Thursday, June 30, 2011

The African Journalist's Burden

The relationship between western media and Africa has always left a lot to be desired by continental Africans and African stakeholders. It has always been challenging to get proper stories about events, histories or people in Africa and this has creates a large void in quality reporting on Africa, often resulting in misrepresentation or wide generalizations. In his essay, “How to write about Africa”, Kenyan author and literary critic, Binyavanga Wainaina sums it up best with the words:

"Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress " [Read full Essay from Granta].

What is surprising is that these approaches to writing about the continent are still prominent in many African media outlets (print, radio and television) whether it is written by Africans or non-Africans. As an example, in prominent Malawian papers, topics about aid from foreigners over other issues seem to dominate as well as opinions of those from the west. You’ll often see headlines like, “An American gives Blanket s to x” or “Scots say we need more x,y,z” where what is considered ‘newsworthy’ centers on the relationship between a named foreign national and unnamed ‘local’. Oftentimes their foreignness is emphasized above their qualifications or their knowledge on that topic. Malawian opinions from experts at times get side stepped particularly, when it s a story about aid, skill sharing, or knowledge transfer from the west to Malawi. In many instances the identification of the Malawian is seen as an insignificant factor in the story. Particularly when the ‘local’ is from the rural area, they get labeled, ‘a villager’ (or’ villagers’) and no particular time or effort seems to be taken in identifying this nameless person. This type of reporting sends clear messages that a villager’s identity is not significant. The same trends in reporting can be seen in other African countries.

Whilst this type of reporting about Africa is more prominent and frequent in the western media both historically and in contemporary reporting, when it occurs by African journalists in Africa it is more so problematic. The way African journalists present and represent events and people from their own countries needs to be considered because of the effects that it has on the African (and non-African) reader’s perception of African culture, history and events. It has profound effects on the populations that read the papers. It does need to be considered for some of these journalists the contribution of training programs by well intending western journalists through transnational journalist networks. Journalism ‘skills’ are transferred from the west that may include approaches to ‘how’ to write (and report) about Africa. It seems that these western approaches to writing about Africa are at times internalized by African journalists who reproduce the type of writing about Africa that Wainaina writes about.

Western media reporting (especially in the United States) is a reflection of the western institutions, politics and public policy towards Africa. As an example the coverage of the revolts in the North Africa [Egypt, Tunisia] were reported as events occurring in the “middle east” as opposed to Africans revolting against their leaders for democracy (some African media outlets also similarly reported the events solely as middle eastern news). This is in line with US foreign policy that regards North Africa as part of their middle eastern policy (this can equally be extended to US conglomerates that regard north African countries as part of their regional ‘Middle Eastern business unit). The relationship between western media and its institutions are explored in great detail in the book “Hardened Images: The Western Media and the Marginalization of Africa” by Asgede Hagos. Another contentious issue highlighted in this study is that western media tends to marginalize Africa. This means that some (not all) African journalist essentially participate in their own marginalization and in branding Africa in a generalized, unfavorable way.

The marginalization of Africa though western media has long been problematic for branding Africa as a place of despair and fostering a paternalistic relationship between Africa and the west. It has also propagated ideas like ‘the white man’s burden’ which reinforces other one-sided journalistic stereotypical reporting i.e. the archetype ‘great white savior’. The problem here is the danger of African journalists contributing to the marginalization of Africa through locally owned media channels creates greater legitimacy for the negative or stereotypical reporting. This means that Africans are only reading about Africa through one dominant hegemonic way due to the absence of credible international mass media venues that can accurately (and credibly) report about Africa . Although television media outlets like BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, France 24 cover African events, questions of depth, scope and neutrality of these outlets needs to be understood since they respectively, primarily cover the issues, interests, and events of their respective place (or ideological blocs). The television outlets also have more extensive networks, researchers and coverage interests outside of Africa. It is important to note that South African based e-news though has proven to provide the most extensive, neutral and non-biased news coverage about Africa. Like its counterparts, its primary interests, also center on its place of origin.

Although many journalists on the continent have timelessly continued to represent the continent in a neutral manner, greater awareness by some African journalists with regard to the story selection, word choices, and ideologies that represent the continent should be noted so that they don’t inadvertently contribute to its misbranding. There is much room for improvement on how Africa is presented in the media both in written and televised reporting. As journalism continues to grow on the continent, hopefully we will be able to sift through the journalistic techniques that we inherit from the west that may not present Africa in a favorable way and that extend western media hegemony.