WASHINGTON - U.S. broadcast media are failing to provide even minimal coverage of the ongoing crisis -- some say genocide -- in Darfur, Sudan, according to a new report, which concludes that media fixation with celebrity, as well as the Iraq war, is crowding out news of important events that deserve global attention 10 years after the genocide in Rwanda.
The report, released this week by the Genocide Intervention Fund (GIF) and the American Progress Action Fund, noted that the major network and cable television stations devoted 50 times more coverage to the child molestation trial against Michael Jackson last month than to events in Sudan, including both Darfur, where as many as 400,000 people have died over the past two years, and the outbreak of fighting in the eastern part of the country.
Similarly, Hollywood actor Tom Cruise, who during the same month was engaged to actress Katie Holmes and earnestly denounced psychiatry during a nationally televised talk show, received roughly 12 times the amount of coverage as was devoted to Sudan during all of June, according to the study.
"Why does any of this matter?" ask the two groups which have launched a new website, "www.beawitness.org," to press the television media to provide more coverage of Sudan and other under-covered conflicts in Africa.
"Put simply, if television does not cover the genocide in Sudan, it does not exist in the minds of many Americans," according to the report, "Be a Witness." If it does not exist in the public's mind, there is no sense of urgency and no public pressure on world leaders to do anything to stop the killing."
The findings of the report, which is based on a compilation by the authoritative Tyndall Report of the three major network nightly news programs in 2004 and in June 2005, and on a tabulation of news programs on the three major cable news networks, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC, are not entirely surprising given the declining foreign news budgets of major media and the their increasing conflation of news and entertainment, or "infotainment."
And even when the foreign news divisions of major broadcast media had more money at their disposal, Africa tended to get the short end of the stick, particularly in comparison to the Middle East and Europe, unless the story followed a familiar racial narrative -- usually white aid workers rescuing starving, ill, or war-ravaged Africans, or violent and irrational Africans victimizing innocent whites.
The latter narrative was illustrated dramatically most recently in 1999 when eight white tourists on a trek in southwestern Uganda to view the famous "gorillas in the mist" were captured and later bludgeoned and hacked to death by a band of Rwandan Hutu guerrillas. One of the female ecotourists was raped.
The story grabbed a total of 24 minutes on the evening news programs of the three major networks that week -- two minutes less than the networks devoted to Sudan for all of 2004 -- making it the biggest African story since the Rwanda genocide and its aftermath in 1994. By comparison, the election that same week of Pres. Olusegun Obasanjo -- which ended 15 years of brutal military rule in Africa's most populous country, Nigeria -- received a total of 49 seconds of coverage on the same three networks.
For all of 2004, when violence in Darfur was at its height, the three network evening news shows aired a combined total of only 26 minutes on the situation there -- or about one-thousandth of a total of nearly 25,000 minutes of news, according to the latest study.
Nor was that total evenly apportioned among the three networks. Viewers of CBS received a grand total of three minutes of Darfur coverage over the year.
By contrast, Martha Stewart, the popular home-making entrepreneur whose inside trading earned her a short sentence at a minimum-security prison in 2004, received 130 minutes on all three networks over the year -- exactly five times more coverage than Darfur, which was first labeled a "genocide" by Congress in July, by Secretary of State Colin Powell in September, and Bush himself in December.
As for June 2005, the new study found that news coverage of Sudan on the three network and three cable news were overwhelmed by the Jackson trial, Cruise's exploits, and even the story of Jennifer Willbanks, the "runaway bride," who had concocted a fake story blaming her absence at her April wedding on having being kidnapped, when in reality she had simply driven across the country.
The study found that a month after the search for her ended, the six television networks devoted more than four times as much coverage to Willbanks as they did to Sudan as measured by the number of five-minute segments in which the story was cited. Sudan was mentioned in a total of 126 segments for all six networks during the month, compared to 485 segments in which the "runaway bride" came up.
But that was peanuts compared to the amount of time spent on Jackson and Cruise. Jackson was cited in 6,248 segments -- or roughly 50 times more often Sudan; Cruise received 1,570 mentions -- or about 12 times more than Sudan.
"No doubt Tom Cruise's life is somewhat important from a business and cultural perspective, but is it twelve times more important than what is happening to hundreds of thousands of people in Sudan?" asked the report's authors. "Based on their coverage in June, the networks seem to think so."
Not that U.S. news coverage is entirely unique in its inattention to Darfur or Africa, more generally.
A recent study of international news coverage in television and print media in South Africa, the U.S., Germany and the Middle East by the "Media Tenor Research Institute" found that humanitarian conflicts in Africa were "almost invisible" in most media during the period studied, from January 1, 2004 through March 31, 2005.
According to the study, Sudan's share of the coverage came to only 1.25 percent of all international news reports in the covered media, while the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rated the worst humanitarian crisis in the world by a poll of humanitarian professionals and the United Nations in the latter part of 2004, featured in only 0.24 percent of international news reports.
According to the report, South African media and the Al Jazeera cable network based in Qatar gave were significantly more attentive to the conflicts in Africa than their U.S. or German counterparts.
© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service