The issue of Africa’s image as largely portrayed [mostly in negative terms] by Western media outlets and as under-reported by African media is one that will always find space in Africa’s discourses about challenging stereotypes and “cliché reporting.” The terrains of media in Africa elicit lots of questions as one ponders on the status quo about Africa’s narratives as presented both in international and local media. But this is also a chance to highlight better ways of telling African stories both to local and international audiences.
A survey by Africa No Filter this year revealed that “one-third of all African stories in news outlets on the continent are sourced from foreign news services.” This incredibly speaks volumes about how African media covers the continent – they do so with less of their will but with more reliance on international news wires. It simply means that when Africans present narratives about their contient in their media, this is done through the lens of the Western world; stereotypes about “poverty, conflict, disease, poor leadership and corruption” reign supreme in African media agencies since they rely on Western outlets. This is what may be rightly termed “cliché reporting.”
As per Africa No Filter’s findings, “63% of [African media] outlets surveyed don’t have correspondents in other countries in Africa.” This finding then provides a justification for such outlets to rely on international news sources – the AFP and BBC account for one-quarter of “all stories found in African outlets about other African countries.” Most of these stories sourced from foreign news sources are confined to “hard news” or “straight reporting” in which reporting is restricted to conflicts and crises as spurred by unfolding events. The survey found that these stories are “political in nature” revolve around armed conflict, political violence, and civil unrest.
Western media coverage of Africa – AFP, AP, CNN, BBC, Sky News, Al Jazeera, etc. – has always been unkind. This can be seen from the context of colonial domination in which Africa was a “dark continent” of heathens in urgent need of “civilizing.” The European colonizers considered themselves having the duty to “enlighten” Africa via slavery and colonialism. As such the continent has always been portrayed as needing Europe’s [and America’s] help; that on its own it cannot stand. The post-colonial era has not changed anything as negative perceptions rooted in the colonial language of “civilizing” still persist in Western societies – news agencies included as they are an effective tool for propaganda. It is important however to note that of course not all Western journalists perpetuate stereotypes – some are committed to contextual and objective reporting.
One cannot be wrong for saying that the images of Africa in the Western hemisphere are dictated by [wrong] notions of “primeval irrationality, tribal anarchy, hunger/famine, civil war, managerial ineptitude, political instability, flagrant corruption, and incompetent leadership.” For Western editors and journalists, particularly those in mainstream media, Africa is backward in all facets of life. So, their reporting presents a dichotomy of negative and positive stories – but no one mentions that these stories are devoid of historical nuances and contexts. There is no analysis to explain the roots of whatever they are reporting. And regrettably, African media simply “regurgitates” these negative perceptions.
With the rise of neoliberal capitalism over socialism after the fall of the USSR, the world was compelled to adopt free-market economics even where in some respects planned economies would work. African countries have seen disaster with the myth of capitalism’s trickle-down effect – as privatizations have increased and public funding drastically reduced in favour of trade liberalization and deregulation, it has been extremely difficult for Africa’s media outlets. The continent’s news agencies/outlets have been working with ever-shrinking budgets and coupled with repressive governments that attempt to access neoliberal riches in autocratic ways, media spaces are generally restricted in Africa.
Budgets have however been shrinking worldwide, and Western news wires have resorted to employing sensationalism in their reporting so that they do not lose readers/viewers. Foreign journalists have been forced to travel “to crisis spots for a few days and filing reports with neither context nor understanding.” Factual reporting on African issues (armed with full context and historical analyses) is now scarce in the Western world – and this adversely affects how African media conveys African stories to the Africans themselves. African news sources “ take their cue on what their audiences need to hear from Western news outlets.” It means that tragically, Africans are not in control of their own narratives.
Where we make the default mistake of viewing Western news and the journalists as “neutral and impartial,” we continue being victims of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie terms “the danger of a single story,” with Patrick Gathara adding that all we end up having are cliché narratives – “The Hopeless Continent/Africa Rising/Magical Africa.” African journalists are not reporting about Africa for African audiences, and African media agencies/outlets are not caring to explain to African audiences the root causes/beginnings of many issues the continent grapples with. Probably, we may need to discard the dichotomy of negative and positive stories – what matters is reporting stories within the ambit of their full context and nuances, with detailed analyses that explain the status quo from a historical perspective in an objective manner that elicits collective solidarity on the continent.
Africa should not be reported by Africans through the lens of “what the West is not.” African media needs to actively take charge of their narratives so that they do not report Africa in relation to Europe and the rest of the advanced world but to report it for what it is, to African audiences. African news outlets have no other option but the stoic one of working within the resources available to them – and in doing so they should always strive to offer context and analyses so that the continent is able to create counter-hegemonies/counter-ideologies against the negative perceptions perpetuated by Western media. Or Western media should attempt to engage resident correspondents in Africa on a more vigorous basis, with the aim of fostering honest conversations in their reporting to create oneness in the world. News must not simply be reported – it must be fully explained.
Moky Makura, who is the executive director at Africa No Filter, emphasized the huge role media has in shaping narratives about Africa. He said, “Media is incredibly influential in setting the agenda and determining narratives about Africa. The research clearly shows that despite years of independence, Africans still don’t hold the pen when it comes to writing their stories. More importantly, we continue to promote the narratives about Africa being broken, dependent and lacking agency through the stories we share in our media about each other. We need to take back the pen.”
He added, “Ironically, 50% of editors surveyed thought their coverage of other African countries didn’t contain stereotypes. It shows clearly that we have some work to do in educating ourselves about the role we play in perpetuating outdated stereotypes about ourselves. Narrative matters and it has implications beyond just storytelling, it impacts investment in Africa, on youth and opportunities people see in their countries, on migration, creativity, and innovation.”
News reporting on Africa, which influences narratives and perceptions about the continent, must be couched in an aura of objectivity and context – news must be thoroughly explained, so that defeatist approaches in journalism are overcome to have a progressive [national] consciousness. And so that Africans become the owners of their stories as they understand their continent better.