As I was reflecting on the simplistic and sweepingly generalized coverage of events in Central African Republic and South Sudan, on my regular temptation and those of others around me to parrot and imitate the agenda that the globally dominant mainstream media, I came across and read Michela wrong’s ‘In defense of western journalists in Africa’ published on africanarguments.com on 21 February 2014. Further provoked and intrigued, I ventured to write this piece.
While Wrong’s defensive piece raises and invites various issues, close scrutiny of three major points of the piece reveals that it puts a defence to what is not in need of defending instead of that which needs defending, namely critical debate on mainstream western coverage of Africa.
First, she suggests that these writers, who she considered to be academics, ‘seem to have little idea how journalists actually work’. Although not true for all journalists, Wrong is right that journalists who report from war zones have a lot to worry about. One cannot however help wondering how this can be an excuse for anything.
Given that reporting, whatever is its form, serves as the most powerful vehicle for shaping public opinion and eventually the action of various actors, the question should be whether one-dimensional, reductionist, superficial reporting would do justice to the subject of the report, who, unlike journalists, live under those hard and life threatening conditions constantly.
To put it differently, the issue is the risk of such kind of reporting leading to unfavourable perceptions and conclusions culminating in unhelpful policy responses. On this, Mahmood Mamdani, one of Africa’s foremost critical thinkers and public intellectuals, in his Saviours and survivors: Darfur, politics and the War on Terror observed ‘no wonder those who rely on the (western) media for their knowledge of Africa come to think of Africans as peculiarly given to fighting over no discernible issues and why the standard remedy for internal conflicts in Africa is not to focus on issues but to get adversaries to “reconcile”, regardless of the issues involved.’
Second, she said ‘[M]ost fundamentally, the writers (attacking western journalists) seem to have lost sight of the definition of news, which aims to convey distant events to a non-specialist audience as succinctly as possible.’ In so doing, she suggests that the resultant limitation of space and time necessitate the one-dimensional reporting and restrict the luxury of nuance available to academics, who by the way exist for doing exactly that.
While one understands the limitation of space and time, once again this fails to be a convincing argument for defending ‘one-dimensional’ coverage of African events, which often tend to be reductionist and superficial in their content (filled simplistic sweeping generalizations and exhausted but easily comprehensible clichés) and negative in their scope (focusing mainly on the tragedy, violence, despair, ugliness and devastation). The issue is therefore the possibility of telling African stories in their full human dimension within those limitations of space and time. Is it not that what is at play is the difficulty of selling the news that tells the full story because of its failure to satisfy established expectations of reporting Africa in simplistic and sweeping generalizations and easily understood but stereotypical clichés such as tribal violence?
Wrong’s point of the failure of academics to understand how journalists work brings us to her third major point in which she suggested that ‘articles attacking the western media’s one-dimensional coverage’ take the reader for being stupid. She briskly made the argument that most readers understand the nuances of one-dimensional reporting of African events in the same way they ‘grasp the notion that their true causes are rich and diverse’ when they come across one-dimensional reporting of WWII, the Northern Ireland conflict or the Yugoslav civil war.
Surely, it would not be necessary to demand a more nuanced reporting of African conflicts if indeed one-dimensional reporting of African conflicts is understood in the same way as one-dimensional reporting of western conflicts. Here, two issues immediately suggest themselves. First is whether reporting of violence in the west is ordinarily one-dimensional. Second is whether one-dimensional reporting of western events, if it ever is common, is the same as one-dimensional reporting of African events.
Simple review of reports on incidents of violence in the west reveals that they are not commonly one-dimensional. In his 12 March 2013 piece titled ‘Kenya vote: how the west was wrong’ published on the Guardian, writer Mukoma Wa Ngugi wrote ‘In the west, tragedy after tragedy, the journalist does not forget the agency of the victims, and their humanity.’ To illustrate this he noted ‘The 2010 London riots …in equal measure the rioters and the fed-up shop owners who started cleaning up after the rebellion; the heroic street sweepers. The August 2012 Sikh massacre: yes, the violence but also how a rainbow community came together to stand against extremism… ’. Unlike such reports, Ngugi maintained ‘when it comes to writing Africa, journalists suddenly have to make choices between extraordinary violence and ordinary life’. In an observation that backs this view, Mamdani in his Survivors and Saviours stated ‘When corporate media does focus on Africa, it seeks the dramatic, which is why media silence on Africa is often punctuated by high dram and why the reportage on African wars is more superficial than in-depth’.
Even if one was to agree that one-dimensional reporting of western events is common, it does not follow that one-dimensional reporting of western events is the same as one-dimensional reporting of Africa. This is because of the long racist history of the negative image of Africa, an image that denied Africa the full quality of humanity thereby making enslavement and colonialism of Africa possible. This is the Conardian Heart of Darkness or the Economist’s Hopeless Continent image of Africa. Ngugi Wa Thiongo, one of Africa’s great literary giants, in a speech he delivered on Africa Day on 25 May 2012 at the University of the Free State in South Africa said, in regard of this negative image of Africa, that it ‘is spread and intensified in the images of everyday: in the West, TV clips to illustrate famine, violent crimes, and ethnic warfare, tend to draw from dark faces (ordinarily African). In commercials, TV dramas, in the cinema, one hardly ever sees a really dark person portraying beauty and positivity.’ This has created a psychological disposition such that, as the late Chinua Achebe, one of Africa’s most renowned literary giants, put it ‘the automatic response that people have when you mention Africa is something which has been fixed in the mind for a long time’, a negative image of Africa a subject on which he wrote one of his widely recognized essays An image of Africa.
Viewed in this light, one-dimensional reporting of western events is not thus the same as one-dimensional reporting of African events because of the latter’s inevitability of perpetuating this denigrating and dehumanizing racially-charged negative image.
On a more general note, one cannot avoid being struck by the oddness of the idea of not just western journalists in Africa being in need of defending but defending from critical voices. I worry that Wrong’s formulation of her article as ‘in Defence of western journalists in Africa’ shifts the focus from what needs defending to the one whose position is well-established and secure particularly vis-à-vis Africa.
What needs defending is a critical debate on mainstream western reporting of Africa and the critical voice of Africanist writers like Ngugi, Nanjala Nyabola, and Lucy Hovil.
If at all western journalists need defending, it is not from critical voices – voices that are in any case few and far in between compared to the majority us that parrot and mimic the one-dimensional coverage of Africa by mainstream western media. It is rather from the long established expectation of portraying Africa as an object of pity and charity and from the unconscious temptation and predisposition of reporting Africa in simplistic and stereotypical clichés and one-dimensional formulations.
Surely, there are western journalists who report Africa in all its dimensions and with nuances. These journalists should be celebrated and commended. Not because they deserve commendation for doing their work the right way. It is because they should serve as model to be emulated by others.
This is not at all a request for a politically correct reporting that skirts the truth to avoid offending. As Achebe pointed out in his 2007 interview with Helon Habila, ‘it does not mean that the particular picture (of Africa) he or she (the reporter) takes is false – it actually happens – but the point is, that there is something else happening also at that time’. Thus, as best formulated by Kenyan writer Ngugi ‘the question for western journalists is this – when it comes to Africa, why do you not tell the whole story of the humanity at work even at times of extreme violence?’
Needless to say, this is clearly about the message and not the messenger.
What we should therefore debate about is the misrepresentation of Africa in the mainstream western media’s reporting of Africa, its simplistic and sweeping generalizations reproducing stereotypical and tired clichés and the resultant portrayal of Africa as if it were incapable of the full scope of human qualities whenever such reporting fails to tell its story fully.
This is the story of not just the bad but the good, not just the tribulations but the triumphs, not just the ugly but the beauty, not just the despair but the hope, not just the devastation but the resilience, not just the responsibility of scrupulously corrupt African leaders but the complicity (even shared responsibility) of world powers and global capital.
In critically engaging mainstream western reporting of Africa, are not writers like Nyabola and Hovil countering the image of Africa devoid of any positive human qualities that has been taken for a normal for Africa? Are they not advocating for Africa’s story to be told in full, in nuances and in all its richness and diversity? In defending, what she admitted to be western journalists ‘one-dimensional’ coverage of Africa, is not Wrong subscribing to the perpetuation of the Conardian stereotypical image of Africa, however subtly and unconsciously, that such coverage of Africa upholds?
Perhaps this is not a matter about which we should complain against western journalists only. Indeed, what we should lament about more is the role that we Africans have played and continue to play for the dominance of the negative and stereotypical mainstream western reporting of Africa. Because, as Thiongo rightly pointed out the ‘biggest sin …is not that certain groups of white people, and even the West as a whole, may have a negative view of blackness embedded in their psyche, the real sin is that the black bourgeoisie in Africa and the world should contribute to the negativity and even embrace it by becoming participants or shareholders in a multi-billion industry built on black negativity’.
While this does not dispense with the need for western journalists to tell Africa’s story in full in all its dimensions, it surely draws attention to the fact that much of the responsibility in telling Africa’s story in all its human qualities should be borne by Africans themselves. Rather than just ‘talking about knocking down the other story’, as Achebe counselled in his interview, ‘create a situation in which there is evenness’. To this end, ‘We (Africans) have got to do that kind of thing on a large scale – to change the dominant image of Africa which has been there for hundreds of years’.
This we should do as part of and in defence of the critical debate on mainstream western coverage of Africa.