The West’s lazy reporting of Africa
Straight from The Guardian:
These days no self-respecting western reporter dares to describe anything potentially “primitive” in Africa without a sophisticated disclaimer. John Humphrys’s warning, as he dispatched the Today programme from Bong county, Liberia – was: “You can’t come here with European eyes.” Christopher Hitchens’s 1994 essay on his trip to Zaire, and current editions of the Economist – still reeling a decade on from its"Hopeless continent" front page on Africa – are examples of similar introspection.
And with good reason. Western eyes do not have a good track record of seeing what is really going on on this continent. In 1963 the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper – made a life peer by Margaret Thatcher – captured the still prevalent tone of western thinking. “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach,” he wrote. “But at present there is none: there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.”
Much has been said, written and done to prove that western reporting of Africa has moved away from this paradigm. Most international news outlets now have programmes specifically designed to champion positive news stories in Africa. The BBC runs African Dream, a series about successful African entrepreneurs, CNN has African Voices. They are stories that I, for one, enjoy reading. They capture a reality about the African continent, which is one of rags to riches, wheeler dealers made good, and steady economic growth.
But in a parallel development to the fashion world’s infuriating tendency to trend on “tribal” prints and “ethnic fashions” (ie African) for the occasional spring/summer collection – before reverting to a world where Africa has no fashion bearing and African models barely exist – the media’s tendency to run an “Africa season” has its own flaws. After the season is over, little in the mainstream coverage has changed. And the BBC, in particular, has its own Africa service that delivers excellent news coverage of the continent by local journalists and a mainly African-staffed team in London. Yet instead of driving the decision to have and produce a BBC Africa season – two of which the BBC has now held – they are confined to a “research” role.
Even worse is the situation when an impromptu Africa season is triggered by newsworthy events in Africa. A dramatic climax in a long-running war, preferably with the close involvement of a western power, usually leads to an African country being “discovered” by the international media. At the height of Liberia’s civil war in 2003, for example, as rebels surrounded the capital Monrovia and US troops were drafted in, Liberian journalists looked on from their shelled out offices as the complex conflict they had spent the past decade covering was scooped up by western reporters. In Mali, the same thing is happening now.
The result of the continuing tendency to ignore Africans is a lamentable lack of specialist African coverage in the world’s media. An academic debate about this problem has been thriving for some time. In the meantime, however, informed consumers of African news have adopted a more proactive approach, using social networking to vent with immediate effect.
CNN was a recent casualty in this offensive. Last month it broadcast a not-uncharacteristically sensationalist report about grenade attacks in Nairobi, with a large on-screen banner screaming “VIOLENCE”, implying a wave of violent disturbances when in fact the attack was a one-off incident. Kenya’s abundant Twitter users created a "#SomeoneTellCNN"hashtag with such success that the US news giant was eventually pressured into something closely resembling an apology.
Celebrating these victories against the still-bigoted status quo is not the same as advocating sugar-coating of African news coverage. Yes, there are food crises, wars and coups. In west Africa, the region where I report, two democratically elected governments – in Mali and Guinea Bissau – have been toppled in the last month. The latter is essentially a narco-state and the former has a conflict that has triggered a refugee crisis. Bad stuff, obviously, happens in Africa just like everywhere else – and no one is denying that those issues should be reported, but their coverage would be greatly improved if it were led by journalists whose mentality were not shaped by the Hugh Trevor-Ropers of this world. Africa is not, as the New York Review of Books reported recently, “plagued by countless nasty little wars”. Nor can aviation within the continent, as Condé Nast Traveller recently suggested, be summarised by a “combination of political corruption, civil wars, numerous rogue carriers, airplanes at the end of their life cycles”.
There is a laziness applied to media coverage of Africa that is seldom seen elsewhere. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina brilliantly captured this in his Granta essay “How to Write About Africa”. “You must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the west,” he wrote. “Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good.”
There are still too many journalists unwittingly following his advice.