CNN Public Editor: Where’s Sudan?

David via Flickr.

For months, Sudanese protesters have been demanding civilian authority in their country. In the Sudan Uprising, as the demonstrations have been called, President Omar al-Bashir was ousted, but the military has held onto power. About three weeks ago, nationwide internet services were cut. Protesters have said that the restoration of the internet is a condition for talks on a transitional government; Sudan’s military council says the internet will be restored after talks start. Last week, a court demanded that service be turned back on, which it was – but so far just for the one lawyer who won his case against a telecoms operator for the restoration of service. This week, protests turned deadly; at least 10 people have died.

Weeks of protests, an ongoing internet shutdown, and a military refusing to relinquish power—sounds like the makings of a major story, no? But when I checked last week to see if Sudan was mentioned anywhere on CNN’s homepage, it wasn’t. I realized I was looking at the US edition, so I turned to the international version; it wasn’t there, either. Search “Sudan” on CNN and the last story fully and solely dedicated to the subject ran on June 20 (“Activists were killed and women were raped. But some defiant Sudanese say their revolution isn’t over yet”). Ten days later, on June 30, there was one more. (“At least 7 dead as tens of thousands protest in Sudan, demanding civilian rule.”) Over the past three weeks when I have watched CNN on television, Sudan has not been mentioned. 

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I do other things besides just watch CNN, and allow for the possibility that I missed some of the coverage, so I contacted the network’s communications executives who oversee international editorial and digital worldwide, to ask for more information and an explanation of the network’s coverage, or lack thereof. They did not offer a comment for the record. 

I do not have a definitive answer to offer either; I don’t know what the correct amount of attention is. But surely it’s more than this. 

Having reported regularly on foreign affairs, I understand that “Why aren’t you covering this instead of that?” is a deeply annoying question. I understand that there are journalists who are writing and reporting on Sudan, and have done so more than usual recently: for example, Ben Wedeman and Nima Elbagir have both filed to CNN from Sudan. I understand that audience appetite can drive what journalists do: I was in a newsroom during the protests that resulted in Omar al-Bashir’s removal, in April, and I was not assigned to write about it; I did, however, file multiple pieces on the burning of Notre Dame, in Paris.

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But experts say this lack of consideration is new. “In the case of Sudan, the crisis in Darfur dominated headlines for a significant amount of time,” Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, referring to the conflict and genocide in western Sudan in the early 2000s. As South Sudan moved toward independence (which it achieved in 2011), he said, it received a significant amount of coverage. “I wouldn’’t chalk it up to race or religion,” Devermont said when I asked if Sudan was undercovered because its population is African, Black, and Muslim. “This part of the world right now is getting less attention than it usually does.”

The problem may not be that Sudanese are African, but that Sudan is in Africa, according to Alan Boswell, senior analyst for South Sudan at the International Crisis Group. “Sudan presents something of a special case since — unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, or Syria — many newsrooms cover Sudan as an African story,” he wrote in an email. “That’s a major problem since nearly all media outlets devote far less resources to their African bureaus than their Middle East counterparts.” What’s happening in Sudan may well have consequences as far-reaching as what’s happened in Egypt or Tunisia, but chances are good that the resources outlets are spending covering it are not comparable.

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(That’s especially problematic because the Sudan story isn’t actually limited to the African continent. Devermont noted that Sudan is relevant to stories that have been covered as Trump policy stories. “It’s part of the Gulf story,” he said. “Our policy in Sudan is linked to our policies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.” That’s another reason Sudan should be getting more attention—but not one that those who run newsrooms have evidently found convincing enough.)

Boswell also noted that part of what’s new about this Sudan crisis is that it’s happening now, at a time when newsrooms around the world have slashed their international, and certainly their Africa, coverage. “Some reporters for mainstream outlets try to cover news across the entire sub-Saharan subcontinent,” Boswell added. “This is a system designed for parachute journalism, not award-winning news coverage.”

Separate but related to limited resources in covering the subject is the issue of limited space given to it on the homepage or television screen, which is related to the second factor that’s new and could be impacting the coverage, or lack thereof, of this Sudan crisis: Trump. 

Devermont suggested that that is as much about the “news ecosystem” of the moment as it is anything else. For foreign reporting, “You really have to be at the Iran, North Korea level to get more than a couple of days of coverage.” Plus, news revolves around Trump, and Trump is less focused on Africa than previous presidents have been. Taken together, this bodes ill for Sudan coverage.

None of this is necessarily unique to CNN. But as I was first writing this, the CNN homepage featured a story about a couple who crossed Times Square on a high wire. If that’s considered news but political protests in Sudan aren’t, don’t we need to reconsider what news really is?

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Editors note: CJR has appointed its own outside public editors for four vital news outlets — The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC — that currently lack any public ombudsman. You can reach them at publiceditors@cjr.org. (Any messages will be treated as off-the-record unless otherwise agreed.)

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Emily Tamkin serves as CJR’s public editor for CNN. See this primer for more information on our public editor project.