Looking For The Real Africa in Western Media Coverage
“I can’t find a normal picture of Africa!” wailed Rebecca Moundio, an assistant editor for Africa Renewal, a magazine covering economic issues on the continent.
Sifting through a database of images captured in various African countries, all she could find were pictures of children with swollen bellies or flies on their faces, shots of desolate, barren and dry land, or scenes from refugee camps, with endless tents emblazoned with the official logo of a relief agency.
For a forward-looking magazine devoted to covering Africa’s progress, the images certainly clash with its brand.
Moundio is not the only one frustrated with the stereotypes of Africans in most international news outlets. Toyu Ogunlesi, a Nigerian journalist, felt compelled to write a column, 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Africa.
“Ever since the arrival of television, Africa has been greatly defined by its children,” he wrote. “Kwarshiorkoed Biafran kids – with bloated bellies and flies in the eyes – shocked the world in the final years of the 1960s, and galvanized a massive humanitarian operation, the modern beginnings of the billion-dollar charity industry.”
Now says Ogunlesi that image is being replaced by the “angry African”.
“She is everything that the child victim is not: educated, privileged, in many cases domiciled in the west. She is angry at the portrayals of Africa by Western media,” he said.
He calls out Time’s Africa Bureau Chief, Alex Perry, for his sweeping statements on the Democratic Republic of Congo in his article “China’s New Focus on Africa”.
Andrew Rice, a seasoned journalist covering Africa for high profile western publications like the New York Times Magazine and the Economist concurs.
“Coverage of Africa is caught between irreconcilable extremes,” he told a Columbia Journalism School panel on “How Not to Report onAfrica”.
“On the one hand, there is a species of journalists who go to Africa in order to find suffering, and if he can’t find suffering, he’ll travel wherever it is necessary to find it, even if it means ignoring stories right in his face.”
Rice, though, also believes that poverty, corruption and disease should not be ignored.
Milton Allimadi, CEO and publisher of The Black Star News, a New York-based investigative newspaper, does not dispute that.
“Resist the temptation of nurturing the fantastic Africa but don’t paint a rosy picture either.”
Allimadi is also the author of “The Hearts of Darkness: How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa”. He notes that in the 1960s the overwhelming coverage of Africa was hostile and racist even.
Western reporting on Africa has improved, says Afua Hirsh, the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent based in Ghana. She especially praised the Africa service of the BBC for hiring local journalists who deliver “excellent news coverage”.
But she decries what she calls “The West’s lazing reporting of Africa.” Her article came out in the aftermath of the “Kony 2012” media uproar. The film was used to promote the work of the non-profit organization, Invisible Children, based in northern Uganda.
The local media in Uganda as well as activists said the video was inaccurate, leading people to believe that Kony was in the country when actually he had left six years ago.
“Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico,” according to Laura Seay, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.
“It is precisely these kinds of double standards that infuriate Africa-watchers and those who care about the ethics of reporting on victims of violence,” she vents.
And so over the years, Africa’s image in the West and Africa’s image to itself, has been “crude” because of little investment, attention, time and money, says Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenyan author and founding editor of the literary magazine Kwani?
“Eight years ago, in my country Kenya, we had stopped imagining we could make anything work. Now Kenya is overwhelmed by new ideas, businesses, frictions, paint work, books, movies, magazines, and industries.”
As more Africans take to the pen, a different image of the continent is slowly emerging. Internet has opened that door, allowing information to flow and reach every corner of the world instantly.
In the words of Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, “the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories”.
Jocelyne Sambira is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@sambira).