Studies Show 86% of Americans Have Their Heads Up Their Asses

The good news: Most Americans (69%) would want the US to intervene to prevent genocide, if the UN determined genocide was occurring in Sudan.

The bad news: Very few Americans have actually heard that a genocide is occurring in Sudan. Only 14% said they had heard “some” or “a lot” about the situation in Darfur. Over 50% said they’d heard nothing at all.

These figures come from the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which surveyed roughly a thousand randomly selected Americans.

The 14% figure baffles me, as the global media I’m watching has actually stepped up and embraced the Darfur story. The New York Times has mentioned Sudan in 13 stories over the last week (about a sixth as many mentions as Israel, for instance, but more than all but one other sub-Saharan African nation…); BBC’s run 27 stories in the last 14 days, more than on any other African nation. It’s not just the “elite” media – both Google News and Altavista News, which aggregate a wide range of less highbrow sources, report above average media focus on Sudan. (Lots more media numbers available on my Global Attention results pages…)

Is it possible that the story’s getting told and we’re not hearing it? I was talking with the very wise David Weinberger yesterday, who observed that people are lots more likely to help people they know personally – or feel a cultural connection to – than folks they feel disconnected from. If cultural proximity is the key to personal engagement, the odds seem to suggest that the US and Europe are unlikely to rally sufficient support for intervention in Muslim, African Darfur, a place that’s probably impossibly far away for the vast majority of people who hear the horrific news about what’s going on.

I also wonder about the role of images in focusing attention on situations like Darfur. The normally image-savvy BBC has used the same AFP photo – a militiaman on horseback – for the vast majority of their Sudan stories. I conclude (wholly unscientifically) that they don’t have good photo or video footage from Darfur. If they, with their Africa focus and global reach don’t have footage, there’s probably not a lot of video to be had. (Happy to be proven wrong on this, if someone knows where lots of Darfur video can be found…)

No video equals no TV news coverage, which means most post-literate Americans won’t hear about the situation. And no TV coverage means no images that make it hard for people to sleep at night, makes them bring up genocide around watercoolers or over lunch, makes them call their senators or congresspeople… Is it possible that the US intervened in Bosnia because we had better video than we did of Rwanda? Or that the people in the photos and video looked more like us?

The UN’s more than $200 million short in raising funds for humanitarian aid in Darfur. In the meantime, the $126 billion the US has spent on an unnecessary war in Iraq is now estimated to cost each American family $3400. The GAO revealed today that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost $12.3 billion more than estimated.

It’s too bad – there’s some people who could have really used that $12.3 billion…

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