This just in: Sudan referendum may not lead to war

In an effort to keep readers clicking, editors and journalists may be making the climate of the Sudan referendum appear more dire than it actually is.

By , Correspondent

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    Students from the southern Abyei oil region demonstrate outside the South Sudan coordinator office against the delays of the Abyei referendum in Khartoum on Nov. 4, 2010.
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If you’ve read any news articles lately about Southern Sudan’s upcoming self-determination referendum and are basing your opinion on where Sudan is headed in the immediate future solely on this information, you would be hard pressed not to have a quite negative outlook.

Bec Hamilton already did some sharp myth-busting that shows that calling the contested border region of Abyei “oil-rich” is an outdated and inaccurate statement. As a follow-up effort, I’ve collected some snippets – I’ll call them fiery phrases – from recent articles on Sudan (one below written by me):

“Rising Tension and Frustration As Sudan Referendum Nears”

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“Winds of War”

“…the war on the horizon might not be the one that everyone is expecting”

“With war again looming, [Abyei] could become a flashpoint for the world’s next genocide”

And trust me, the list goes on. These news clips illustrate the tendency – rather, modus operandi – of the international media coverage of Sudan to highlight the worst case scenarios surrounding the key upcoming events instead of the best possible outcomes. Since I’m a member of this media corps, I can affirm that this is the case. My short experience to date as a journalist has taught me that – surprise! – editors do not think a story with a headline to the effect of “All looks set to go smoothly in Southern Sudan’s crucial independence vote” is newsworthy. Instead, a headline to the effect of “tensions rising,” “concern mounting,” and the like is what editors want to read, because they know it is what readers online around the globe will be likely to click on as they skim the news.

One question I struggle with is this: is it better to have this “worst case scenario” news coverage of Sudan, or very little coverage at all? Or perhaps a more important question is: is it possible for the media to accept a narrative that is not about doom and gloom when covering a country that has experienced a great deal of conflict and suffering throughout its independent history? Or is it the role of the media to highlight the worst possible outcomes of a contentious, politicized event such as a self-determination referendum in order to encourage “action” to prevent such outcomes? Where does media coverage end and advocacy and activism begin in the age of constant online information exchange?

The Carter Center’s recent statement on Sudan’s two referenda processes offers a fair and merited critique of the media for contributing to an already negative environment as the referenda approach. The statement acknowledges the role of the two Sudanese parties to the 2005 peace deal in making inflammatory statements. However, it rightly chastises the media for furthering the reach of these statements through coverage that focuses on the most aggressive rhetoric by Khartoum and Juba instead of the more balanced assurances issued by certain officials from both sides – including the southern Sudanese president himself.

Journalists writing on Sudan from Juba to Johannesburg to New York could do well to consider the Carter Center’s critique; I’m trying personally trying to take it to heart in my own reporting in the coming weeks and months on the January referenda.

Maggie Fick is a freelance journalist who blogs from Juba, Sudan at maggiefick.com.

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