Leading journalists, academics and activists criticize 60 Minutes’ Africa coverage

60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan interviews a medical worker with the International Medical Corps.

An open letter to the executive producer of the television news magazine 60 Minutes sharply criticizes the program’s coverage of stories that take place in Africa. A group of journalists, academics, and activists raised the alarm over the “frequent and recurring misrepresentation of the African continent” by 60 Minutes and its reporters. It takes aim at three recent reports by the program broadcast on the CBS television network, including a report from Liberia on the Ebola outbreak.

“Africans themselves are typically limited to the role of passive victims, or occasionally brutal or corrupt villains and incompetents; they are not otherwise shown to have any agency or even the normal range of human thoughts and emotions. Such a skewed perspective not only disserves Africa, it also badly disserves the news viewing and news reading public,” says the letter, led by former New York Times international correspondent Howard W. French.

The co-signatories of the letter are a long list of well-accomplished individuals. Some notable people are Nigerian authors Teju Cole and Chika Unigwe, American author Adam Hochschild, former Committee to Project Journalists Africa advocacy coordinator Mohamed Keita, New Yorker and New York Times Magazine contributor Alexis Okeowo and many more. The letter points specifically to a segment aired in November 2014 on the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Correspondent Lara Logan visited a treatment center run by the International Medical Corps. Her report focused heavily on the outside response to the crisis.

Not a single Liberian was quoted in the 15-minute segment. The report managed to reduce the people affected by the crisis “to the role of silent victims,” said French. In reality, the experience of Liberians and people living in Guinea and Sierra Leone was much more than Ebola victims.

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“Liberians not only died from Ebola, but many of them contributed bravely to the fight against the disease, including doctors, nurses and other caregivers, some of whom gave their lives in this effort. Despite this, the only people heard from on the air were white foreigners who had come to Liberia to contribute to the fight against the disease,” according to the letter.

The other two reports cited were about wildlife in South Africa and Gabon. French says that people of black African descent “make no substantial appearance in either of these reports.” Taken together, the three reports are viewed as evidence that Africans are marginalized to people who have things done to them, rather than do things themselves. This disempowering style is inaccurate and tells an entirely incomplete story, the letter argues.

French has an extensive history of reporting from the African continent. He led the bureaus for the New York Times in China, Japan, West and Central Africa, Central America and the Caribbean. His books and reporting have garnered awards and high praise. And he is a vocal critic of reporting on Africa.

60 Minutes did see the letter and offered a response to Politico‘s media reporter Dylan Byers.

“60 Minutes is proud of its coverage of Africa and has received considerable recognition for it. We have reached out to Mr. French  to invite him to discuss this further and we look forward to meeting with him,” said spokesman Kevin Tedesco.

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If the two connect, French will surely press on the program to make serious changes to the way it reports on Africa. Though they actually have to follow through and reach out in the first place, something French says the have yet to do.

It appears there is little reason to believe that the program will change its approach, as French characterized to Byers, “narrow, blinkered and anachronistic, like that, unfortunately, of a lot of coverage elsewhere in the press on TV, and indeed in Hollywood, for that matter. Very little interest is accorded to the actual lives of Africans.”

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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.

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    This is what we do not want to do — be white Americans telling the rest of the world what to do. That’s part of what it means to “always be listening” . . . and learning . . .