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Darfur and the media attention deficit

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Ethan Zuckerman asks some great questions about Darfur and media attention on his blog. I dropped a comment, but it might be worth pulling together a few threads here. The general feeling is that "attention paid to Darfur is unprecedented" - but was it? Is it? If we feed a few keywords through Silobreaker's Media Attention Trends barometer, the picture is not quite so clear cut. Silobreaker claims to draw upon "approximately 10,000 news, blog, research and multimedia sources" for its data compared to the 4,500+ sources Google News uses, the difference in media attention between the four African nations Ethan mentions; Sudan, DRC, Uganda and Somalia is not as starkly different as one might expect when compared over one year.
Sudan does have the most coverage according to the comparison above - based purely on country over one year - but not by any massive margin. However, if you compare specific cities/locations within those countries Darfur appears to come out on top for the most part. NB: comparing Kinshasa, Kampala and Mogadishu - not all of which you could term conflict zones - is admittedly not quite eggs with eggs,
Of course, if you compare media attention of Somalia, Sudan, DRC and Uganda with Iraq there the difference is far more obvious and here perhaps we get the real picture of how off piste Darfur really is,
Sudan/Darfur is clearly the bigger African story, but it's still small beer when we look at media attention to conflict zones as a whole. If we take out Iraq and add Zimbabwe to the African media attention mix, Mugabe's mess has clearly taken over the agenda in recent months leaving Darfur a distant second,
Therefore, in answer to the central question Ethan poses,
If Darfur is one of the best examples of people in the developed world paying attention to events in a developing nation, and if drawing attention to Darfur has involved an oversimplification of the conflict which may be damaging and misleading, should be be looking at the Darfur movement as an exemplar for how to draw attention to developing world issues, or should we be avoiding it like the plague? link
Perhaps Darfur has not received as much attention as one might assume, and certainly not in the depth of detail Ethan suggests is needed. I for one know a number of hacks who have reported from Darfur and do an excellent job of explaining the complicated situation. However, I still don't feel I'm fully in the picture. A picture which could of course be blurred by the abundance of oversimplifications Ethan refers to in his post. Just to add a final bit of stats madness... Google News search results comparisons seem to mirror the more thorough results shown above from Silobreaker,
Results 1 - 10 of about 67,931 for Zimbabwe Results 1 - 10 of about 17,624 for sudan Results 1 - 10 of about 10,887 for uganda Results 1 - 10 of about 8,408 for Somalia Results 1 - 10 of about 3,480 for Democratic Republic of Congo
I'll leave Google Trends out of this, before all of our heads start hurting... Here is the Google Trends comparison,
I will refer you to the Media Attention Screening the World 2007/2008 report from DfiD published last month which looks at this whole issue very closely. When it comes to Africa, the report concludes,
"International factual output of the four main [UK] terrestrial channels in 2007 was the lowest recorded since reports began in 1996... Africa receives relatively little coverage and is dominated by wildlife programming."


Ethan Zuckerman | July 9, 2008 2:56 PM

Really interesting graphs - thank you. There's a lot to be said about the complexity of measuring media attention by counting mentions of nations or cities. I wrote a long paper on this about five years ago and have been running different comparisons using this method. One of my challenges is figuring out what the baseline attention for a country "should" be - it seems like China deserves more attention that Iceland as it's got vastly more people and a bigger economy. But what's the amount we should expect, and how does the actual amount received compare to what was expected? Lots of attempts to answer that question at http://gapdev.law.harvard.edu/

One question I'd ask regarding the graphs you offer here is how the timeframe covered affects the attention we're discussing. My sense is that the attention paid to Darfur is a multi-year phenomenon. It's unsurprising that Zimbabwe is currently outpacing Darfur attention, but my sense is that over a longer period, the attention to Darfur is more pronounced.

The comparison to Iraq is an interesting one. Another possible comparison is to other global catastrophe stories. Mark Jones with Reuters has an excellent post from a few years back about attention paid to global crises versus attention paid to the Boxing Day Tsunami: http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/reliefresources/111044767025.htm

To a certain extent, we're talking about such small amounts of attention compared to mainstream media stories, it seems like there's little to say but recognize that most of these events are undercovered...

All that said, as someone who (like you) follows African issues closely, I've been surprised to see how many people have taken on Darfur as an issue they care about, and I continue to wonder whether the info they're getting is sufficiently complex and grey.

Thanks for digging into this topic.

EJM | July 9, 2008 4:12 PM

Raw comparisons involving DRC-related news stories can be a bit tricky, because of how various media outlets refer to the country itself. Style-wise, many major outlets (including the AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Economist) refer to it as, simply, "Congo"--while a few others (like the BBC and AFP) will sometimes use "DR Congo".

Also, something that I noticed some time ago is that Google News does include results for "Democratic Republic of Congo" in searches for "DR Congo".

Anonymous | July 9, 2008 10:01 PM

Agreed on pretty much all points there Ethan, I would add that the Google Trends graph above is interesting when looking at a multi-year measure. It takes in the last four years,


Also, re: Silobreaker. I intend to contact them to find out more about the “approximately 10,000 news, blog, research and multimedia sources” what they are and how they are chosen. That could greatly impact any results.

One rather telling Darfur stat that supports your argument is one Rob Crilly and I have discussed here previously relating to the number of videos uploaded to YouTube tagged or a with a Darfur descriptor which do not originate from Darfur, rather a classroom or bedroom in the US,


EJM, you're absolutely right on the differing names for the DRC. I did run the different names through Google News and I did, as you might expect, get differing results. However, all were lower than the countries in the comparison charts above.