In this age and day, negative perceptions about Africa perpetuated by Western media persist. It goes beyond the negative reporting – it is an indication of no nuance and context that pervades Western media houses. It also indicates the racial undertones that prevail in the Western world, and with the size that their media houses command, it is sad to see that such stereotypes about Africa are still being pushed.
Last year, Kenyans were incensed by an advert placed by The New York Times looking for a Nairobi Bureau Chief. The advert, which was later taken down after persistent complaints, painted Africa as a hotbed of terrorism and conflict. The ad relied on stereotypical stories from Africa and was inconsiderate to the vast potential and uniqueness in stories possessed by Africa.
The ad read, “Our Nairobi bureau chief has a tremendous opportunity to dive into news and enterprise across a wide range of countries, from the deserts of Sudan and the pirate seas of the Horn of Africa, down through the forests of Congo and the shores of Tanzania. It is an enormous patch of vibrant, intense and strategically important territory with many vital storylines, including terrorism, the scramble for resources, the global contest with China and the constant push-and-pull of democracy versus authoritarianism.”
“The ideal candidate should enjoy jumping on news, be willing to cover conflict, and also be drawn to investigative stories. There is also the chance to delight our readers with unexpected stories of hope and the changing rhythms of life in a rapidly evolving region.”
The details in their ad were representative of the reigning attitudes towards Africa that take center stage in how the media in the UK and the US report about Africa. Perhaps the most outraging line was the “unexpected stories of hope." Africa is depicted as a continent that does not habitually produce good and motivating stories; but that their stories are a rarity. This is the complete opposite. Many positive things arise out of Africa – however, Africans still rely on Western news agencies such as AFP, Reuters, The New York Times, CNN and BBC which still push negative perceptions about Africa and its citizens through their foreign correspondents.
This was not the first time that The Times had enraged Kenyans and Africa at large. In January 2019, when al-Shabaab detonated bombs at an office complex adjoining Dusit Hotel in the country’s capital, The Times then ran a report accompanied by gruesome pictures of those who had perished and injured.
The style of their coverage ensued anger among the people for irresponsibly publishing gruesome images of the bombing. The media house was heavily criticized for dehumanizing the victims of the disaster. However, after the outrage, The Times issued a statement, saying they took note of the nature of the images and its unsettling nature. The statement further argued that they were forced to publish such images to provide the audience with the reality on the ground.
Nevertheless, Michael Slackman, who is the international editor, offered a mea culpa (Latin phrase for “through my fault”). He said that the ad was an 18-months-old, and the opted to feature it back. However, critics accused the international editor for bringing back an old ad, questioning its legitimacy.
Western Media still view Africa as a place of perpetual, ubiquitous conflict with no hope of respite, hence the “unexpected stories of hope”.
It is surprising that the core audience of The Times is “delighted by unexpected stories of hope”. These are the stories they expect from East Arica – unending conflict and trouble. Africa is more than a place of tribal savageries, suffering and horrible outbreaks of health problems. Africa has more to offer. There is lots of positivity exuded by Africa. But Western media continues to be willfully ignorant.
While some reports about Africa are not overtly racist, the negativity still finds room to prevail. Western media houses focus reporting on poverty than progress Africa has made. The US-China war over control of Africa’s resources actively makes its coverage of China in Africa a major role. It is not more about “let’s have good stories from Africa” but the problem with Western media coverage over Africa focuses on the removal of nuance, context, and explanation.
Western media should shed off its obsession relating to the divide between good news and bad news. Stories should be explained. Stories should be given meaning and context.
It also teaches Africans some fundamental principles. Africans should own their stories and tell them as they are.
Africa should not rely on Western news agencies to carry African stories for global coverage. The role of the foreign correspondent should be reconfigured.
Do Westerners care about their representation in local media? It would seem as if Africans care more about how they are portrayed in Western media. Local journalists who have an acumen for explaining the news and not just reporting should be recruited. The ignorance of the West should help the continent improve and learn to tell stories of its context. It is about quality news – Africa is not simply a place of suffering, terrorism, conflict, and hunger. No, there are not “unexpected stories of hope.