How Africa Gets Covered (or Doesn’t)

As regions go, Africa has always been the stepchild of the American media.
It is the continent where inexperienced reporters have been historically sent for their first overseas assignments, on the theory that if they screw up in Africa, it won’t be much noticed.
The assignment required little-to-no preparation, no languages, no history or study. All you needed was a young reporter willing to plunge into chaos and mayhem and black mischief and serve up the goods, colorfully if you please.
It is the continent where newspapers and magazines, and long, long ago, American television networks, figured that they could get away with a single bureau to cover all of the “black’ part. (North Africa, the “white” part, was traditionally stripped off and arbitrarily attached to the Middle East, or to southern Europe.
To get an idea of how absurd these propositions are, maps can be quite instructive, especially if they’re not of the Mercator Projection variety, meaning that they show Africa relative to the other continents at its true size.
It is the continent where, once newspapers got around to promoting African-Americans to their foreign staffs, itself a painfully belated occurrence, Africa became for a long time and for many the obligatory “one-and-done” assignment.
Finally, it is the continent where editors have always stretched credulity and good sense to speak commonly of events or trends taking place “in Africa.” This, on the theory that something short of a major catastrophe happening in any given African country was too insignificant to warrant the commission of precious column inches. Hence the silly phraseology — and you should watch for it — “across Africa…”
The best test for whether this is prudent, or even coherent usage is to take the formula and alter it thusly: “across Asia…” or “across South America…”
To be sure, there are occasionally continent-wide phenomena worth chronicling — witness the European financial crisis. But absent unusual events such as these, the “across____” formulation invites due ridicule, which brings us back to its lazy and commonplace use on the subject of Africa. One wishes to ask why use such vacuous wording?
There was a more immediate source of inspiration for this brief item, though. Yes, I almost forgot.
It was the Washington Post‘s “coverage” of the Congo electoral crisis in today’s paper (link attached). The astute reader will see that it doesn’t come from the Washington Post at all. No. It is an Associated Press article.
I have nothing against the AP, but the last thing the big, and still rich and influential American news outlets need to be doing is outsourcing their coverage of what is already the worst covered part of the world.
The Post, in fact, has a great tradition of Africa coverage. Many years ago, I got my start as a stringer for them, inspired and mentored by the formidable Leon Dash.
Let me tick off some other names (and this is surely not an exhaustive rundown):
Blaine Harden, Neil Henry, Lynne Duke, Emily Wax, Karl Vick, Doug Farah, Stephanie McCrummen, John Pomfret, Keith Richburg.
There is immense value in the kind of investment that this list implies — value for American media, and value for a news consuming public that has been historically and woefully underserved in terms of African news and analysis.
These objections of mine are far from sentimental. Many times, we’ve seen the cost (a la Rwanda) of being underinvested in African news when a major historical crisis erupts on the continent. Anyone who re-reads coverage of the first 30 days of the genocide in that country — which is instructive on many levels — will immediately know what this means and understand its importance.
Today is a time of opportunity on the continent. It is a continent with a middle class larger than India’s. China knows this, but do Americans? Click to read more about African growth
By mid-century, Africa will have nearly as many people as China and India combined. Can farmed out news coverage, like today’s story on the Congo, really be justified under the circumstances? Can the lazy old posting patterns, of no languages or prior study or training really be justified?
Africa deserves better, and so does the American public. Click to read the Post piece

4 thoughts on “How Africa Gets Covered (or Doesn’t)”

  1. Very instructive. As long as coverage of Africa remains so superficial, so long will the American public continue to misunderstand the continent. Very little in Africa fits within the context of “Across Africa”. So much difference abounds within the regions, and even countries, that any general reference to Africa says very little, if anything at all.

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