The problem is not ‘negative’ Western media coverage of Africa

Rather, it is the lack of in-depth and nuanced reporting on the continent and beyond.

New York times building - Reuters
A recent job ad for Nairobi bureau chief the New York Times posted has sparked controversy [Reuters]

The New York Times is once again in Kenyans’ crosshairs. Just six months after it was excoriated for publishing graphic pictures of the victims of January’s hotel attack in Nairobi, which forced it to shelve the appointment of Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura as head of its Nairobi bureau, the search for a replacement has stirred up another hornet’s nest.

In an ad for the position that appears to have been taken straight out of the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s famous satirical essay, How To Write About Africa, the Times repeated many of the problematic stereotypes have dominated much reporting on the continent.

The job, it proclaimed, would offer “tremendous opportunity to dive into news and enterprise across a wide range of countries, from the deserts of Sudan and the pirate seas of the Horn of Africa, down through the forests of Congo and the shores of Tanzania”. In addition to covering seemingly ubiquitous conflict and suffering, the successful candidate would also get to “delight our readers with unexpected stories of hope” in the region.

Many Kenyans online have predictably responded with outrage. It “says a lot about the kinds of stories they want from Eastern Africa”, tweeted Ken Opalo, who is an assistant professor at Georgetown University. He warned that “the biggest losers from this sort of madness” would not be Eastern Africans, but the daily’s American audience who “continue to be fed [and believe] myths and as a result are increasingly economically [and] geopolitically uncompetitive in the region”.

The NYT’s international editor, Michael Slackman, belatedly offered a mea culpa on Twitter in which he took responsibility for the ad, blaming it on his “taking a short cut: Rather than write a new job description, a posting from about 18 months went out”. Why this would have been deemed appropriate in 2017 is left unaddressed and no actual apology was offered. However, despite his non-apology, the offending ad is yet to be taken down.

For many Kenyans, it is reminiscent of the similar non-apology they got in the aftermath of the January incident. Despite acknowledgment of the need to “make decisions based on the fact that we serve a global audience”, the offending photo remains on the NYT’s website. A promise to “convene a group of people to come up with clearer guidelines” to ensure “consistent standards that apply across the world” has seemingly not been kept. 

The complaints about negative coverage in Western media are not new. Media negativity and its consequences have been bemoaned the world over, but perhaps nowhere more than in Africa – where the prevailing perception is that foreign media, and Western correspondents in particular, have gone out of their way to portray the continent as the nadir of human civilisation. A dark continent of unspeakable “tribal” savageries, unmitigated suffering, horrible epidemics and child-like helplessness all bounded by breathtaking vistas of natural beauty.

However, it would be good to keep some perspective. Slackman is right when he urges people to “judge our correspondents on the quality of their work, not that job posting”. While it is true that one can readily find examples of racist and colonial stereotypes in many Western news reports, as pointed out by Kenyan writer Nanjala Nyabola, a 2016 study by Dr Toussaint Nothias of the Center for African Studies at Stanford University also found that there is no empirical evidence for the assertion that Western media coverage “systematically refers to ‘tribalism’ and ‘darkness’, treats Africa as a country and relies predominantly on Western voices”.

He echoes a 2015 paper by Martin Scott of the University of East Anglia who reviewed the research into US and UK media representations of Africa in the previous quarter century and concluded that “the widespread belief that we know how Africa is represented in the US and UK media is … a myth”.

Still, there is a perception that much of what international audiences hear about Africa is overwhelmingly negative even when not overtly racist. Between May and September 2010, the 10 most-read US newspapers and magazines carried 50 times more articles mentioning poverty in Africa, than mentioning gross domestic product (GDP) growth. But is Africa unique in this? Are we being singled out?

Not exactly. For example, one 2013 study of the coverage of China by three major Western outlets, including the Times, found that nearly half of all political coverage was about corruption. Further, as noted by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian in Foreign Policy, “US news tends to slant towards the negative and the sensational – making its critical coverage of China a normal feature of the media landscape”. The same could be said about the coverage of Africa.

Africans must also focus on the practices of local media, which is just as guilty of the sins which Western journalists are routinely accused of. This week, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian published a series of “inspiring, uplifting and positive stories from around the African continent” in a “good news” edition.

That this was deemed necessary only highlights the fact that on the continent, like everywhere else, the telling of the news is largely perceived to default to the negative. Yet here too, the problem is less that we need more good news stories than that the stories we are told are largely decontextualised.

There is no good and bad news; there is just the news. The false dichotomy between positive and negative stories is a reflection of the lack of the sort of storytelling which allows audiences to make sense of events within a wider universe of African experience. Like their Western counterparts, local media engages in shorthand – it reports rather than explains. 

The episodic tales which it tells are not related to one another to produce a more complete scene. Each is presented as an isolated, self-contained event – a story with a beginning, middle and end – rather than part of a wider tapestry of experience. This approach is what generates the false dichotomy of positive and negative news that then needs to be “balanced”. The picture drawn is poor not because the subject is “bad”, but because it is incomplete. And this performs a great disservice to audiences.

One way Western media organisations can address the issue is by rethinking the role of the foreign correspondent. In today’s world, is it really possible to justify the anachronistic search for foreign bureau chiefs when local reporters can provide much better local context and feel for the circumstances of their own countries? Given that skewed power dynamics dictate that Africans care more about their representation in Western media than Westerners do about how African media covers them, it is time Western outlets privilege local journalistic expertise and choices.

Recruiting local journalists who can explain rather than simply report, as well as improving the output of local media can provide context for the horror stories the media gravitates to, making Africa seem less of – in the words of journalist Shayera Dark – “a war-torn, disease-ridden, poverty-stricken hellscape where all hope dies”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.