200 stories qualitatively by examining the point of view of the story with specific attention to see if the story “assigned international responsibility to deal with problems.”

Some findings were surprising: 139 of the 200 stories in the four papers were editorials, op-eds or “inside page” news analysis, which suggests a genuine effort to help readers understand complex events.

Except for the Ottawa Citizen, which relied on wire copy, all the publications had their own correspondents on the ground at least some of the time.

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist with The New York Times, is notable for an op-ed piece he wrote that came close to calling for the international community to intervene when he warned of possible civil war. The Globe and Mail’s Africa correspondent, Geoffrey York, was prescient in his news reports. So while journalism fell short of outright invoking R2P, it did, fairly consistently, foreshadow trouble ahead.

Overall, as anticipated, Soderlund and Briggs conclude that the media did not make much difference concerning the implementation of the doctrine of the responsibility to prevent. The preventive efforts (peacekeeping, food aid, support for refugees) undertaken by governments, the UN and nongovernmental organizations were taken because those institutions already knew about the ongoing crisis in South Sudan, not because of public pressure brought on by the media.

If one takes the larger view, the analysis of media coverage of South Sudan does prompt musings on just why western media’s sparse coverage of Africa seems unable to move beyond the inevitable narrative of starving children, war, corruption, tribalism and the colonial legacy. A continent of 54 countries and a billion people surely has other stories. But to reach those stories journalists need to know the language, the culture and the history and to have cultivated a wide range of sources. And since the days when Canadian news organizations maintain foreign bureaus and correspondents are largely behind us, it seems likely that those stories will be told only when African journalists gain access to western news outlets.