Monday, February 25, 2008

The media and Africa: Where are the eccentrics and wrestlers?

Here’s an interesting view on the damage incorrect, or better yet, incomplete pictures of Africa can do to the continent.

It’s a reprint from Knowledge@Wharton:

Yet [President and CEO of South African Chamber of Commerce in the U.S., Euvin] Naidoo -- a fourth-generation South African whose organization was recently highlighted by the Clinton Global Initiative -- acknowledged that despite the investment rush, the image of the continent still lags. To dramatize that problem, he showed the audience a standard classroom map of the world and then an actual satellite image, proving that Africa is actually much larger than commonly depicted in the West. In reality, the United States, continental Europe and China could fit inside the African land mass, with some room to spare.

In fact, he noted, public dialogue about Africa has changed little since October 1960, when then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said: "If we are to create an atmosphere in Africa in which freedom can flourish -- where long-enduring people can hope for a better life for themselves and their children, where men are winning the fight against ignorance and hunger and disease -- then we must embark on a bold and imaginative new program for its development."

"I found it very interesting that a great man almost 50 years ago could be transported in time -- and we face challenges very similar to what was described back then," Naidoo said.

A Robert Kaplan book I read a few year’s back (I think it was Ends of the Earth, but I could be wrong) where he brought up the story of a fight between staffers at the LA Times and its news editors about the problems and supposed superficiality of African coverage in the paper. Bah-humbug, Kaplan noted, the truth needs to be told about Africa just like any other place. He’s right. But when is the last time you saw an actual feature story from Africa? Or at least a news story from outside the following topics (choose one of the above): AIDS, Child Soldiers, War, Witches, Animal poachers, etc. (The LA Times really cultivates animal stories from Africa.)

Coverage of Europe and Asia is often full of feature stories that actually say more about a foreign people and how they live than the elite-focused political or traditionally newsy pieces that make up the bulk of what we refer to as “international coverage.”

I remember hearing the Pulitzer-winning Richard Read from the Oregonian say that when he headed his newspaper’s Japan bureau, the one story that received the most attention and feedback was about an elderly lady whose apartment was full of batteries that she had collected over the years. Granted, the story didn’t say much about the Japanese political situation or its economy. But it brought to life an individual and made her (and the rest of the country) one step closer to readers back in the States. (Or at least in the Willamette valley.)

Of course, foreign-based reporters are already overworked and traveling in Africa can be difficult; this, along with space limitations, guarantee that editors can only expect so much out of these increasingly expensive correspondents. The collective brain-trust must be thinking: Why waste our hard-fought space on an eccentric when we need to tackle the continent’s real problems.

That’s not to say that features from Africa have never been published in metropolitan dailies. Norimitsu Onishi from the New York Times wrote about wrestling in Senegal and about continuing to mine salt in the Sahara. Traditional Times’ African hang-ups: AIDS, teenage brides, war didn’t show up in either story. (Perhaps that’s why he was sent away to Japan?)

Yes, I’ve beaten this drum so many times my hands hurt. However, haven’t we come to a point where ignoring Africa’s other issues is becoming detrimental to the role of a free press. (Elements of Journalism rule eight: Journalists must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.)

I hate to get all cold and realist here, but let’s take a hard look at Africa’s problems as covered through major newspapers. Estimated amount of people suffering from HIV/AIDS in Africa: 22.5 million. Estimated population of Africa: near 900 million. Percentage of Africans suffering from HIV/AIDS: 2.5 percent, or very roughly 5 percent of adult population (ages 15-49, used for most common years of sexual activity). Number of estimated child soldiers in Africa: In 1999 the only number I could find, it was more than 120,000. Estimated amount of children in Africa: 193.5 million (in 2000). Total number of “child” child soldiers in Africa: less than half a percent. (All population figures come from this rockin’ data base.)

That’s not to say that the millions of AIDS patients suffer any less, or the 1.7 million people infected in the past year aren’t worth our support (however that may come about). Nor is it to say that one child soldier is one too many. (And we’ve not even looked at other issues facing the continent.)

In the end, it’s a question of how journalists frame stories. This is not the glass half-full or half-empty debate, but the inability to look beyond conventional wisdom (and the sheer simplicity of following up on press releases) and searching out a juicy story all on your own.

Hey, hard-headed editors: Isn’t it time we broaden the scope of African coverage? Especially when your reporters are writing for readers back home in a country like the United States, a place with more than its fair share of gun violence and car violence; A country where everyone seems to be either morbidly obese or morbidly ill from the rotten meat they’ve ingested. (How many of these stories will be in the newspapers in one-month time?)

1 comment:

ANNA said...

This is such an interesting post. Thank you.

This is one of the biggest problems facing world development. There is a huge gap of information between western societies and the rest 3/4 of the world.

As a journalist from Spain, currently working in the UK, it is my mission to work for development through communication, facing barriers such as ignorance and misunderstanding.

Thus, posts like this one are much appreciated and the word needs to be spread.