Reporting Africa: In defence of a critical debate

The challenge for journalists covering Africa is telling African stories in their full human dimension.

One cannot avoid being struck by the oddness of the idea of not just western journalists in Africa being in need of defending but defending from critical voices, argues Dersso [AFP]

Not unexpectedly, the tragic events in South Sudan and the Central African Republic received much attention in the mainstream international media. As much as it drew world attention to the plight of those affected by the conflicts in these countries, the nature of the coverage of such events also triggered a heated debate.

In an article titled “In defence of western journalists in Africa” published on 21 February 2014, Michela Wrong took issue with recent articles such as Nanjala Nyabola’s Al Jazeera piece lamenting the failings of western media in covering Africa.

While Wrong’s piece raises various pertinent issues, close scrutiny of the three major points reveal that it defends what does not need defending instead of addressing the very issues that merit attention, namely critical debate on mainstream western coverage of Africa.   

First, she suggested that these writers, whom she considers to be academic, “seem to have little idea how journalists actually work”. Although not true for all journalists, Wrong is right that journalists, who report from war zones, have a lot to worry about. One, however, cannot help wondering how this can be an excuse for anything.

Given that reporting, whatever its form, serves as the most powerful vehicle for shaping public opinion and eventually the action of various actors, the question should be whether one-dimensional reporting would do justice to the subjects of the report.

Listening Post – South Sudan and the media of conflict

Politics of coverage

To put it differently, the issue is the risk that such reporting could lead to misconceived conclusions culminating in unhelpful policy responses.

On this, Mahmood Mamdani, one of Africa’s foremost critical thinkers and public intellectuals, observed in his “Saviours and survivors: Darfur, politics and the War on Terror”: “No wonder those who rely on the (western) media for their knowledge of Africa come to think of Africans as peculiarly given to fighting over no discernible issues and why the standard remedy for internal conflicts in Africa is not to focus on issues but to get adversaries to ‘reconcile’, regardless of the issues involved.”

Second, Wrong said: “[M]ost fundamentally, those writers (attacking western journalists) seem to have lost sight of the definition of news, which aims to convey distant events to a non-specialist audience, as succinctly as possible.” In so doing, she suggested that the resultant limitation of time and space necessitates one-dimensional reporting and restricts the luxury of nuance available to academics.

While one understands the limitation of time and space, once again this fails to be a convincing argument for defending “one-dimensional” coverage of African events, which often tends to be reductionist and superficial in their content and negative in their scope  (focusing mainly on the tragedy, violence, despair and devastation).

The issue is, therefore, about the possibility of telling African stories in their full human dimension within those limitations of space and time. 

Wrong’s point on the failure of academics to understand how journalists work brings us to her third major point that being; “articles attacking the western media’s one-dimensional coverage” take the reader for being stupid.

She briskly made the argument that most readers understand the nuances of one-dimensional reporting of African events in the same way they “grasp the notion that their true causes are rich and diverse” when they come across one-dimensional reporting of WWII, the Northern Ireland conflict or the Yugoslav civil war. 

Here, two issues immediately arise: First, is the reporting of violence in the west ordinarily one-dimensional? Second, whether one-dimensional reporting of western events, if it ever was common, was  the same as one-dimensional reporting of African events? 

Corporate media drama

A simple review of reports on incidents of violence in the west reveals that they are not commonly one-dimensional. In his March 12, 2013 piece titled “Kenya vote: How the west was wrong” published in The Guardian, writer Mukoma Wa Ngugi wrote: “In the West, tragedy after tragedy, the journalist does not forget the agency of the victims, and their humanity.”

To illustrate this he noted: “The 2010 London riots …in equal measure the rioters and the fed-up shop owners who started cleaning up after the rebellion; the heroic street sweepers. The August 2012 Sikh massacre: Yes, the violence but also how a rainbow community came together to stand against extremism…”

What needs defending is a critical debate on mainstream western reporting of Africa and the critical voice of Africanist writers like Nanjala Nyabola, Ngugi, and Lucy Hovil.

The long racist history of propagating a negative image of Africa, the Conradian “Heart of Darkness” or the Economist’s “Hopeless Continentimage of Africa, also means that one-dimensional reporting of Africa could not be the same as one-dimensional reporting of western events.

Ngugi Wa Thiongo, one of Africa’s great literary giants, in a speech delivered on Africa Day on May 25, 2012 at the University of the Free State in South Africa, said that this negative image of Africa “is spread and intensified in the images of everyday: In the West, TV clips to illustrate famine, violent crimes, and ethnic warfare, tend to draw from dark faces (ordinarily African).

In commercials, TV dramas, in the cinema, one hardly ever sees a really dark person portraying beauty and positivity. This has created a psychological disposition such that, as the late Chinua Achebe, one of Africa’s most renowned literary giants, put it; ‘the automatic response that people have when you mention Africa is something which has been fixed in the mind for a long time’, a negative image of Africa a subject on which he wrote one of his widely recognized essays An image of Africa.    

Viewed in this light, one-dimensional coverage of African events inevitably tends to perpetuate this racially-charged denigrating and dehumanizing negative image.

In defence of debate

It is apparent from the foregoing that what needs defending is a critical debate on mainstream western reporting of Africa and the critical voice of Africanist writers like Nanjala Nyabola, Ngugi, and Lucy Hovil. This can draw on works of Africanist scholars, but also such important works addressing the same subject in a different context as Edward Said’s Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world.  

Surely, there are western journalists who report  Africa in all its dimensions and diversity and with nuances.These journalists should be celebrated and commended. Not because they deserve commendation for doing their work the right way. It is because they should serve as model to be emulated by others.

This is not a request for a politically correct reporting that skirts the truth to avoid offending.It is about telling the facts in all its manifestations.

Perhaps this is not a matter about which we should complain against western journalists only. Indeed, what we should lament about more is the role that we, Africans, have played and continue to play for the dominance of the negative and stereotypical mainstream western reporting of Africa.

Because, as Thiongo rightly pointed out, the “biggest sin …is not that certain groups of white people, and even the West as a whole, may have a negative view of blackness embedded in their psyche, the real sin is that the black bourgeoisie in Africa and the world should contribute to the negativity and even embrace it by becoming participants or shareholders in a multi-billion industry built on black negativity”.

Rather than just ‘talking about knocking down the other story’, as Achebe pointed out, ‘create a situation in which there is evenness’. To this end, ‘We (Africans) have got to do that kind of thing on a large scale – to change the dominant image of Africa which has been there for hundreds of years’.

This we should do as part of  – and in defence of –  the critical debate on mainstream western coverage of Africa.  

Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal academic and analyst of African affairs who regularly writes on African Union issues, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa office.