Analyzing the News from Mali
Susanna D. Wing has weathered a swirling storm of media requests in recent weeks.
In one January day alone, the associate professor of political science spoke with the Toronto Star, conducted a live interview with France 24 TV and took to the airwaves with NPR’s “Worldview,” even as she fielded an inquiry from PBS. Almost daily, she has considered queries from such news outlets as The New York Times, Al Jazeera, the Los Angeles Times, and the BBC, as well as from publications in China, Iraq and Brazil.
What’s the big story? Wing has garnered international attention as one of the foremost authorities in the West on Mali, an hour-glassed shaped country in West Africa that has devolved into crisis.
Mali, a former French colony, was thrown into conflict when a rebellion in the north escalated in the spring of 2012 sparking a military coup d’état in the South. Radical Islamist groups with ties to Al-Qaeda soon usurped the rebels. Wing, who wrote the 2008, award-winning book Constructing Democracy in Africa: Mali in Transition, got a flurry of media calls at the time.
“Mali was a model for African democracy,” she says, and journalists wanted to understand “How could it fold so quickly?”
Then, on January 11 of this year, the French military intervened at the request of the Malian government. Suddenly, Wing seemed to be on speed-dial for outlets both big and small.
“I’m trying to convey in snippets of information what’s going on,” says Wing, coordinator of Haverford’s African and Africana Studies. “I’m learning how to try and place things in context very quickly.”
Journalists often “start flat footed,” says Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism training organization in St. Petersburg, Fla., and they seek out experts with certain qualities. “Are they press friendly? Are they photogenic? Do they speak in sound bites?”
Wing acknowledges the challenge of making points succinctly while preserving nuances. “This is a different way of doing my work,” she says. “I’m used to doing research which operates at a different pace.”
She spent more than a decade researching and writing her 260-page book, including living in Mali for a year plus several summers. “I think it’s essential that people get the story right,” she says. “Sometimes, I read something and I just cringe. Reporters are interviewing people who do not have deep knowledge of the country.”
Her own interview experiences have not always gone perfectly. A USA Today story paraphrased her (incorrectly) as supporting U.S. logistical support for troops intervening in Mali. “It made me sound like a hawk—and I teach at a Quaker college,” she says.
But her three 15-minute interviews—an eternity in on-air journalism—with Jerome McDonnell of NPR have been her favorites, and her analysis for other outlets has reached listeners in Europe and across Africa. Most recently, the journal Foreign Affairs published a piece by Wing titled "Making Sense of Mali: The Real Stakes of the War Rocking West Africa."
“In the short term, it might appear a distraction,” says Wing of the demands of being an expert source for the media on Mali. “But in my mind, it’s an essential role I should be playing, given the opportunity to educate on this crisis. Every day I gain insights that are crucial for my own research and teaching.”
—Lini S. Kadaba
For more on Susanna Wing's media analysis on Mali:
Al Jazeera English:
BBC World Have Your Say: (one-hour roundtable about Algerian hostage crisis and Mali connection)
The Toronto Star:
The Los Angeles Times:
NPR's Talk of the Nation: