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Monday, January 06, 2014

Why Does African Media Get Africa Wrong?

Nanjala Nyabola, Kenyan writer and graduate student at Harvard Law School, recently caused a bit of a stir with her Aljazeera article asking “Why Do Western Media Get Africa Wrong?” Reading through the piece, which was both interesting and informative, I couldn’t help but wonder: Just who does get Africa right? Is there even such a thing as getting Africa right?

From the outset, let me state that I agree with many of Nanjala’s criticisms of media coverage of events on the continent. As she says, much of it is devoid of nuance and context and seems oblivious to what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes as the “danger of a single story” – the reductio ad absurdum of the tale of a continent of over a billion people and 54 countries, their existence, history and stories compressed into one simple, superficial, easily regurgitated cliché. “The hopeless continent.” “Africa rising.” “Magical Africa.”

However, it is not just Western media (itself a rather obtuse concept) that is guilty of reporting in this manner. African media commits many of the same sins though, given the fact that most only broadcast to discrete home audiences, it is easy for them to escape censure. While Africans in almost every country on the continent have opportunity to be regularly appalled by their portrayal on CNN, Aljazeera and BBC, it is rare that Kenyans will flip the channel to check what Nigerian journalists are reporting about them.

Few African media houses are actually trying to cover the continent for the continent. Many have their hands full reporting (or not reporting) news at home and do not think of Africa so much as a story that needs to be covered, but as part of the rest of the world and take their cue on reporting it from the Western outlets. As South African photojournalist and film maker Greg Marinovich notes, “most African media stories on Africa are from international wires.” Few have bureaus or send reporters outside their home countries, choosing to rely on the same Western reporters they delight in bashing.

Look at the coverage of South Sudan, CAR, DRC or Somalia, for instance. Most media on the continent remains supremely oblivious to happenings there. Even in neighbouring nations such as Kenya, which has paid a huge price for Somalia’s instability, media only seems able to regurgitate the Western tropes about fighting terror and Islamic extremists. Few journalists bother to understand the genesis of the two-decade long anarchy or to explain the reasons and wisdom of Kenya’s intervention. In October 2011, many were too busy beating the patriotic drum of war and most have since lost interest in what Kenyan troops are doing across the border.

Nanjala also points out that most Western reporting of Africa, “the Rest is necessarily set up in opposition to The West” resulting in coverage where “issues or situations are rarely, if ever, analysed for their intrinsic impact or worth. Events or situations are analysed as what the West is not.” But that too cuts both ways. Sometimes, African media will mirror this and set up the Rest in opposition to the perceptions of the Western press.

Another example from Kenya. As the elections last year approached, the country was inundated by Western journalists, many undoubtedly there in anticipation of a repeat of the 2007/8 post-election bloodshed. Most Kenyan media-folk were appalled, having themselves determined to practice something called peace journalism. In any case, their resultant, overly uncritical reporting of the election seemed at least partly motivated by the desire to prove to their Western counterparts that Kenya was not another African basket case.

To be fair, when assessing their performance, one has also to consider the environment that African media operates in. Many operate under severe government restrictions, with limited resources. Shrinking budgets are, however, a worldwide phenomena. Much has been made about the phenomenon of journalists parachuting (not literally) to crisis spots for a few days and filing reports with neither context nor understanding. However, as Suzanne Franks noted nearly a decade ago, “an important gap in the way that Africa is reported is not just the disappearance of regular correspondents, but also of longer more considered television documentaries.”

“As current affairs coverage has declined, the only television outlet left for factual programming about Africa is on the news. So the kind of explanations and background context that would once have been contained in a thirty or forty minute programme, if they happen at all, now have to be compressed into a two or three minute package. It also means that the nature of what is covered will be dictated by news priorities. TV news, which is how most people find out about the world, is an event driven operation. Contemporary news reporting in Africa is invariably of the ‘fire fighting’ tendency. In the absence of resident correspondents, a highly professional reporter - well attuned to the needs and expectations of the various outlets- is flown in when disaster occurs and expected to deliver something within days if not hours.”

Remember that African news outlets are dependent on Western-based international wires to tell Africa’s story. Also recall that they take their cue on what their audiences need to hear from Western news outlets. That means they are in no position to pick up the slack. In fact they are part of the problem, perpetuating and disseminating as they do Western perspectives, biases and stereotypes. (Let me hasten to add that by no means are all Western journalists or all journalists working for Western-based outlets guilty of this.)

Perhaps the answer lies in an approach that does away with the idea of covering Africa. Since, like Chimamanda, most people on the continent do not primarily identify themselves as Africans except in opposition to those that aren’t. As the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once observed, “Africans all over the continent, without a word being spoken either from one individual to another, or from one country to another, looked at the European, looked at one another, and knew that in relation to the European they were one.”

To cover Africa is necessarily to step outside of it, to see it in relation to “the European.” Such a perspective is hardly going to reflect how Africans see themselves. It is not an invalid perspective though. Just, again to borrow from Chimamanda, an incomplete one.

Maybe media, whether Western or African should just cover stories in Africa, as opposed to seeking African stories.

8 comments:

Hilary said...

"Few have bureaus or send reporters outside their home countries, choosing to rely on the same Western reporters they delight in bashing." Some don't even report on their home countries. See Daily Nation 2 Jan on grenade in Diani nightclub - reported by AFP. http://bit.ly/1eXrkJD

insidetheivorytower.com said...

I like the idea of covering stories in Africa as opposed to "African stories". Maybe we should drill down further to covering stories in Kenya, or Zimbabwe, or Nigeria, as opposed to stories in 'Africa'. The moment we view Africa collectively, it becomes difficult to write stories of people and places independent of the global context.

And anyway, since Africa is supposed to be 'catching up' to the Western 'frontier' of democracy, economy, education, popular culture, etc, then local journalists cannot see things outside this framing. We've been socialized to see things relative to what's out there.

Anonymous said...

Gathara, I do read your great posts regularly, great stuff…
I rarely comment for many reasons, but today will be an exception to the rule.
First and foremost, what is the media? what is the agenda of the media? who owns the media, what is the audience of the media? and finally what is the market of the media? those imo are pertinent questions we have to ask ourselves (hint; money/ revenue plays a big role)
Secondly why is it that when I need to find out what is happening 'next door' in the DRC, Zim, Ethiopia etc do I have to watch CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera (the other BBC), FOX News blah blah blah etc or read the Guardian, BBC?. For those who are sharper, one would realize that the media houses i.e. Reuters, AP, AFP, Bloomberg, New Corp are the major players in determining WHAT the 'News' is, try keeping track of the footer of each news article to ascertain the news source… All our local dailies are fed International News by the 'big boys'.
What I mean, is, who determines our understanding of the view of the world? I am trying to bring to light our understanding of who shapes our 'cognitive map' as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Who determines who is a tyrant and who is not, how do you know he / she is a tyrant, speaking for myself, I know because I read it on BBC's website? but is that the truth?
Thirdly, why should "The 'Media' tell the rest of the world 'YOUR' point of view? Think about it for a sec, who are 'YOU' in this context? They (the media) have NO obligation to tell the rest of the world 'YOUR' version of reality… WE have to understand how the media works in the present condition we find ourselves. So, if the issue is 'The Danger of a Single Story' with respect to 'you', then the problem is with you and not me (the global media).

You do know who said the following; "He who controls the past, controls the future, he who controls the future, controls the present"
Ken T

Kenna-The People Newspaper said...

Kenna-The People Newspaper

I daring and sober debate that I fill my contribution is worth. Three quarters of the Africa Media uses English or French as language for communication. That is where the western influence starts. Secondly journalism to most of those practice it still remains rocket science. Pay attention to crime reporters failing to attribute the source of the story. Forgetting that one still remains a suspect until prove guilty. A police officer claims and is quoted by the media that they shoot down suspects who were going to commit a crime, how sure is he oh his action.

A governor claims that he has secured investments worth shs1.3 trillion while another one says he has signed a deal with an American University worth sh.500 billion. Are the reporters aware of what they are writing and what about the editors plus the chief sub and his team.

I think the reader is the worst because he/she accepts to buy substandard stuff.

kagiriwaithera said...

Insightful and eye opening

Anonymous said...

I will speak a reader/viewer of the news. Having read the article and pondered for a few minutes, I now believe it comes down to inferiority complex. I do read Kenyan news but whenever they reference AFP, CNN, BBC or any other international media house, my level of confidence in the story goes up. It is as though the names give those stories credibility. It's also knowing that the West is made up of predominantly first world nations, we associate that with quality, diligence and integrity. Therefore, they can't be to blame but ourselves the readers but more so our local media houses, they need to step up their game. Very few local journalists actually do proper investigations and due diligence before reporting.

Roy said...

I will speak as a reader/viewer of the news. Having read the article and pondered for a few minutes, I now believe it boils down to inferiority complex. I do read Kenyan news but whenever they reference AFP, CNN, BBC or any other international media house, my level of confidence in the story goes up. It is as though the names give those stories credibility. It's also knowing that the West is made up of predominantly first world nations, we associate that with quality, diligence and integrity. Therefore, they can't be to blame but ourselves the readers and more so our local media houses, they need to step up their game. Very few local journalists actually do proper investigations and due diligence before reporting

truongkiemtuongtu said...

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