Impact of the Media on US Foreign Policy in Darfur

In order to determine what, if any, impact the media had on US foreign policy towards Darfur, I have examined articles published in the New York Times between January 2003 and January 2006 on the topic of Darfur and then crossed reference those with actions taken by the US government. A visual depiction of this analysis can be found in Appendix A. The New York Times being the top print news outlet in the United States provides a good basis for this analysis.

At the height the conflict in Darfur, between April 2003 and April 2005, the New York Times (NYT) published 192 article on the topics, including news reports, editorials, and letters to the editor.[1]Of the articles published by the NYT’s between April 2003 and April 2005, 59.5% were plain news stories about the atrocities in Sudan, the Sudanese government’s reactions, and international response to the atrocities.[2] There were also 15 editorials, 17 letters to the editor, and 3 news stories that urged US government official to intervene and help the Sudanese; as such the “NYT reported in a more US-centered way and promoted American intervention in the incident.”[3] These articles, which focused on urging the US to intervene in the conflict, are the focus of my analysis.

Nicolas Kristof was the primary author of the editors for the NTY on the topic of Darfur. His editorials are written in a very provocative tone, meant to solicit a response from the reader and prompt the reader to take action for his cause. His articles are personalized; in many, he speaks directly to President Bush as if the conversation was just between the two of them.[4] He also constantly invokes the Rwanda narrative and the shame of the United States’ lack of involvement in ending the Rwandan genocide and also shames the United States for their lack of initiative in preventing the escalation of violence in Darfur.[5] The articles also call on the American populations, individuals and elected representatives alike, to put pressure on the Bush administration to act in regards to the crisis in Darfur.[6] The articles are written with a strong sense of purpose and urgency; implicit in their writing is the sense that a failure to respond will result in continued atrocities.

From the analysis of the print media articles in the NYT and the US’ reaction to the crisis in Darfur (see appendix A), the influence of the media on US policy towards Sudan can be isolated into three waves. The first wave is from March to April 2004. The NYT editorials written during this time period draw public attention to the atrocities being committed in Darfur and framed the conflict as genocide.[7] The awareness struck by their articles pushed the issued to be addressed in the United States Senate, where Senator Kennedy, Senator McCain, and a coalition of Senators (Senator Frist and Senator Daschel among them) called the crisis in Darfur genocide and began to lobby for US intervention.[8]

The second wave of influence corresponds with the lull in Senate efforts to influence the Bush administration to take action in Darfur. The last of articles produced by the NYT in June forces Darfur back on the Administration’s agenda.[9]This wave of the media campaign is marked by two events: a bipartisan letter by 51 Senator addressed to Secretary of State Collin Powell calling on the US government to take action in Darfur and the President Bush’s deployment of Powell to the Sudan region to assess the crisis and make a determination regarding the occurrence of genocide.[10]

The third wave of articles by the NYT occurred through July and August 2004, while Powell was in the Sudan region conducting his investigation. From the persistence of these articles, it appears as though there purpose is to keep the spotlight and the pressure on the conflict,[11] while the US Congress passes concurrent resolutions – first in the Senate, then in the House of Representatives –calling the crisis in Darfur genocide and subsequently calling of US action in this regard.[12] The culmination of the media pressure is seen in Powell’s declaration of genocide in Darfur on 9 September 2004, followed by President Bush’s declaration of genocide in Darfur to the United Nations General Assembly on 21 September 2004.[13] In its labeling of Darfur as a genocide the “United States stood virtually along among nations-states and non-governmental organization,”[14] supporting the claim that the US’ determination of genocide was, in large part, due to immense pressure from the media and subsequently the public.

There is one other trend in the NYT’s articles that is worth noting. As the debate in the US Congress over the question of genocide intensified and the resolution were past classifying Darfur as genocide, the rhetoric in the articles shifts – it not longer strongly asserts genocide is taking place, but rather begins to contemplate the technically of the definition of genocide and examines the situation for the point of those (United Nation, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International), who would not classify the conflict as genocide.[15] In this, it becomes evident that the intention of the articles has been achieved: the United States has recognized the crisis in Darfur as genocide; however, implicit in this intention was the belief that the recognition of genocide would force US engagement in the region. As it turns out, this was not the case.

Despite the US’ recognition that the conflict in Darfur is a genocide, both Powell[16] and President Bush[17] downplayed the calls for US intervention, advocating for working with African Union troop and the United Nations rather than deploying Americans to the regions. In doing so, they exercised article VIII of the Genocide Convention that states “any contracting party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate to prevent and suppress acts of genocide.”[18] In essence, the United States was able to declare the crisis genocide while simultaneously absolving itself of any requirement to physically intervene. This stripped away the illusion that a mere declaration of genocide would lead to significant action,[19] and made it clear the genocide is not a “magic word that triggers intervention.”[20]Moreover, it provides evidence to the fact that the Genocide Convention does not have the impetus that many originally thought it to have.[21]This makes the present situation in Darfur all the more frustrating, as while the US has determined it to be genocide, it has done little since. Although the International Criminal Court has issued indictments for Sudanese President Al-Bashir, Al-Bashir remains at large and the crisis in the Darfur region continues.

Through an examination of articles written in the New York Times it has become evident that there is a correlation between print media publication regarding the crisis in Darfur and the US’ subsequent declaration of genocide, suggesting that pressure from the media impacted this debate in the US government. However, this is where the media influence stopped, for while it was able to assist in the having Darfur declared a genocide, it has not be successful in mobilizing action beyond this point, and the topic of Darfur no longer makes the front page of newspapers.

Was then the media able to influence US foreign policy towards Darfur? To a certain extent yes. The media was able to influence the declaration of genocide. However, the flaw lies in the assumption that the declaration of genocide would prompt action. The intended goal was reached, the declaration of genocide was made, but the intended outcome of international action was not attainable. The United States was able to hid behind the United Nations and argue than it would support the efforts of the United Nations – the irony of course is that the UN did not believed the crisis to be a genocide. Moreover, once the conflict was declared genocide, it lost public interest for the same reason: the general belief that recognition would lead to intervention. This lack of public interest inevitably results in decrease in media attention, due to the basic economics of supply and demand. Could the situation have been different? That is hard to say. What can be concluded is that the rhetoric of the media can and does influence government policy.

Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law in post-conflict countries. You can email her at or follow her on twitter @joleneh340

[1]  Jang Hyun Kim, Tuo-Yu Su and Junhao Hong, “The Influence of Geopolitics and Foreign Policy on the US and Canadian Media: An Analysis of Newspaper Coverage of Sudan’s Darfur Conflict,” The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 12, no. 3 (2007): 87-95. 91

[2]  Ibid. 92

[3]  Ibid. 92

[4] See Nicholas Kristof, “A Whimp on Genocide,” The New York Times, sec. F, 18 September, 2005. and Nicholas Kristof, “Dithering as Others Die,” The New York Times, sec. F, 26 June, 2004.

[5] See Nicholas Kristof, “Ethnic Cleansing, again,” The New York Times, sec. A, 24 March, 2004.; Editorial Desk, “Peril in Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. A, 7 April, 2004.; Nicholas Kristof, “Bush Points the Way,” The New York Times, sec. A, 29 May, 2004.; Nicholas Kristof, “Dare we Call it Genocide?” The New York Times, sec. A, 16 June, 2004.; Editorial Desk, “Time for Action on Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. A, 18 June 2004, 2004.; Kristof, Dithering as Others Die, 13.

[6]  Ibid.

[7] See Kristof, Ethnic Cleansing, again; Kurt Mills, “A Genocide in Sudan, and our Silence,” The New York Times, sec. Letters to the Editor, 30 March, 2004.; Samantha Power, “Remember Rwanda, but Take Action in Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. A, 6 April, 2004.; Editorial Desk, Peril in Sudan; Nicholas Kristof, “Cruel Choices,” The New York Times, sec. A, 14 April, 2004.; Nicholas Kristof, “Attacked, Expelled, Ignored,” The New York Times, sec. 6, 25 April, 2004.

[8] See United States Congress, Executive Session, 108th Congress sess., 2004, , (accessed 2 May 2013).; United States Congress, On Sudan, S4678 Cong., 108th Session sess., 2004, , (accessed 2 May 2013).; United States Senate, “Condemning the Government of the Republic of Sudan,” Congressional Record 150, no. 62 (6 May, 2004): S4931, (accessed 2 May 2013).

[9] See Kristof, Bush Points the Way; Yazen Joudeh, “Suffering and SIlence,” The New York Times, sec. A, 2 June, 2004.; Marc Lacey, “White House Reconsiders its Policy on Crisis in Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. A, 12 June, 2004.; Kristof, Dare we Call it Genocide?, 21.; Editorial Desk, Time for Action on Sudan; Nicholas Kristof, “Sudan’s Final Solution,” The New York Times, sec. A, 19 June, 2004.; Foreign Desk, “World Briefing Africa: Sudan: Genocide Charged,” The New York Times, sec. A, 24 June, 2004.; Kristof, Dithering as Others Die, 13.

[10]  Heinze, The Rhetoric of Genocide in US Foreign Policy: Rwanda and Darfur Compared, 359-383. 386

[11] See Editorial Desk, “Death in Darfur,” The New York Times, sec. A, 3 July, 2004.; John Prendergast, “Sudan’s Ravines of Death,” The New York Times, sec. A, 15 July, 2004.; Nicholas Kristof, “Saying no to Killers,” The New York Times, sec. A, 21 July, 2004.; Marc Lacey, “In Darfur, Appalling Atrocity, but is that Genocide? ,” The New York Times, sec. A, 23 July, 2004.; Eduardo Gonzalez, “The Sudan Horror: A Time to Act,” The New York Times, sec. A, 27 July, 2004.; Marc Lacey, “Sudanese Suffer as Militias Hide in Plain Sight,” The New York Times, sec. F, 6 August, 2004.; Sam Dealey, “Misreading the Truth in Sudan,” The New York Times, sec. F, 8 August, 2004.; Somini Sengupta, “Crisis in Sudan: Thorny Issues Underlying Carnage in Darfur Complicate World’s Response,” The New York Times, sec. F, 16 August, 2004.; Ibid.

[12]  Concurrent Resolution Declaring Genocide in Darfur, S. Con. Res. 133, 2nd sess., 108th Congress, (22 July, 2004): ,; Concurrent Resolution Declaring Genocide in Darfur, Sudan, H. Con. Res. 467, 2nd Session sess., 108th Congress, (7 September, 2004): ,

[13]  Heinze, The Rhetoric of Genocide in US Foreign Policy: Rwanda and Darfur Compared, 359-383. 386

[14]  Lippman, Darfur: The Politics of Genocide Denial Syndrome, 193-213.

[15]  Dealey, Misreading the Truth in Sudan, 11.

[16]  Heinze, The Rhetoric of Genocide in US Foreign Policy: Rwanda and Darfur Compared, 359-383. 372

[17]  George W. Bush and John Kerry, “The First Presidential Debate,” Commission on Presidential Debates (30 September 2004),; MainLayout::init (accessed 2 May 2013).

[18]  United Nations, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide ¶VIII

[19]  Kasfir, Sudan’s Darfur: Is it Genocide, 195-202. 202

[20]  Strauss, Darfur and the Genocide Debate, 123-133. 131.

[21] Ibid. 123