More on covering Africa…

It seems fairly indisputable to me, however, that the West’s African coverage in general is badly broken and failing badly.

A colleague objected that I had been singled out in Laura Seay’s fine piece about woeful coverage of Africa just published in Foreign Policy, and I completely agree.,1

To reduce a matter like this is to one of persons or personalities is to squander an opportunity to pursue a truly important and long overdue discussion.

For decades there have clearly been foreign correspondents from a range of news organizations who have worked hard at understanding Africa and conveying its complexity, just as one would or should try to do with any other part of the world.

I wrote a blog post that relates to this a few months back. It mourns the demise of the Washington Post’s Africa coverage, and I paid due homage then to a long list of correspondents who worked hard to bring richness and balance to their Africa stories.

It seems fairly indisputable to me, however, that the West’s African coverage in general is broken and failing badly. This is true in terms of quantity, quality and especially variety, and I think that is Laura’s main point.

Demonstrating this last criterion is a simple matter. What news organizations have business correspondents or for that matter any business coverage to speak of in Africa? The fact that such coverage doesn’t exist, or quite nearly, means that we have created a special category of beings for whom this important aspect of human life simply doesn’t apply. This has many consequences, only two of which I’ll touch upon here.

It reinforces the strong, preexisting tendency in many publications to write stories that almost exclusively emphasize foreign agency, whether of the U.N, or of NGOs or of the individual Western do-gooder, and by the same token, it reinforces a habit of thinking of Africans either as passive beings, or as those other perennial favorite archetypes: warlords, corrupt officials, rapists and Big Men.

The other effect I’d point out here quickly is that by ignoring this humungous category called business (or, if you will, the economy), the Western press is doing a disservice to its readership by furthering the conditioning of news consumers to not think of Africa as a place worthy of business or investment. It is all the more galling that this is happening at a time when economic growth is booming around the continent and opportunities abound. As someone who is writing on this now, I’d add: Just ask the Chinese.

We need for those who cover Africa to break out of their old, narrow molds and start seeing Africans and Africa in its fullness and complexity. We need more real African characters in our reporting and writing. And we need to have the whole range of human activity reflected in our work.

We need to see an Africa that is written about as a place where ideas matter, and not just our ideas.

We need for people to write about Africa understanding that it has history that goes far beyond index card depth.

2 thoughts on “More on covering Africa…”

  1. I think the fact that she had to single you out, when it’s been a few years since you’ve covered Africa, makes its own point. But, yeah: it’s bigger than one person.

  2. Howard, Your articles and posts are very insightful. I was listening to Uzodinma Iweala today, he was speaking about his method of gathering stories for his book Our Kind of People. He said, “by going and interviewing people and then allowing those, the voices of the people that I interviewed, to speak for long periods of time, to narrate and construct their own stories…I think allows you deeper into the way they see themselves, the way they see their country, the way they see their continent… and I think then it’s more fundamentally humanizing. When someone is allowed to construct their own story they become a real person as opposed to just a face that you map to a statistic or that just gets lost in the cloud of stereotypes”.

    The key words here for me are ‘to speak for long periods of time’ and ‘to narrate and construct their own stories’. I think for anyone this can be empowering. I personally like making radio documentaries without narration, particularly because the less I am in it, the longer I can let the voices run and allow the people who truly and deeply know the story to tell the story. I also believe that if we are to abandon our egos more when we conduct our work as journalists, we then grant more space on the page or the airwaves for the voices to speak their story, and there they will speak with their whole heart, reflecting as you say “Africa in its fullness and complexity”.

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