Media coverage of the african continent


This thesis contemplates long standing issues surrounding media coverage of the African continent. Previous studies have shown a systematic trend amongst Western journalists to depict current events in developing nations, particularly African nations, from a negative and oversimplified perspective. It examines why important events in less-developed parts of the world often have their reality distorted in the Western media. Unfortunate precedence has shown that this is particularly relevant to the Western media in the context of its questionable conduct in covering the African continent.

The media portrayal of the unrest in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region appears to reflect the errors that often lurk amidst the work of journalists covering humanitarian catastrophes in distant lands. In spite of Gérard Prunier’s assessment of the violence as the “quintessential ‘African crisis’: esoteric, extremely violent, rooted in complex ethnic and historical factors which few understood, and devoid of any identifiable practical interest for rich countries,” Darfur generated an unanticipated amount of interest in the West. It quickly became the cause célèbre amongst people on both sides of the political divide. Darfur’s power to transcend politics was most apparent in April 2006 as thousands of Americans converged into the nation’s capital to appeal for greater action to end the alleged genocide in Sudan. Republican senators joined Democrats such as Barack Obama to urge the Bush administration to take a more decisive approach to tackle the crisis and help refuges escaping the violence. Although the event attracted prominent speakers including celebrities, politicians, athletes and Noble Peace Prize winners such as Elie Wiesel, the bulk of the crowd was comprised of ordinary Americans who donned blindfolds to urge political decision makers not to look away from the atrocities taking place in Darfur.

The media’s part in this event cannot be overstated. As conflicts in remote areas of the globe have little impact on the lives of ordinary Western citizens, regardless of the magnitude of the violence, the extent to which an ordinary person knows and cares is entirely contingent on the level of media coverage a conflict is granted. As such, the mass media has massive power in shaping both a government’s foreign policy and the public’s imagination of situations around the globe. The media’s influence in determining the perception of the Darfur conflict was particularly immeasurable because in most instances it was the only image outside observers in the West received of the crisis itself. As a consequence of the media’s attentiveness to the unfolding catastrophe in Sudan, they were able to spark a sophisticated and popular human rights campaign. Coupled with advocacy organizations such as the Save Darfur Coalition, an unlikely alliance of liberal and conservative groups, the mainstream media in the United States exposed their audiences to the atrocities that were unfolding in the Sub-Saharan nation.

Yet, as Darfur burst onto the world’s consciousness in mid-2004 and became the Western media’s darling as far as coverage was concerned, depressingly similar outbreaks of violence in Africa at the time, including in Uganda and the Congo, were all but overlooked. As such, this thesis aims to understand how a ‘quintessential African crisis’ became an international issue that garnered Western empathy and generated an unexpected level of press interest. Essentially, how did an internal crisis in a remote area of Sudan, where the concerns were primarily local, manage to capture the attention of campaigners and writers in the West? If we are to accept Susan Moeller’s claims that audience sympathies towards foreign deaths have hardened, and that the American public is largely interested in news events related to their own country, how did the narrative of Darfur, a story that does not contain an obvious American connection, overcome public apathy when other tragediesinAfricaare often unable to?

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To better understand why Darfur was prioritized in the Western media and to better ascertain why certain foreign events became news the way they do, this thesis will examine the media press coverage of Darfur in the Washington Post and the New York Times during the first three years of the conflict. These two American newspapers were initially chosen for this study because of their high circulation numbers (601,669 and 1.65 million respectively) and the value that both these media organizations place on covering international affairs despite their opposing political leanings. Moreover, during the preliminary selection process to decide which newspapers to analyze in this thesis, it quickly became evident that compared to their rivals, the Washington Post and the New York Times had not employed news wire services such as Reuters and the Associated Press for their articles. These two American newspapers mostly relied upon their own correspondents and journalists to deliver stories from the ground, either from Sudan itself or from neighboring Chad.

In addition to the published articles from the Washington Post and the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian newspaper has been included in this study for critical examination as it offers a unique opportunity to investigate whether a newspaper’s national affiliation and political culture has any impact on the presentation of the Darfur issue.

Methodological Approach And Organization Of This Thesis

This thesis is divided into five sections. The second chapter will address the fundamental question: how did the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian report on the Darfur conflict and what were the prominent themes and media framing devices evident in their articles? This chapter will examine the content (what the journalists covered) and the form (how the journalists covered the conflict). Due to the scope of examining three newspapers over a three year period, this thesis will concentrate on critical moments in media reportage of the Darfur disaster. As such, this chapter and the thesis at large is not a quantitative study of the media treatment of Darfur. Rather, it merely attempts to highlight the peaks and lows of media coverage in order to ascertain the reasons behind the fluctuating press interest. Five decisive moments will be studied: 2003 in its entirety, April 2004, June 2004, September 2004 and January 2005

The third chapter will provide an extensive critique of the media representation of the violence in Darfur and scrutinize the themes that emerged from the three newspapers in question. The purpose of this particular section is to address whether the Western newspapers in question appropriately covered or mishandled the Darfur crisis. By exploring the construction of Arab and African identity in the Sudanese context, this thesis will analyze and explain how through the use of emotive language and framing, the American press were able to create and solidify a misleading image of the crisis as a genocidal campaign instigated by Arabs against an indigenous African population. It will address the controversy surrounding Darfur’s genocide status under international law. With this objective in mind, this thesis will refer to ‘genocide’ only as it was defined by the United Nations in 1948. This chapter also seeks to expose important dimensions to the conflict that many journalists overlooked as they peddled one convenient version of the violence at the expense of critical evidence.

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The latter part of the thesis will draw upon seminal postcolonial theory to explain why Darfur captured the public imagination and the attention of Western journalists. It will examine whether the media’s interest and frequent misrepresentation of Darfur can be read in the larger context of a new Orientalist discourse. This chapter will also endeavor to explore the possible reasons and motives behind the Western media interest in Darfur.

Literature Review

Foreign news stories related to the African continent are often characterized by images of tribal warfare, rampant disease, political instability, famine and despotic regimes. These unpleasant misrepresentations of African issues have been closely studied since the ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ debates of the 1970s. The historical media debates were instigated by developing non-aligned states as a response to the lopsided transfer of mass communication content from Western nations to poorer nations that often reflected the preferences of Western news agencies. Scholars such as Hassan M. El Zein, Anne Cooper and Melissa Wall have all acknowledged its relevance to contemporary media discussions. These scholars insist that the tendency amongst Western media organizations to disproportionately focus on the negative, the violent and the exotic when it comes to covering developing regions and particularly African issues did not end with the great media debates of the 1970s.

Their findings are not dissimilar to Abiodun Goke-Pariola’s contention that the Africa continent as a whole suffers from a long practice of media neglect and when African issues are eventually acknowledged in the Western press, the stories and images are permeated with stereotypes and tropes that have persisted since the time of slavery and imperialism. The fifty-three distinct nations that make the African continent are often treated as a homogenous entity comprised of uncivilized heathens who are unable to govern themselves. If and when Africans are shown in the western media, Goke-Pariola argues that they are regularly portrayed to be poor, helpless and malnourished. Michael Maren points out that such graphic descriptions and imagery work to advance the notion that the inhabitants of African are reliant on the compassionate West for their survival.

Whilst reports in the Western press about conflicts on the African continent are frequently crisis-driven in such a way as to insinuate that the inhabitants are naturally more prone to violence, journalists rarely make mention of the West’s connection to the violence. In his article titled American Media and African Culture, Bosah Ebo emphasizes the lack of historical context in media stories about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Ebo notes that Western journalists covering Rwanda repeatedly failed to make the association between the ongoing civil war and the impact of the Belgian colonial legacy of politicizing Rwandan ethnicity by pitting Hutus against Tutsis in their ‘divide and rule’ strategy. Instead, the genocide was portrayed as another African crisis fuelled by irrational tribal hatred.

Wall echoes similar sentiments in a comparative study of the Rwandan and Bosnian crises. In her analysis of American newspaper coverage of the two conflicts, Wall found that whilst the ethnically motivated violence in Bosnia was framed as an aberration for Europeans, despite the largest genocide occurring in Germany, the conflict in Rwanda was portrayed as standard behavior for Africans. David Gordon and Howard Wolpe have claimed that this level of misinterpretation and formulaic media treatment of the African ‘continent as little more than a gigantic basket case’ leaves Western audiences with an unconscious sense of cultural, intellectual and political superiority. As most Americans have never visited Africa and probably never will, the images of the African continent that most Americans hold to be real and authentic come courtesy of the media. This view of Africa as the ‘dark continent’ is primarily based on press coverage and is also ‘an outgrowth of a deeply buried, fundamental set of cultural assumptions about race and civilization that have been building in Western culture for at least four hundred years.’

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Despite this extensive scholarship on the mass media’s portrayal of Africa, modest research exits in the field of Darfur and the media. Much like David Campbell’s Geopolitics and Visuality: Sighting the Darfur conflict, this thesis is limited to the study of contemporary events in Western Sudan. In his study of the photo-journalism of the Darfur conflict, Campbell found that most photos were graphic images of starving and dying women and babies in refugee camps. Unlike Campbell’s study however, this thesis attempts to go beyond content analysis that largely corroborates prior studies on media casing of African issues. It endeavors to comprehend the outpouring of humanitarian good will that the atrocities in Darfur produced in the West and the possibility that strategic geopolitical interests played a role in the media’s intense interest in the conflict.

Pippa Norris, Politics and the Press: The News Media and Their Influences (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1997), 23; Eronini R. Megwa and Ike S. Ndolo, “Media image and development: political and economic implications of U. S. media coverage of Africa,” in Development and democratization in the Third World: myths, hopes, and realties, ed. Kenneth E. Bauzon (Washington: Crane Russak, 1992), 267-272.

Gérard Prunier, Darfur: the ambiguous genocide (New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), 124.

For a detailed analysis of media power and the CNN effect, the theory that postulates that the modern mass media have a significant bearing on the conduct of foreign policy, see Piers Robinson, “Operation Restore Hope and the Illusion of a News Driven Media Intervention.” Political Studies 49 (2001): 942.

Prunier, Darfur: the ambiguous genocide, 124.

Susan D. Moeller, Compassion fatigue: how the media sell disease, famine, war, and death (London: Routledge, 1999), 11.

William Preston, Jr., Edward S. Herman, and Herbert I. Schiller, Hope & folly: the United States and Unesco, 1945-1985 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 296.

A.Goke-Pariola, Africa in the “New World Order”: Old Assumptions, Myths, and Reality, available from; [24 June 2009]

Michael Maren, The road to hell: the ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity (New York: Free Press, 1997), 13.

Bosah Ebo, “American Media and African Culture” in Africa’s media image, ed.Beverly G. Hawk (New York: Praeger, 1992), 18. Ibid.

Melissa Wall, “A ‘pernicious new strain of the Old Nazi virus’ and an ‘orgy of tribal slaughter: A comparison of US news magazine coverage of the crises in Bosnia and Rwanda.” 59 (1997): 411-428

David F.Gordon, & Howard Wolpe, “The Other Africa: An End to Afro-Pessimism.” World Policy Journal 15 (1998): 9

E. J. Murphy, The African Mythology: Old and New. (Storrs, CT: World Education Project, 1973), 1.

David Campbell, “Geopolitics and visuality: Sighting the Darfur conflict,” Political Geography 26, (2007): 357-382.

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