Kristof’s Publication of Child Rape Victim’s Name and Photo was Kind of Messed Up: Just Ask Kristof

So, last week, Nicholas Kristof wrote an Op-Ed about the DRC that followed the usual theme (rape & lions + wailing and gnashing of teeth over why conflict remains “overlooked” or “forgotten” by the western media). This time, though, he added something new: the name and photograph of a nine year old girl who was brutally raped by rebel soldiers. He also described her home town and family in great detail, and mentioned that she has contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

WTF?

I’ve written before about why I think it is unethical to present rape victims in this way. Especially if they are children, who cannot give meaningful consent. And especially if they live in a society where “most raped women are rejected by their husbands, and raped girls like [her] have difficulty marrying.”

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Nicholas Kristof himself, last May, on why he and his employer The New York Times make it a policy not to publish the names or photos of rape victims:

“The practical consequence of naming victims in newspapers would, I think, be a disaster: even fewer women (and men) would report rapes. So I vote for sticking with the existing policy until we’re all more enlightened.”

I’m sorry, but quoi? It would be a “disaster” to name rape victims, but not when they are Congolese children who face even deeper discrimination than rape victims here in the United States?

I don’t question that Kristof’s intentions are good. I’m sure that he thought that publicizing this little girl’s story in lurid detail would somehow benefit her and others like her, through our old friend “raising awareness.” But that doesn’t make it okay: good intentions are not enough. And, more importantly, it’s not a reasonable choice for him to make, because he’s not the one who will have to bear the consequences if it goes wrong. This child is. And she is nine years old. As in “t-minus nine years to the age of majority.” As in “cannot give meaningful consent.” As in “don’t publish her goddamn picture, and all available identifying information about her, in the apparently-laxly-edited Paper of Record.”

P.S. If only there were guidance on this issue from some sort of international body dedicated to children’s rights. . . .Oh, wait! Alert reader Hervé reminds me that UNICEF has issued a comprehensive set of Principles for Ethical Reporting on Children. They include “Always change the name and obscure the visual identity of any child who is identified as [...] a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation.” And “avoid categorisations or descriptions that expose a child to negative reprisals – including additional physical or psychological harm, or to lifelong abuse, discrimination or rejection by their local communities. “
Man, those utopian UN types, with their unreasonable demands and high expectations. When will they ever learn?

Steve Bloomfield on Why Abu Sharatis Happen (Apparently, it’s Our Fault!)

[After reading journalist Steve Bloomfield's comments on my posts about Abu Sharati, I invited him to submit a guest post on the structural issues in the journalism business that might lead to these sorts of problems. His response follows. -Amanda]

The mistakes made by three reporters who quoted the mysterious Abu Sharati illuminate a broader crisis in journalism. And it’s partly your fault.

Over the past few years newspapers across the world have been losing money. The global recession has only exacerbated the situation. Severe cuts have been made at a host of major newspapers and agencies. In the US the New York Times has been forced to take funding from a mysterious Mexican billionaire, the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times are technically bankrupt, and the race is on to become the first US city without a daily newspaper.

In the UK all the major newspapers have made staff cuts. The Independent, a paper I worked at for seven years, has made two rounds of voluntary redundancies in the past two years, followed by a handful of compulsory job losses. Less journalists are trying to produce the same number of pages. The foreign desk, once staffed by four editors – most of whom had worked in the field – is now reduced to two. The number of staff foreign correspondents has also dropped, as has the number of stringers employed on annual retainers.

Sub-editors (copy editors in the US) have also been cut. So the Africanist on the subs desk who knew that Daniel arap Moi had become president of Kenya in 1978 not 1977 as you had incorrectly written has been replaced by a freelancer who normally does sport and will give ‘arap’ a capital ‘A’.

Those reporters still lucky enough to have jobs are now having to do far more work – and with far fewer resources. When I first moved to Nairobi in 2006 I could easily persuade my foreign editor that I needed to go to northern Uganda just by telling him there was a chance the peace talks could work (I was wrong; they failed. But the stories I did were still worthwhile).

By the time I left the paper at the end of 2008 it was difficult to persuade editors to agree to a story in Kisumu, a 45-minute, $100 flight away, without writing a detailed, fully-costed proposal for at least two stories I could do there.

As foreign correspondents travel less they are inevitably asked to do more stories remotely. As Shashank Bengali points out, “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.”

These have to come from somewhere. As someone who has spent many a fruitless afternoon trying to get hold of one, just one Darfuri rebel or civil society rep or camp elder on his satellite phone I can tell you it’s not always straightforward. Finding a decent quote as the deadline fast approaches is seen as more important than whether the words actually add anything to the story. You’ve got a government spokesman, an international aid worker and a Darfuri IDP. Great. Done. Send. Now, who can you speak to about Guinea?

Once the article arrives in London or New York over-worked foreign editors checking too much copy and under-qualified subs checking little more than typos will have far less chance of catching any mistakes, let alone calling the reporter and asking ‘so, who is this Abu Sharati chap and should we really describe him as the representative of the IDPs?’

I said this was partly your fault. A bit unfair, perhaps, but your reading habits – and mine – play a big part in this. Cuts are being made because newspapers are losing money. Yet as my former colleague Johann Hari points out, this is not because the stories we produce are unpopular. Far from it:

“More people are reading the stories we write than ever before: via the web, we have a higher readership than in the most inky-fingered Golden Age.”

The problem is this: we give our stuff away for free. This worked okay when newspaper websites could make money from advertising but it fails abysmally now. Building back the pay walls has worked for the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of whom have seen the number of their online readers rise despite the fact that they charge. Rupert Murdoch’s experience at the Journal has persuaded him to follow a similar strategy at his UK papers.

Profits rather than losses won’t necessarily bring all the old jobs back. And even if they do there is a debate to be had about how journalism, particularly foreign coverage, works.

Should newspapers employ one or two full-time correspondents for a continent the size of Africa, or would it make more sense to have a dozen stringers spread from east to west? Should correspondents ever write about one country when they’re sat in another? Should newspapers move away from breaking news – where most of the mistakes occur – and instead focus on proper analysis and features?

Or should readers just accept that sometimes journalists will make mistakes? And continue to point them out when they occur?

I imagine there are quite a few foreign correspondents in Africa who will be double and triple checking the identity of their IDP representatives from now on. Until the next frantic deadline, anyway.

Part III: Who Is Abu Sharati, and Does It Even Matter? (Yes. Yes, It Does.)

(This is Part III of the “Who Is Abu Sharati?” series. You might want to read Part I and Part II first.)

After weeks of research, I have been unable to find any information that makes me think Abu Sharati, supposedly the “representative” of Darfuri refugees and IDPs, exists -except to the extent that someone, who possesses neither that name nor that position, has been making statements to the press. And that whoever that person is, he is apparently awfully fond of the rebel leader Abdel Wahid Al-Nur.

I cannot think of any way to interpret the information I have been given that would allow me to conclude that no journalist has either (a) lied to me, (b) failed to follow the professional ethics that a journalist should, or (c) been duped by a fake “refugee representative” when any minor amount of digging or critical thought would have alerted them that there was more to the story. Frankly, the Occam’s Razor explanation here really seems like it’s (d): all of the above.

So, does it matter? Is it a big deal if a few journalists messed up, and accidentally published quotes from a mythical character, presenting them as if they represent a unified refugee position on the stories in question?

Yes. It matters.

First of all, it matters because if “Abu Sharati” -whoever he really is- does not have any legitimate authority to speak on behalf of Darfur’s displaced people, then presenting his views as if he does is basically just stealing. Being able to tell your own story matters, all the time, for everyone. Losing the power to do that matters too. That’s the reason why, if I were to start calling journalists and claiming that I speak on behalf of all attorneys in the United States, the ABA would have a legitimate beef with me. I have no right to claim that I speak for other people without their permission.

It would matter to me if someone stole my authority to tell my own story. And I’m not living in an IDP camp. I haven’t been forced to flee for my life. I haven’t lost my possessions or my freedom. I haven’t suffered the trauma of living through the hell that Darfur has been in the last few years. My life and future security are not riding on the outcome of anyone’s peace negotiations, unification efforts, or high-level talks. I do not need to worry that the wrong quote in the right newspaper could affect the outcome of those negotiations. And still, it would matter to me. How much must it matter to people who are in that situation?

The second reason why it matters is that presenting a political argument in the guise of a humanitarian sentiment is disingenuous at best, and dangerous at worst. It is disingenuous because there is a political negotiation going on in Darfur right now, in which the IDPs have both a stake and a say. Gration is attempting to unify the various rebel factions and groups, and convince them to join the peace negotiations. This is, it seems to me, a good idea. As Bec Hamilton noted last week, there is no doubt that “fractured rebel groups only serve Khartoum’s interests,” or that “a unified structure would strengthen the rebels’ hand in negotiations.” However, some of the rebel factions’ leaders, including Abdel Wahid, oppose that unification process. This is hardly a neutral position: they are concerned with maintaining their own power, and the weight their wishes will carry in the negotiations. Publishing statements intended to undermine Gration can hardly, in that context, be seen as a neutral humanitarian matter.

Presenting the views of “Sharati” as the views of all Darfuri displaced people could also be quite dangerous. The SLA is engaged in a military conflict with the Khartoum government. The Khartoum government has, for years, shown a terrible willingness to support egregious attacks on civilians. The international community has rightly condemned those attacks as illegal and morally wrong, not only because of their brutality but also because they have been directed against civilians, who are protected under international law. Surely it is a bad idea, in that context, to attribute the arguments of one rebel faction to all civilian IDPs? Doesn’t it seem like the suggestion that there is no daylight between the interests of that faction and the interests of those civilians could be abused by certain people in Khartoum, and used as a justification for attacks on civilians? It wouldn’t be the first time such a pretext was used against the people in the camps: remember the expulsion of aid groups from the camps after the ICC issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest, on the grounds that the aid workers had supposedly passed information to the ICC?

Thirdly, it matters that the media quoted “Sharati” misleadingly, because it allows any of us who trusted those stories to be, well, misled. The Save Darfur movement is massive, and has motivated a huge number of grass-roots activists to support the cause, many of whom have never been to Darfur and rely on the media for information about the humanitarian situation there. They are ordinary people, (except when they are Mia Farrow or Nat Hentoff), with regular jobs and lives, and they don’t have access to firsthand experience to guide them. So when the mainstream media quotes Sharati, they trust that he is who the articles say he is. That lends power not only to the views expressed in mainstream publications, but also to the things that he says in less reputable publications. So, if it’s not true that he can reasonably speak for the displaced, then the activists who listen to him have been duped, and that sucks for them. And if it turns out that the thing they’ve been duped into doing is supporting one particular dude’s particular political ambitions because those views are presented as a neutral humanitarian perspective, then I think that sucks even more.

And finally, what the hell is up with quoting someone under a pseudonym without any mention of that fact? Without so much as a “goes by the name of” or “asked to be described only as”? Seriously, what is that about?

If there is a reasonable explanation for all this that does not involve any of options (a) through (d), then I trust one of you clever people will let me know what it is. Until then, I am going to sleep. I always find sincere emotions just exhausting, and now I’m one sleepy blogger.

* Photos of Darfuri refugees who shouldn’t have their narratives stolen without permission from hdptcar’s photostream.

Part II: Who Is Abu Sharati, And Why Is the Mainstream Media Quoting Him Without a Good Answer to That Question?


When last you heard from me, I was all confused about who Abu Sharati -quoted hither and yon as a “spokesperson” for Darfur’s displaced- might actually be.

I hadn’t been able to find any non-journalists who believed he existed, and several of my contacts had suggested that he was the fictional creation of Abdel Wahid Al Nur, the rebel leader who heads one faction of the SLA.

The next step, I figured, was to contact the journalists who had written the articles. If there was a reasonable explanation for how a spokesperson for two and a half million people could also be invisible to the naked eye, I figured they would have it. They didn’t.

There were three bylined articles in the mainstream press quoting Sharati. The earliest, Dozens are Killed in Raid on Darfur Camp, was written by the New York Times’ Lydia Polgreen in August of last year. Next came Andrew Heavens’ March 19 2009 piece for Reuters, Aid Expulsions Spark Fears in Darfur Camps. The last was the AP story that first caught my attention on September 11, Darfur Refugee Says U.S. Envoy Unwelcome in Camps, by Sarah El Deeb for the Associated Press. I emailed all three bylined reporters, and asked if they could explain the mystery behind Mr. Sharati.

The Associated Press

The AP’s Sarah El Deeb responded that she had personally met with Sharati. According to her, he did not hold any official position that allowed him to speak for two and a half million other people. Rather, she said, he was a “self-proclaimed representative” who “travels in hiding from camp to camp” because he is wanted by the government. And then she dropped -in parentheses, after signing off- this minor piece of information:

“(By the way: Sharati is a Darfur word for a local representative. I think all this needs to be made clear in the next report. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.)”

In other words, she’d published a quote from “Abu Sharati,” stating that he was a refugee representative, when in fact he was neither (a) Abu Sharati, or (b) a refugee representative. Another journalist I spoke to, who has traveled to Darfur, confirmed that the name was a pseudonym. And according to Alex de Waal, the word “Sharati” is the plural of “Shartai,” which refers to a Fur administrative chief under the Sultanic system. So “Abu Sharati” would mean “chief of chiefs” within the Fur tradition, which I suppose could be translated as “representative.”

Personally, I find the use of a pseudonym, without any indication that it’s not the speaker’s real name, misleading. But you don’t need to take my word for it. This is what the AP’s Statement of News Values and Principles has to say on the matter:

FABRICATIONS:
Nothing in our news report – words, photos, graphics, sound or video – may be fabricated. We don’t use pseudonyms, composite characters or fictional names, ages, places or dates. “

I pressed El Deeb to explain why she would run quotes from “Sharati” without further explanation, given that he had neither then name nor the position attributed to him in her article, and appeared to espouse the positions of one particular SLA faction. She responded that it “became clear after speaking to him that he does represent the general sentiment of the population of IDPs, a lot of whom view Wahid as their representative.”

That was exciting news to me. I, too, would like to be a self-appointed representative! I feel that I represent the “general sentiment” of lawyers in America, and I’ll bet that “many” of them agree with my political views. (If you have any doubts, just ask my friend Kate -she’s also an American lawyer, and will totally confirm that this is all true.) So if I call the AP, they will be happy to publish quotes stating that every attorney in the country supports my political positions, and attribute them to “Princess Lawpants, the spokesperson for American lawyers,” right? There wouldn’t be anything irregular about that? Sweet. Political muscles, prepare to be flexed.


The New York Times

The Times’ Lydia Polgreen said that she had written the Times story from her base in Senegal, and had not actually travelled to Darfur to report it. She had never seen “Sharati,” or spoken to him. Rather, the quote had come via a Times stringer in Darfur named Izzadine Abdul Rasoul. (I should note that her location and the stringer’s contribution were both noted clearly in the original story.)

I contacted Izzadine directly, and asked my questions: who was Sharati? What was the source of his claimed “representative” authority? Was he even real?

Izzadine replied that he knew Sharati personally. His full name was “Husein Abu Sharati,” but sometimes he also went by “Abu Shartai.” (The singular form of the word, as noted above -I guess maybe he’s only plural on special occasions.) Izzadine claimed that Sharati was “heading the heads” of the 54 tribes who make up the displaced in Darfur, and was therefore “a representative of all IDPs and refugees” from those 54 tribes. However, Sharati couldn’t speak or meet with me, because “the refugees and IDPs would not allow it.”

Uh huh. So, this guy is supposedly the “head of the heads” of all of the tribes, but isn’t allowed to talk to me? Those are some awfully specific instructions:

“Congratulations, Mr. Sharati/Shartai/Other secret name! We’ve selected you as the holder of the highest office in Darfur, which comes with the right to make statements to the press on our behalf. You can even expressly espouse the interests of one particular rebel leader, should that strike your fancy.

The only thing you can’t do is talk to that annoying blogger Amanda. She is right out. We don’t like her face, and we heard a rumor she has cooties. Just saying.”

The “head of the tribes” description also struck me as implausible, even though that is the literal translation of “Abu Sharati.” First of all, the Times article in question actually only described Sharati as the representative of the 90,000 IDPs living in Kalma camp. While it’s not actually contradictory to be the representative of one camp and all the others too, it seems like an odd description to use. We don’t call Barack Obama “President of the people who live in Maine.”

More to the point, the assertion that Sharati held such an official, high position just didn’t jibe with anything else I had learned. I couldn’t find any other sources who had encountered a “chief of chiefs” in Darfur, or who believed such a person would be a secret figure without a public profile. Bec Hamilton, who’s currently writing a book about the Darfur crisis and just returned from a visit to the IDP camps, said that she encountered a number of IDP representatives, but none who were entitled to speak on behalf of all Darfur’s displaced. And Alex de Waal explained that if Abu Sharati was truly elected by all the sheikhs of the camps, then “he would be a well-known figure and not mysterious at all,” because “when visitors go to the camps or when a meeting is organized (e.g. to send a delegation to meet with Mbeki) these are the structures that are used, and they are all well-known and visible.” Nor did it seem possible to him that a “head of the heads of the tribes” would hide himself out of security concerns: “Even the most radical and outspoken camp leaders operate in an open fashion.” And, of course, Sarah El Deeb’s description of Sharati as a “self-appointed representative” was completely at odds with Izzadine’s version of the facts. Somebody was, at the very least, mistaken.

I asked Izzadine if he could explain the difference between his description of Sharati and Sarah El Deeb’s. Though skeptical, I was still open to the possibility that there could be a reasonable explanation. Perhaps there had been a misunderstanding because of a language barrier? Could “Sharati” be a term used by a number of people when speaking with the press, so that the different reporters had actually spoken with different people? Had Sarah simply misunderstood what Sharati had told her?

Izzadine’s explanation, however, was not one that I consider reasonable. He informed me that Sarah El Deeb must be “Janjaweed,” or at least a sympathizer of the Khartoum government. He cited no evidence for this other than her Arab name. It is my understanding that she is Egyptian, but to suggest that she must be a sympathizer with the IDPs’ persecutors on that basis alone is clearly ridiculous, and I don’t detect any pro-Khartoum bias in her other stories on Sudan. Needless to say, that response did not give me more confidence in Izzadine’s version of events. I don’t consider that kind of crazy talk helpful.

My correspondence with Izzadine continued for several weeks. I asked again if it would be possible for me to speak with Sharati, or for someone who I trust to meet with him. Eventually, he sent me a number for an intermediary who was supposed to link me to Sharati, but the number does not appear to be functional. I never got through.

Reuters

Andrew Heavens was not willing to be quoted by name in this blog, so I haven’t included his responses here.

But because I am willing to be quoted by name in this blog, let me say for the record that I think it’s extremely lame for a reporter to publish a bylined article, but then to refuse to discuss it on the record when legitimate questions about the existence of a named source arise. I hope that Andrew will change his mind, and send a response that I can publish. Until then, I leave you with this quote from “The Essentials of Reuters Sourcing“:

Honesty in sourcing
Be honest in sourcing and never deliberately mislead the reader. Never cite sources in the plural when you have only one source. In a conflict, dispute or negotiation, always try to speak to all sides, and make clear which side your source is on, or whether the source is a third party.”

Yes. Please do that.

(Does any of this matter, anyway? I think yes. To find out why, read Part III: Who is Abu Sharati, and Does it Really Matter?)

* Photo of Darfuri Refugees from hdptcar’s photostream.

Part I: Who Is Abu Sharati, and Why Am I the Only One Asking That Question?

Photo of Darfuri refugees from OnceDaily’s Photostream

Is it possible that The New York Times, the Associated Press, and Reuters have all published quotes misleadingly attributed to a Darfuri “refugee representative,” who is in fact (a) fictional, and (b) part of the PR operation of the rebel leader Abdel Wahid Al Nur? According to this Intrepid Girl Reporter’s research, the answer is yes: very possible.

On September 11th, I noticed this AP article in my Google News alerts. The piece (a longer version is here), quotes someone named Abu Sharati as a “representative of Darfur’s refugee community.” A little googling revealed similar quotes in articles from Reuters and the New York Times. My curiosity was piqued: there are a lot of Darfuri refugees and IDPs, and they’re spread out in camps across Darfur and Chad, (not to mention the urban populations in Egypt, Israel, and elsewhere). How could they have selected one representative to speak for their entire community? And if they hadn’t, what sort of legitimate authority could Abu Sharati claim to speak on their behalf?

One might think that the articles quoting Sharati would describe the source of his authority, but it turns out one would be wrong about that. Was he the president of a refugee organization? The chief of a particular tribe? A winner of the #1 Refugee Hearthrob Pageant crown? Perhaps he was the Lord of the Refugees. One Refugee to find them, One Refugee to bring them together, and One Refugee to Speak for them all?

The articles offered no clues.

Curiosity growing more enpiquaged by the moment, I emailed a contact of mine who had worked on the Darfur peace process in the past. Did he know who the mysterious representative might be?

He did not. To my surprise, he replied that the alleged representative might not even exist: no one he knew had ever met Sharati, and whenever delegations visited Kalma camp, where he supposedly lived, there was no sign of him anywhere. I then contacted a senior UN official in Darfur. He told me that his colleagues had already concluded that Sharati was a “fictitious character,” but after receiving my email, he inquired with the UNAMID police who work inside Kalma camp. They also believe “such a person does not exist.” I heard the same thing over and over again, from various other sources. If Abu Sharati existed, he was apparently invisible to the naked eye.

Who, then, was the source of the statements? None of my contacts could be sure, but most of them 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.

Abdel Wahid, who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Pariscame to Europe to bring the plight of Darfur to the attention of the international community,” heads a faction of the SLA that still holds significant territory in Darfur. He refuses to participate in the peace negotiations until he can be assured peace in the camps, compensation for all victims, and an entirely Western UNAMID force to provide security. (One wonders what he plans to demand in the negotiations once all that’s in place.) Abdel Wahid has also resisted Gration’s efforts to unify the various factions of his rebel movement and Darfur’s other rebel groups. A source familiar with that process told me that Abdel Wahid is under a great deal of pressure from his own commanders to return to Sudan. He told me that he was beginning to hear rumbles of dissent amongst IDPs in camps that have traditionally been strongholds of support for Abdel Wahid, because they believe that it is time for the leader to leave his comfortable life in Paris and return to Sudan to make good on his promises. Viewed through that lens, his criticism of Gration made sense: undermining support for the U.S. envoy could also be a way to disrupt the unification effort, and lessen the pressure he is under from his own commanders and supporters.

Google seemed to back up the theory that Sharati was a creation of Abdel Wahid’s PR machine. A little more searching turned up a number of statements and press releases from the mysterious Mr. S, quite a few of which contained express support for Abdel Wahid. I think my favorite was his Open Letter to President Obama last April, which closes with the claim that the “only legitimate representative” for the IDPs and refugees in camps is “the Founder and Chairperson of Sudan Liberation Movement/ Army Mr. Abdel Wahid Mohamed Ahmed El nur [sic] the defender of our rights.” Not exactly a neutral humanitarian perspective, Captain Subtlety.

Nor was this press release, posted in the midst of my investigationing last week. In it, “Sharati” claims to have uncovered a plot between Gration and the Khartoum government to support military attacks on Abdel Wahid’s territories in Darfur. State has denied that Gration even was in Khartoum on the day of the alleged meeting, but even if he had been, the allegations would still seem far-fetched. What would be the incentive for Gration to approve such a plan? And if Sharati is an IDP spokesperson rather than a political operative, then where would he have gotten the information about the meeting?

At this point, you’re probably wondering if the reporters who wrote the stories in question have a rational explanation for the mysterious Sharati phenomenon. If so, it’s you lucky day: you can read all about their responses to my questions in Part II: Who is Abu Sharati, And Why is the Mainstream Media Quoting Him Without a Good Answer to That Question?

In Which We Discover That Africa’s Vital Orphan Harvest Is at Risk of Blight

From Donald McNeil’s column last Saturday, If AIDS Went the Way of Smallpox:

“In poor countries, [people who die of AIDS] too often leave behind a blighted harvest of orphans, coldly furious infected spouses and spiteful neighbors cackling with schadenfreude and lying about their own H.I.V. status.”

God, that is serious. If the African orphan harvest is blighted, where will celebrities get their babies? Think of the human impact here, people! Paris Hilton hasn’t gotten to adopt a single African baby yet. There is no justice in this world.

McNeil is right. We’d better develop that AIDS vaccine, stat.

Breaking: New York Times Writer Pens Amusingly Self-Aware Sentence About Human Trafficking

Congratulations, Neil Genzlinger, you made both of us giggle:

“Fatal Promises,” a documentary about human trafficking, seems to start from the premise that no one has ever heard of this vexing international problem before.”

We hope Genzlinger doesn’t get in trouble for endorsing the radical position that once an issue has been discussed at length in everything from the New York Times to a Lifetime freakin’ miniseries it just might be time to move away from vague coverage designed to Raise Awareness.

In Which The New York Times Both Sets ‘Em Up, and Knocks ‘Em Down

Talk about Land of Rape and Lions:

That was the NYTimes.com front page last night, helpfully captured and sent in by alert reader Andrew. (Hi Andrew!) In case you can’t make it out, that headline would be “Congo Plummets Into Rape and Murder.”

By this morning, they’d changed the headline, in an apparent effort to jam some more clichés in there. Now it’s “Symbol of Unhealed Congo: Male Rape Victims.”

It’s like they snatched the “rape-victim-as-symbolic-objectjokes right out of our bloggy little fingers. But if they thought that would be enough to head us off, they were sadly misguided. Our Lucky Charms based grades for the article are as follows:

  • We award Jeffrey Gettleman, the article’s author, two Red Balloons for writing about male rape. As we’ve previously noted, dudes can and do get raped too. Coverage of sexual violence is better when that is acknowledged.
  • However, we must immediately deduct one of his balloons for the decision to write about a “sudden spike” in male rape without citing any statistics regarding rates of male rape either before or after the alleged spiking began. And we’re going to go ahead and deduct the other balloon for the failure to even mention the possibility that the rate of male rape and the rate of victims reporting male rape might be vastly different. Vague affirmations from international and domestic NGOs plus four concrete cases does not add up to a well-reported story. Unless we’re to believe that the “spike” in question is from zero rapes to four.
  • One Purple Horseshoe for the (presumably unwitting) black humor of describing a rise in rapes in the DRC as a “spike.” Because, you know, heh heh. And also ew.
  • And, finally, we deduct eleventy billion Red Balloons and a further twelveteen Purple Horseshoes for the headlines. It’s nice to know that we’re right on with our post tags, but christ, people, you’re supposed to be professionals here. Rape victims are not symbols. And even if they were, using four raped dudes to symbolize an entire country struggling to end the world’s deadliest conflict is just not helpful.

(We do, however, offer a full complement of marshmallows to whoever decided to run a sadly un-screenshotted ad for Disney World featuring The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata” slogan in the banner above the article this morning. It’s since been replaced by some boring healthcare thing that doesn’t involve lions at all, but it was glorious while it lasted.)

It’s Numbers! Hooray Numbers!

I’m handing out some unsolicited Lucky Charms red balloons to Ryan Briggs today for whipping out a thoughtful, data-supported answer to Texas in Africa’s rhetorical question: “If you took all the stories about African countries in American newspapers and removed those about poverty, disease, and war, I wonder what would be left?”

Ryan surveyed the content tags on New York Times articles reporting on “Africa” (as distinct from those articles focused on events in a specific country) between 1981 and 2008 and found the following*:

  • 16% of the articles on Africa in the New York Times between 1981 and 2008 were tagged as being about AIDS
  • 12% were on foreign aid
  • 5% were on famine
  • 5% were on civil war and guerrilla warfare
  • 4% were on immigration and refugees

Interesting, huh?

*Note that each article may have more than one theme, so these numbers can’t be aggregated.

Soylent Green is People, But the NY Times Thinks that the Jury is Still Out on Iraqis

When I checked the New York Times online this morning, the main story on the front page* was “Baby Rescued From Wreckage of Car Bombing in Iraq.” It featured a photograph of a woman holding a baby on her lap, and the following lede:

“The rescue of a baby from the wreckage of a bombing that killed eight seemed to be proof that Iraqis were still capable of extraordinary acts of humanity.”

I think my favorite part is the “seemed to be” qualifier. Just to let us know that it could be a false alarm -Iraqis might not actually be capable of extraordinary acts of humanity.

*(If the home page has changed by the time you read this, the line is in the fourth paragraph of the story itself.)