Nigerian youth reading newspapers. Credit: Mohamed Abdou/Twenty Ten
Nanjala Nabola, Kenyan writer and graduate student at Harvard Law School, recently caused a bit of a stir with an 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 seem 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 cliche: "The hopeless continent." "Africa rising." "Magical Africa."
However, it is not just Western media (itself a rather obtuse concept) that are guilty of reporting in this manner. African media commit 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 the opportunity to be regularly appalled by their portrayal on CNN, Al Jazeera and BBC, it is rare that Kenyans will flip the channel to check what Nigerian journalists are reporting about them.
This is because 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 South Sudan, CAR, Congo or even Somalia, for instance. Most media on the continent remain supremely oblivious to the happenings there. Even in neighbouring nations such as Kenya, which has paid a huge price for Somalia's instability, media only seem 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 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 in 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 gauging their performance, one has to also consider the environment in which African media operate. 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 who aren't. As Mwalimu Julius Nyerere 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.
This article was originally published on the author's blog.