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How journalism got it way more wrong than you’d ever imagine in Darfur

October 5, 2009

Stop right there, and click this link. Amanda Taub, one amazing half of the awesome duo Wronging Rights, spent some serious time trying to answer what should’ve been an easy question: “Who is Abu Sharati?”

She thought his description in the press, as a “representative of the IDPs” — which is to say, thousands and thousands of people in camps scattered across a region the size of Texas, or France, take your pick — was a little weird. One guy can represent all those people?

Turns out, maybe not. It may in fact be that journalists from the Times, Reuters and the AP were duped by a guy who’s fronting an agenda from one of the rebel leaders, pretending to be someone he’s not.

Obviously there’s a case of getting “just the facts, ma’am,” as my mother likes to say. But Amanda rightly raises a bigger and crucial question: Does quoting “the representative of the IDPs” hijack the refugee narrative? She thinks so, and she argues that each person has to retain the right to tell their own story. She thinks Sharati, and the journalists who used him, stole those stories.

I’m still thinking about that. I think the best journalists would want to interview as many refugees as possible and quote them. But that can’t always happen, for all kinds of good reasons. And journalists rely on spokespeople all the time, also for good reasons. But Amanda’s right to remind us that we should push a little more, and think a little harder, about when we should rely on “spokespeople” and when we shouldn’t.

And yeah, maybe we should vet the ones with the really good quotes a little bit better…

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