Friday, 16 November 2012

Impressions from Newschange: the role of stereotypes in African news reporting

I was lucky enough to be invited by the Associated Press to speak at the annual Newsxchange conference in Barcelona. As you’d expect for the premier gathering of the broadcast TV news industry, Newsxchange attracts some great speakers. I therefore thought I’d try and summarise some of the best sessions from the packed schedule.

First up, my thoughts on a session entitled “Africa: defying stereotypes”. As you can imagine I was really looking forward to this session; however although I found it stimulating I was a little disappointed by some of the points of view put across by the panel of African news people and journalists.

The primary contention of the session was that global news media persists in reporting Africa as a continent in strife. The compere, Yvonne Ndege from Al Jazeera said that this was not an accurate portrayal, throwing out the implausibly speculative stat that by 2100 (!) half of the world’s largest economies will be in Africa as evidence that “Africa” should be shown in a positive light.

I have a fundamental problem with this idea. First off, those in the investment and aid communities are for the most part pretty clear on where different African countries are in their development cycle. Specialist media outlets have long been focussing a portion of their efforts on the continent and I actually think coverage is reasonably good... given that in reality the only news that’s reported in any country is bad or very good news. “Life really not as bad as you think in Africa” isn’t a headline that people in Munich, Hanoi or Dallas are going to be interested in and vice versa. News is fast twitch nowadays and most international news is sound bite, rather than story.

The criticism from the panel was that talented local journals are not given sufficient airtime. Africans should also be in editorial positions internationally to ensure portrayal. The “Western World” should not indulge in tokenism. My instant thought was “which Africans” – there are over 50 countries on the continent. It’s like saying that someone from Liechtenstein should be made European editor for the Jakarta Post to ensure accurate portrayal. Over-simplified. It also made me a little irritated as there are plenty of non-African natives who have an affinity and an understanding for life and issues on the continent.

A truism about the latter is that there are still organisations – particularly NGOs and charities – that choose to portray Africa in a particular way. They provide an illusion of context, but in reality it’s a one dimensional view. A Swedish broadcaster mentioned that their positive stories about African hope and expectations had led to them being turned upon by international charities trying to rubbish that alternative perspective. A sad situation, but not surprising to me, I’m afraid. The joie de vivre of the continent is rarely portrayed internationally... but then neither are the excellent culinary options now available in London. Stereotypes persist because rebutting them is hard and not very profitable.

Three interesting segments on African stories and how they’re portrayed are worth mentioning: 
  • The Kony 2012 scandal in Uganda, where a US team launched a misguided campaign to inform the world about the rebellion in Northern Uganda... which had been going on for 20 years. The story was riddled with inaccuracies, outed by a Ugandan blogger. I thought this was a good insight into where Internet comment can be superior to traditional news in developing countries. The Internet is inherently international. TV News has a tendency to be local.
  • Electronic waste dumping and recycling in Ghana. A juxtaposition of massive multinationals based only a couple of hundred yards from people sifting through their waste. Some good images of the way in which those people live though – a vibrancy and life similar to that you see in India (in terms of happiness, culture and colour, rather than specifics)
  • A South African school that wasn’t properly connected to the communities it served, such that the kids had to swim a river to get to class! It was a well produced story, the point of which from a session point of view was that in the year after broadcast the problem had been for the most part resolved by philanthropists who’d given the kids bicycles and pressured the local government to build a proper bridge.
So there we go. Everyone has stereotypes. Global news somewhat stereotypes Africa as a continent in strife. African news stereotypes the rest of the world as a Western elite that persists in simplifying their situation. The Internet enables those who care to find perspectives that approach a truer portrayal, but few will do that because they’re interested in other things. C’est la vie, as the old folks are wont to say.

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