By Ahmed Mheta*
The parading of malnourished and naked African children in front of cameras and images of lions and gorillas in the jungle, have dominated most Western media news outlets over the past two decades. The presentation of African news by Western media convinces the audiences in United States, Europe and other parts of the world that the entire continent of Africa is hopeless, poverty and disease stricken. Images of skyscrapers, well developed road networks and other manifestations of modern development in most African countries are usually absent in the mindsets of Western media audiences. Do you guys wear clothes and live in houses?
These are some of the most common questions African immigrants encounter from some Westerners.
This article will outline some of the reasons why Western media focuses on negative coverage of Africa. Western media does cover some success stories about Africa but inadequately. Negative aspects of the continent are more common to the Western audiences. In addition, I will present ways Africans can contribute to end these stereotypes and perceptions. I examined Western and African literature while I was conducting my research to get a broader understanding of the reasons.
In the book, News: The Politics of Illusion W. Lance Bennett discusses and analyzes how news is created and consumed in the Western world. The author identifies four types of structural media biases used to present news, which are the personalization bias, dramatization, fragmentation and the authority-disorder bias. Some of the biases are used by the media when reporting on Africa in some instances. The next paragraphs will define some of the biases and give examples of how some of them have been applied when reporting on Africa.
Bennett defines the personalization bias as the media’s focus on human-interest stories and to identify emotional stories rather than presenting the larger social, economic or political issues involved. The focus on emotion hinders the analysis of the event and it’s implications in the social and political arenas. For example, the recent Ebola crisis which only affected a few regions in four West African countries was presented by some media outlets to seem like the whole entire continent had been affected by the epidemic. For example, popular headlines like ‘ U.S Sends Team to Fight Africa Ebola Outbreak by NBC news. To the reader this might sound like the whole continent is affected by the virus. Vanity Fair contributor Andre Carrilho explained how epidemics are reported by Western media. Carrilho told the
Huffington Post he created an illustration to show this depending on where they occur, and to whom. “ I think unfortunately in the Western media, there are first-world diseases and third-world diseases, and the attention devoted to the latter depends on the threat they pose to us, not on a universal measure of human suffering,” he said. “ A death in Africa, or Asia for that matter, should be as tragic as a death in Europe or the USA, and it doesn’t seem to be.”
The dramatization bias also called the crisis news, is presented on a narrative storytelling format. In addition, it follows a movie-like pattern that includes breaking news stories, falling action and plot resolutions. An example is the 1984-1985 famine which affected some parts of Ethiopia and other East African countries. Images of malnourished infants with flies in their food and mouths surfaced globally and although the famine only affected some regions of Ethiopia and Eritrea, most Westerners viewed it as an entire African continent problem. According to Bennett, These “visual messages encode and in turn, reinforce prevalent cultural attitudes and values” which are often stereotypes ungirded by myths. The viewing audience is less likely to have direct experience with the life in those societies and unable to access the validity of the messages received.
Unquestioned Acceptance of Negative Attitudes by Africans
African media has been criticized for failing to market and advertise the true identity of the continent to the world. Professor Aseka who is a Fulbright scholar offered his analysis on this subject matter. “ The African media, however, have failed to aggressively market an African identity and authenticity to challenge the one imposed by the West,” Aseka stated. In addition, he believes this has led to an evasion of responsibility and the obfuscation that is characteristic of inauthentic existence.Despite this criticism, African media and Africans still have the ability to contribute in telling and educating the masses about Africa. For example, last year a group of African students launched a photo campaign that outlined the stereotypes most Africans face. The campaign was titled ‘Africa is not a country’, and educated the world that Africa is a continent with 54 countries and different languages. The U.S.-based African students posted the campaign on CNN’s iReport platform and the campaign was well received globally.
Some scholars believe that in today’s globalized world, where many countries are chasing the tourist dollar or direct investment, negative portrayal of Africa is done deliberately to drive business and tourists away from the continent. Baffour Ankomah, who is the editor of New African magazine gave his take on this aspect after statistical analysis. In a speech published by the Global Media journal, Ankomah said, “In today’s globalized world, where everybody is fighting for a place in the economic sun, a positive portrayal of Africa in the Western media will mean that Africa, on whose natural resources Western economies depend, may get more investments and may even dare to use its resources for itself.” Ankomah says the most common question any person would have is, ‘You are an investor, with a pot of gold, looking for somewhere to invest this money, and suddenly this week’s Economist magazine falls on your table, with the front cover headline: ‘The Hopeless continent’, would you ever consider Africa as a place to invest your money or even take a holiday? On the other hand, others blame the marketplace orientation of the U.S. news media, which places profit over and above all other consideration.
The Influence of Western-based Non-Governmental Organizations(NGO’s) and International Aid Groups
Some analysts believe that skewed or incomplete reporting on Africa has the potential to influence policy. For example, The Associated Press quoted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as saying, “Many countries are falling short, especially in Africa,” while the Los Angeles Times quoted and Oxfam report as saying, “Unless and urgent rescue package is developed to accelerate fulfillment of all the MDGS, we are likely to witness the greatest collective failure in history.” Such reporting is likely to attract international aid groups like USAID, who tend to focus not on what has been accomplished but on what remains to be done. According to the head of a large U.S.-based NGO in Nairobi, “When you’re fundraising you have to prove there is need. Children starving, mothers dying. If you’re not negative enough, you won’t get funding.”
This article is not meant to blame Western media on Africa’s issues or judge the media’s accuracy, but rather shed light on why most reporting on Africa is negative. It is not a doubt that most African nations are still developing, but most Africans believe news on these developments is not presented to the Western audiences that much. This leads to myths and stereotypes which can be eliminated if Africans take part in telling their own stories and educating the masses about the beautiful continent.
-Bennett, L.(2007). News: The Politics of Illusion.7th ed. New York: Pearson Longman.
-Ankomah, B(2011). Reporting Africa. Global Media Journal African Edition.
-Fox, M.(2014, April 1). U.S Sends Team to Fight African Ebola Outbreak. NBC News.
-Thomas, E.(2014, October 8). This Illustration of Ebola Coverage Shows How Problematic Media Reports Can Be. The Huffington Post.
-Aseka, E.M. (1995),’Postmodernism and History: The Fallacies of a Theory without Theoretical Rigour’. Staff seminar paper, History Department, Kenyatta University.
-Bauzon, K.(1992). Development and Democratization in the Third World: Myths, Hopes and Realities. Taylor and Francis Group.
-Harth, A(2012). Representations of Africa in the Western News Media: Reinforcing Myths and Stereotypes.