The Problems with Western Journalists in Africa

Western journalists were rightly criticized for the overall level of coverage surrounding the Kenyan elections. However, it is a case that is a part of what seems to be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to how Western reporters will tell stories from the African continent.

The image of a western journalist interviewing a traditional African may seem like a trope of the past, but look no further than the below image from a PBS MediaShift report.

Cornell University English professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi makes the case in Africa Is a Country that Western journalists continue to fail to “tell the whole story of humanity at work.” He says that American reporting on tragedies that took place in the US show dignity of the victims and tell stories of heroism and triumph during tragedy.

A three paragraph article in Reuters offered the choice terms “tribal blood-letting” to reference the 2007 post-electoral violence, and “loyalists from rival tribes” to talk about the hard-earned right to cast a vote. Virtually all the longer pieces from Reuters on the elections used the concept of tribal blood-letting. CNN also ran a story in February of this year that showed five or so men somewhere in a Kenyan jungle playing war games with homemade guns, a handful of bullets and rusty machetes – war paint and all.

Such stories do not make it into the coverage of tragedy from Africa. However, he neglects to recognize the constraints on foreign correspondents or journalists who report on Africa. Page space for stories about Africa is few and far between these days.

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Not to excuse poor reporting, rather I point it out to say that it is far more challenging than domestic news. Major tragedies in the United States feel like they are over covered as the press corps descends upon the location of the event and tries to pump out every story possible.

Conversely, a similar tragedy in Sierra Leone may only get one or two articles in a paper like the New York Times. The one reporter who is likely not based in the country, but has to cover it, is going to try to get as much information in as possible. The unfortunate outcome is that the gruesomeness of the violence is often played up for the lack of ability to add in any real stories.

But when it comes to writing about Africa, journalists suddenly have to make a choice between the extraordinary violence and ordinary life. It should not be a question of either the extreme violence or quiet happy times, but rather a question of telling the whole story within an event, even when tragedy is folded within tragedy. There are activist organizations in the Congo standing against rampant war and against rape as a weapon. The tide of the post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2007 turned because there were ordinary people in the slums and villages organizing against it…

There are different rules applied to reporting stories from Africa than from the United States. It is problematic. However, addressing these problems also requires the admission that the two are not even on the same playing field. Domestic reporters have the length of a soccer field to completely develop a report. Meanwhile, reporters in Africa are stuck on the penalty line trying to score on a hockey goal with a soccer ball.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-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.

  • Good piece Tom. Agree that the Western coverage of the Kenya election was really shoddy. I was literally confused by my Twitter feed, which was mostly African journalists reporting positively, and then also western news outlets being much more alarmist. What do you exactly mean by your ending bit: “Domestic reporters have the length of a soccer field to completely develop a report. Meanwhile, reporters in Africa are stuck on the penalty line trying to score on a hockey goal with a soccer ball.” Do you mean western journos reporting on domestic topics (in the west) are held to a higher standard by editors? Or are you talking about African journos reporting domestically, in Africa?

    Because, food for thought: consider the difference in coverage of sensitive issues like abortion, in the African context (e.g. unsafe abortion in Kenya), by African journos vs. Western journos. I’m not making any conclusions per se, but just noticing in my experience. Major cultural/institutional stigma about abortion, and widespread misinformation has inhibited African reporting, I think. Of course there are excellent exceptions, but just perusing the coverage in Kenya, e.g. the terms used, the misinformation and bias… difficult. Also, another example, coverage of vaccines/ cervical cancer by Indian media in India. Huge amounts of public health misinformation. Improving this coverage should be a priority, but maybe there are times when having “outside” coverage of a domestic issue is really illuminating (of course only if it is actually thoughtful and unbiased).

    • Hey Jess! Great points here. I think I tried too hard with my soccer metaphor. The reference is only to Western reporters in both contexts. So, on abortion, a Western reporter can take it from many more angles here in the US than if s/he was reporting from say India. Though you point out an important other layer in the fact that there are times when the reporter from India has an even harder time reporting on abortion in India.

      I 100% agree with you on the value of outsiders. A fresh perspective is valuable. I think I jumbled my overall point in saying that Western reporting, as seen in Kenya, can be really bad, but everything is working against them. We have to remember that they are making do with very tight constraints. Now, many can and should do better, but it is possible that expectations are not entirely fair.