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Had We Only Known

The world was unprepared in April 1994 when genocide racked Rwanda. In months, more than half a million died. Ten years on, the media still struggle to warn us of risk, but there are signs of hope.

Jeremy Keehn 5 Apr 2004TheTyee.ca
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Readers of retired General Roméo Dallaire's Shake Hands With the Devil may get an eerie sense that something is missing from his account of the weeks leading up to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The characters seem to be in place: there is the devil, in the form of the genocidaires; and there is humankind, whose values Gen. Dallaire tries to represent. Mostly absent, however, are the journalists whose job it is to record history's blood-soaked handshakes.

Indeed, one of the central questions Dallaire raises is why the world didn't take an active interest in the civil war and looming genocide. Embroiled in the middle of the crucial events as he was, he offers only two limited examples of a media presence. Only when the genocide began did things change.

General Dallaire explained his omission during a lecture at the University of British Columbia on Mar. 14. There were no media to speak of. "Nobody was in Rwanda before the war started," he said. "It was insignificant. When the war started, I was inundated. There were hundreds."

Since Rwanda, international events have repeatedly taken the world by surprise -- most notably with the attack on the World Trade Center. And yet, beyond the occasional reports on changes in America's colour-coded terror threat levels, recent crises like Haiti show that the media's commitment to warning us of potential crises has not improved. Instead, says Rick MacInnes Rae, host of CBC Radio's Dispatches, "The world has started to happen to us."

Yet the door set ajar by 9/11 might still be opened wide. Studies by the Pew Center and CBC, among others, show that the public wants to understand international affairs, and is tired of being taken by surprise. But many challenges loom for reporters who want to be ahead of the game.

You can't do that on television

Many journalists bristle at the notion that their job includes predicting upcoming crises. The National Post's Matthew Fisher says flatly that's not his job: "Conflict happens, I report on it."

Early warning stories are as hard to tell as they are to sell. In The Warrior's Honor, Canadian writer and Harvard scholar Michael Ignatieff poetically captures both the challenges and the stakes: "Our moral engagements with far-away places are notoriously selective and partial…. Our engagement depends critically on what narrative is provided for us by the mediators ¾ the writers, journalists, politicians, eyewitnesses ¾ who make the horror of the world available to us."

In countries where our interests are not immediately apparent, the media typically provide their narrative with gunfire already sounding in the background. One side wins, or the conflict becomes intractable, and the media move on. Deprived of context and commitment, the story becomes for the audience like a cricket match to a hockey fan.

The problem is that a journalist looking ahead to future events must make a story filled with "mights" and "maybes" relevant to the audience. Even in the hands of an exceptionally skilled journalist, "mights" rarely resonate until they are "I told you so's."

CBC correspondent Patrick Brown faced this challenge while reporting from Yugoslavia in the late 1980s. He recalls describing the situation there as a "Canada with eight Quebecs" - a nifty but incomplete explanation. As he puts it, "You can't paint a Rubens on a miniature canvas."

No time for shoeshine boys

Understanding how and when a conflict may ignite also means understanding its complexity. Trends toward declining resources for foreign reporting and parachute journalism may be too powerful to overcome.

In an e-mail interview, Jason Beaubien, Africa correspondent for National Public Radio, writes: "I cover all of sub-Saharan Africa. That's 48 or 49 countries, I'm not even sure of the number.... We are covering such a large swath of territory that it's unrealistic to expect that we are doing investigative or predictive journalism."

Mary Jo McConahey, who has worked in Central America for more than 20 years, agrees that declining resources are the single biggest factor working against better context in foreign reporting.

"People are very, very limited. Time magazine used to have 200, 250 people on the masthead in spots around in the world," says McConahey, who works for the San Francisco-based Pacific News Service. "It's shrunk to [four or five] dozen people. The whole nature of newsgathering is changing."

A trend toward parachute journalism has arisen as a result. Parachute journalism sees correspondents come to a country to cover a major event, only to return home soon after.

Vancouver-based freelancer Chris Johnson, who has lived and worked in Burma, among other places, says the switch has meant less depth in news reports. Parachute journalists, he says, "report by proxy," relying on "fixers" and translators whose reliability, accuracy and allegiances may be suspect. "They're not going to start speaking Arabic with the shoeshine boys and start seeing what it's like to be born in a country like that," he says. "They don't have time for that."

Without that depth, visiting correspondents may not understand when trouble is brewing. And yet freelancers based abroad often find it difficult to sell stories to editors back home, because they're not familiar to them and freelance budgets are small.

The recline of the American empire

If decision-makers don't pay attention to stories on potential crises, what's the point anyway? Scholars like Piers Robinson have studied the so-called "CNN effect" and found that media attention has marshaled political will in the past only in a limited range of cases, and in a limited way. Robinson's study found that the media's coverage choices typically follow from official sources, and may help to manufacture consent rather than suggest opportunity.

Dallaire certainly agrees. During the UBC lecture, his tone became conspiratorial as he explained why he thought the major U.S. television networks did not focus on Rwanda. "Madeleine Albright said 'Americans will not get involved and they'll support nobody who wants to.'" Dallaire wonders if the big networks were told not to make a big deal of Rwanda because the U.S. didn't want its troops mired in another Somalia.

A good moon rising

Despite the challenges, there may be opportunities for improvement. Predictive stories already occur when North American interests are at stake, as shown by rampant media speculation before the Iraq war in 2003.

Speculation is not the same as groundwork, however, and doesn't necessarily provide better forecasts or context. NPR's Beaubien envisions a symbiosis between news writers and columnists. "I see reporters' jobs as telling what they are seeing in front of them," he says. "Others with a bit of distance can try to read the tea leaves."

Early warning stories may also be cheaper to produce than the typical foreign story. Since journalists would have more time to gather material and transmit the information back home, this would mean fewer costs for satellite feeds, for example, which can cost between $1,000 and $2,000 US per feed. Public opinion research has unearthed some promising signs, too. A 2002 Pew Center study found that among college graduates over 40, forty-four per cent of men and twenty-eight per cent of women follow international news "very closely" (up from twenty-eight and ten per cent, respectively, two years earlier). College graduates also ranked international affairs highest among their news priorities --so the people most likely to become or affect decision-makers are paying attention.

The reasons people do not follow international news also suggest a ready-made market for early warning and pre-conflict stories. The top three explanations people gave were that they lacked the necessary background knowledge to understand the stories; that the stories never change; and that they showed too much war and violence.

Brown says recent CBC research, too, shows that audiences "want to understand what is behind these developments that otherwise seem to come out of nowhere." It's up to journalists, he says, to provide that context.

It's also promising that the level of knowledge and media savvy among the experts who predict and prevent conflict has increased substantially during the past decade. Very good early crisis warning systems now exist, for example, which look at indicators of violence in countries and score them based on their potential for conflict.

The media increasingly depend on analysts working with such reports. Fortunately, many non-governmental organizations have arisen to improve their access to these experts. One of these NGOs, the International Crisis Group, touted its success in its 2003 annual report, saying that media citations of its staff increased to 1,831 in 2002, up from 353 in 2000.

After Rwanda, what?

Although a shift to a future-focused model of foreign reporting is unlikely in the immediate future, the optimistic view holds that the social and financial costs of conflict may spur journalists to seek a new approach (and audiences to demand one). People tend to be most apathetic when they feel powerless to stop something, and the hidden strength of pre-conflict journalism is that it holds out the tantalizing promise of solutions to tomorrow's problems.

For journalists in the field, this means finding innovative ways to overcome logistical challenges, seek out new information sources, and tell stories creatively. For the public, it means opening our minds to a new kind of story. And for General Dallaire and others whose job it is to keep the matches from the arsonists, it means understanding how the media works, and demanding its attention before the first sign of flames.

Jeremy Keehn predicts the moon will remain crisis-free until humans move in.  [Tyee]

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