Some clever sleuthing by Amanda Taub, who blogs at Wronging Rights, has revealed a potential problem with a source in three mainstream media stories on Darfur. Taub's claim, originally posted yesterday and now making the rounds of the Africa blogosphere (see here, here and here), deserves an answer from the three media organizations she lists.
More fundamentally, however, it underscores the pitfalls that face all reporters working in Africa.
To summarize: Taub believes that "Abu Sharati," who claims to be "a representative of Darfur refugees" and is regularly quoted by the news media, is more likely the nom de plume of a spokesman for one of the main Darfur rebel leaders, and therefore pushing his own agenda rather than representing the views of some 2 million displaced people.
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.
Taub, a lawyer, contacted the reporters who wrote each of the three stories, and published their replies (Part II). Then she explains why getting a quote like this wrong is an injustice. It's all very hard-hitting, well reasoned and important media monitoring -- the best reason blogs exist.
A few commenters point out the No. 1 problem with quoting someone like "Abu Sharati" to begin with. How can one person claim to speak for the masses of suffering Darfuris? Surely the title "spokesman for Darfur refugees" should strike a reporter or editor as odd considering how diverse the population of Darfur actually is.
Others argue that this is the sort of "sloppy" work that the Western news media permits when it comes to faraway Africa, but wouldn't countenance on issues in its own backyard.
I don't want to seem like I'm reflexively defending the work of colleagues whose work I read regularly, and often admire. But surely there's more to an apparent inconsistency like this than sloppiness or willful ignorance. Taub has found one troubling problem in three stories over the course of a year of reporting on a major news story that has produced as much copy as any in Africa.
I think we should take it for what it seems to be: a mistake by reporters who are expected to cover and master an immense amount of territory, much of which they can't usually get to on deadline, or even within days or weeks.
The three reporters mentioned all cover Darfur regularly, but none of these three stories were written from Darfur. The region, as you can imagine, is exceedingly difficult and complicated to get to, and sitting in Khartoum or Dakar rarely helps you get a better feel for the ground in Darfur than sitting in New York City.
Yet it is Journalism 101 to get all sides of a story, so reporters try when they can to get local voices - "man on the street" opinions - into pieces they must write from these distant capitals. "Abu Sharati" stuck his hand up as someone who could speak for the masses of Darfur's displaced, the vast majority of whom don't have cell phone numbers and wouldn't be able to answer a reporter's question about a news development before that evening's deadline.
The couple of times I've been to Darfur, I've asked for phone numbers of people in the IDP camps, for just this reason. It's a vain exercise, but one I feel compelled to attempt. Most times I get a blank look. Sometimes people laugh at me. Most wouldn't even have electricity to charge a phone, and besides cell phone networks barely function in much of Darfur. You might find a Darfuri in Khartoum who could offer an opinion, but would he be any more representative of the views of millions of displaced people just because he'd pick up your phone call?
Quoting a "refugee representative" doesn't pass the smell test, and these news organizations should have been more vigilant in their sourcing. Yet I believe what we have here is a problem of overreaching, of trying to file a more complete story on a deadline when better options aren't available, rather than a problem of laziness.
Africa is a big, big place, and the relatively few reporters here must always do more with less. In this case, I believe, the reporters tried to do too much.