Telling Different Stories About Africa Involves Both Journalists and Readers

The subject of how to report on Africa has come into focus the past few months with articles from academic Laura Seay in Foreign Policy and a response by Tristan McConnell in the GlobalPost. Both make some points worth considering, but it is the nuanced entry from Jina Moore in the Boston Review earlier this month that provides a critical perspective from a journalists who has dealt with the desires of readers and editors while being mindful of the complexity of telling stories from Africa.

One example of this is the need to reference the genocide when writing about Rwanda.

Nearly every story I published from Rwanda in my three years reporting there included a reference to the 1994 genocide. Dredging up suffering can win a busy audience’s attention, but it’s a limited kind of attention. It’s the attention of the kind-hearted stranger from a distance, the reader who stops eating his breakfast or reading her stock quotes to remember just how bad it is in other places.

By narrowing the lens of storytelling into one that largely focuses on compassion, a single and problematic narrative emerges.

Media attention influences donor attention toward certain interests—and therefore away from others. For example, media and donor obsession with sexual violence in eastern Congo has made rape allegations a “survival strategy,” according to Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern in their 2010 study for Sweden’s Nordic Africa Institute. In villages where most people are poor but donors provide free health care and other services to rape survivors, they argue, there is a strong incentive to identify oneself as a victim.

There are also economic consequences, for Africans as well as Americans. “If you are reading a steady diet about East Africa, for example, that consists of nothing but warfare and chaos,” said French, “you will not think the region has anything to do with opportunity for you, if you are an American business person.”

It isn’t only readers who might miss the mark. If you publish a steady diet of warfare, you might fall prey to similarly myopic thinking. Though hundreds of stories with exotic datelines have been written about Africans who live on less than a two dollars a day, the news approach to improving poverty has been different. When the World Bank announced in March that global poverty had already fallen by half—five years ahead of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals deadline—economic reporters in Washington, D.C. and New York dutifully wrote up the study. But who are the people now living on, say, four or even fourteen dollars a day, instead of two, and what do their lives look like? We don’t know yet. And if you’ve read anything in the last year about the burgeoning African economy—growing regional markets, increased manufacturing and infrastructure, soaring levels of foreign investment—it was probably about China’s bid for the continent, a story at heart more about our economic rival than about Africa.

Her most prescient point comes across in the conclusion where she turns the spotlight onto the consumers of media. Journalists can play a part in changing the ‘single narrative,’ but they should be aided by the people who read the articles.

The responsibility to change our image of Africa doesn’t lie solely with the few journalists feeding the beast. It also lies with media consumers—readers and listeners and viewers—patronizing our media institutions with money or attention or clicks. Together, we should demand of ourselves that we take an imaginative leap and acknowledge something other than suffering as worthy of our attention. We’ll need assistance from African writers and thinkers and performers who are willing to help us move toward better understanding. But we can’t shoulder them with the burden of undoing the stories we’ve trapped them in. With each new story we read, or we write, we’re obliged to do the hard work of reimagining Africa.

The article should not leave readers thinking there is no good reporting coming out of or about Africa. On the contrary, there are some excellent reports. McConnell has a series about Mogadishu on the GlobalPost that released last week and is some top notch work. Jina kindly provides some additional examples on her blog that range from a Grantland article on the death of Kenyan marathoner Sammy Wanjiru to Polgreen’s NYT article on the effects of Zimbabwe’s forced land redistribution.

The question lingers as to how to reach the reader equation of the puzzle. It is a bit of a chicken and the egg argument because there needs to be more high quality reporting to stimulate the demand that will stimulate better reporting.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.