"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


I can't WAIT for Save Darfur's response to this one

Hoo-boy, there's nothing like losing your umbrella on a rainy morning and a little Darfur-related scandal to get the blood flowing on a Monday morning. The former of these problems, however, has little bearing on anyone's life but mine, and even then, I can live with wet hair and a few damp exams that still need to be graded.

What's the real scandal, you ask? Amanda over at Wronging Rights has been doing some digging to learn more about a refugee named Abu Sharati who always seems to be quoted in stories about Darfur. As it turns out, it seems highly likely that Abu Sharati either 1) doesn't exist or 2) is part of an SLA leader's PR machine. From Part I of her three-part series:
None of my contacts could be sure, but they shared a common theory: that the supposed "refugee spokesperson" was actually part of the PR operation of Abdel Wahid Al Nur, a rebel leader who heads one faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army, or SLA. An activist from a different faction of the SLA, who asked not to be named, confirmed that Sharati was in fact one of Abdel Wahid's men.
Why, then, are reporters from the AP, Reuters, and the New York Times quoting this guy when activists can't find him and there's at least limited evidence that he's not actually a refugee? Leave it to Amanda to call and ask (part II):
The AP's Sarah El Deeb responded that she had personally met with Sharati. According to her, he did not hold any official position that allowed him to speak for two and a half million other people. Rather, she said, he was a "self-proclaimed representative" who "travels in hiding from camp to camp" because he is wanted by the government. And then she dropped -in parentheses, after signing off- this minor piece of information:
"(By the way: Sharati is a Darfur word for a local representative. I think all this needs to be made clear in the next report. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.)"
In other words, she'd published a quote from "Abu Sharati," stating that he was a refugee representative, when in fact he was neither (a) Abu Sharati, or (b) a refugee representative. Another journalist I spoke to, who has traveled to Darfur, confirmed that the name was a pseudonym. And according to Alex de Waal, the word "Sharati" is the plural of "Shartai," which refers to a Fur administrative chief under the Sultanic system. So "Abu Sharati" would mean "chief of chiefs" within the Fur tradition, which I suppose could be translated as "representative."
And the Paper of Record?
[New York Times stringer] Izzadine replied that he knew Sharati personally. His full name was "Husein Abu Sharati," but sometimes he also went by "Abu Shartai." (The singular form of the word, as noted above -I guess maybe he's only plural on special occasions.) Izzedine claimed that Sharati was "heading the heads" of the 54 tribes who make up the displaced in Darfur, and was therefore "a representative of all IDPs and refugees" from those 54 tribes. However, Sharati couldn't speak or meet with me, because "the refugees and IDPs would not allow it."
And Reuters?
Andrew Heavens was not willing to be quoted by name in this blog, so I haven't included his responses here.

But because I am willing to be quoted by name in this blog, let me say for the record that I think it's extremely lame for a reporter to publish a bylined article, but then to refuse to discuss it on the record when legitimate questions about the existence of a named source arise. I hope that Andrew will change his mind, and send a response that I can publish.
Amanda explains why all this matters in Part III of the series.

In my view, this is just one more example of the inexcusably sloppy reporting about Africa that major media outlets do all the time. The NYT's apparent inability to fact check its Africa stories since their fact checkers are so busy figuring out whether the subjects of wedding announcements lied about their prep schools is but one example. That doesn't mean there aren't dedicated reporters working in the continent who take the time to do their homework; there are. But not bothering to look into who your sources are is a fundamental break with the standards of ethical journalism. And news organizations that cut their budgets in an important area while wasting resources on pointless stories about non-issues don't really deserve to have their subscriber numbers go up. They are at least as much to blame for spreading misinformation as are reporters who don't try to find out who they're really interviewing.

The whole series is a doozy of investigative reporting, and I highly recommend reading it. NYT, the ball is in your court.


Anonymous jina said...

I love your blog. You always have fascinating things to say.

But I think you've gone a little too far with this one: "...the inexcusably sloppy reporting about Africa that major media outlets do all the time."

(You seem to know it, too: "That doesn't mean there aren't dedicated reporters working in the continent who take the time to do their homework; there are.")

Yeah, I'm a journalist, but this is about argument. There are good critiques to raise; there are also things to praise. There may be more than one of the other. And I'm as tired of the BS features and the NYT's use of the word "tribal" as anyone.

But "all the time"? Every major media outlet?

I'm as guilty of this on my on blog as anyone, but I think our best intentions suffer when we rhetorically overreach. I think the more measured the language of our critiques is, the more effective the arguments we make are.

And I think you'll get farther with "This is an example of inexcusably sloppy reporting that major media outlets need to watch carefully." Or sundry variations. But zero-sum words aren't going to earn the ear of the people who implement the practices you want to see changed.

Monday, October 05, 2009 5:58:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Fair enough. But you have to admit that it happens a lot. The NYT prints something that's either incorrect or that traffics in stereotypes at least once a week. And they're not the only ones, as we all know.

I didn't say or mean to imply that EVERY major media outlet does this all the time, but maybe it came off that way. For that, I'm sorry. It is not what I intended to imply. Certainly I appreciate the work of journalists who do their homework and whose sources, etc. are fact checked to the extent that's possible. (I recognize, for example, that fact checking a warlord's story is considerably more challenging/impossible than figuring out who a mysterious "refugee representative" actually is.)

But I'm not sorry for criticizing a longstanding attitude of sloppiness towards Africa reporting on the part of SOME major media outlets. It just reeks of a kind of racism or exoticism or I don't know what on the part of the editorial management.

Monday, October 05, 2009 8:27:00 PM

Anonymous jina said...

I'm not saying there's not a problem in the way the media handles Africa. I've run up against it, at certain outlets, and I'm sure it happens in places I don't have experience with, too. You and other should absolutely call this out. But it's increasingly hard to do this without creating a lethargic response, or maybe it's just the nature of the blogs I read media-bashing with such frequency; I traffic in it, too. But a media critique seems to me only to be worth something if journalists can hear it -- even more if they considering changing practice. That's not something one person is gonna do, but it demands a different rhetorical strategy across the board...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009 3:36:00 AM

Blogger AlexBlackwelder said...

I think the problem lies when reporters are given such far reaching places to report about. Often times the same reporter will write about issues in many different locations in Africa in a short period. As everyone knows, this is just asking for sloppiness in the end result. This is not helped by huge outlets slashing overseas reporting budgets due to falling media sales.

A good solution to this issue is to start to seriously support freedom of press in African countries. Many American reporters are free to do their job in many countries where locals get in trouble (China for example). If we can get great local reporters to freelance and help fact check without risk of jail time or dead relatives, the quality of reporting coming out of Africa would rise immensely.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009 1:09:00 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home