Media research book analyzes North American coverage of the elections, referendum and independence of South Sudan.

[[{“fid”:”3892″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 200px; height: 300px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Walter C. Soderland and E. Donald Briggs, The Independence of South Sudan: The Role of Mass Media in the Responsibility to Prevent (Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2014). Paperback, $38.99

By Gemma Richardson

Reports of violent conflict, the employment of child soldiers and the displacement of some 1.4 million people over the past year alone in South Sudan have diminished almost any hope that the 2011 independence of the country would bring peace to the region. Well before the latest violence erupted in Juba in December 2013, South Sudan was considered to be one of the poorest regions on Earth and had already been embroiled in conflict for decades.

Examining how the media approached covering these volatile factors is what Walter Soderland and E. Donald Briggs set out to do in their book The Independence of South Sudan: The Role of Mass Media in the Responsibility to Prevent

Africa’s newest nation came into being in July 2011, when a virtually unanimous vote was made in favour of independence from Sudan. The referendum that led to independence was the result of a peace deal made several years prior that put an end to the continent’s longest-running civil war. However, there were many concerns about the likelihood of new mass killings or genocide leading up to, and even after, independence. Five days after the declaration of independence of South Sudan, a Globe and Mail editorial on July 14, 2011 stated: “Though there is much to celebrate, once the independence party is over, Africa’s newest country faces an almost unbelievable number of political, security and infrastructure challenges.” The editorial also went on to list the tensions still lingering with the Sudanese regime and South Sudan’s internal conflicts. 

These dire sentiments were echoed throughout the newspaper coverage analyzed by Soderland and Briggs in their book. The concerns about new mass killings and violent conflict even after independence for South Sudan motivated the authors to examine what efforts were made by the international community to implement the “responsibility to prevent” (part of the UN’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine that has unique Canadian origins). In order to do this, Soderland and Briggs focused specifically on the role that newspapers played in advocating any sort of prevention obligation in South Sudan over the course of three particular events—the April 2010 elections in Sudan, the January 2011 referendum in the south and the July 2011 declaration of independence of South Sudan. 

Of course, choosing to focus on the media coverage surrounding these events rests on the premise that news media have an impact on public opinion and foreign policy decision-making. The authors reviewed the theoretical frameworks of agenda setting and framing in a dedicated chapter in the book and used these models as the rationale for why not all humanitarian crises are treated equally. After logically moving through a brief history of the north-south divide in Sudan, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the theoretical frameworks they employed, the remaining chapters of the book are devoted to the three qualitative content analyses of newspaper coverage of the elections, referendum and independence.

Soderland and Briggs analyzed a full two months of coverage surrounding each of these events in four different newspapers—the Ottawa Citizen and The Globe and Mail in Canada, and the Washington Post and the New York Times in the U.S. This resulted in a data set of 200 stories, almost 64 per cent of which were from the U.S. papers. The key aspect the authors aimed to address through their three separate content analyses was the extent to which North American press coverage highlighted the need for their respective governments to adopt a “will to intervene” in the event of a new humanitarian disaster in South Sudan. 

Ultimately, what Soderland and Briggs found was not all that surprising—American, and to a lesser extent Canadian, newspapers were apprehensive about the developments in Sudan over the study periods, but there were no real attempts to spur their governments into greater action. In addition to the lack of media-generated discussion around prevention initiatives, the authors found an almost total absence of advocacy-type letter writing by concerned citizens in the four major newspapers they analyzed, highlighting the lack of public engagement or policy initiatives pursued by governments in relation to South Sudan. 


While Soderland and Briggs were looking to find support for the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and concluded that it was mainly absent, they did acknowledge that more than half of the coverage in their sample consisted of substantial, well-researched stories by reporters deployed to South Sudan, even if that coverage rarely made its way to the front page or engaged the editorial boards. Op-ed treatment was quite adequate as well, especially in the American newspapers. So while intervention initiatives were usually not examined or advocated for in the media, editors were still treating Sudan as more than just a fleeting concern. One of the interesting differences noted between Canadian and American coverage was that U.S. reporting contained a greater amount of advocacy for a larger international role in assisting with Sudan’s problems. This included using important trigger words like ethnic cleansing and genocide, as well as calling attention to the role of celebrities like George Clooney and non-governmental organizations in advocating for U.S. foreign policy towards Sudan.

Soderland and Briggs, both professors emeriti with the department of political science at the University of Windsor, have extensive experience studying media coverage of conflict in Africa. Their previous publications together include The Responsibility to Protect in Darfur: The Role of Mass Media (with Abdel Salam) and Africa’s Deadliest Conflict: Media Coverage of the Humanitarian Disaster in the Congo and the United Nations Response, 1997-2008 (with Tom Pierre Najem and Blake C. Roberts).

The research in this book is an important contribution to the growing media studies literature surrounding crimes against humanity, such Amanda Grzyb’s edited collection The World and Darfur and The Media and the Rwandan Genocide edited by Allan Thompson. However, unlike Grzyb and Thompson’s books, The Independence of South Sudan offers a much more narrow snapshot in time without the same depth of scope or analysis. While the book offers brief, albeit useful primers on South Sudan, the Responsibility to Prevent and media framing and effects theories, in addition to the solid content analyses on the three events, the book serves limited purposes, perhaps even more so now that new violence has erupted in South Sudan.

Nevertheless, for those interested in South Sudan or media coverage of international affairs, it is an important read and highly digestible even for those who are not well-versed in these subject areas. It is unfortunate to think that in light of the new conflict in South Sudan, there is likely already enough material to begin another study of media coverage modelled on Soderland and Briggs’ approach to determine whether the framing of these new episodes of violence might mobilize public opinion or policy makers to support prevention efforts.

[[{“fid”:”3160″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“style”:”height: 101px; width: 100px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]] Gemma Richardson is a professor in the School of Media Studies at Humber and recently completed her PhD in media studies at Western University in London, Ont.