Last updated: May 2009
Why does the media focus on reporting bad news from Africa and what impact does it have? asks Simon Birch
Disaster, disease and disorder: for decades now our TVs and newspapers have been flled with the latest unfolding debacle in Africa. How many times have we watched grim-faced reporters broadcast live from equally grim, fy-infested refugee camps?
The trouble is that whilst there’s nothing made up about the horrors of Darfur, the reality is that they’re not happening everywhere in Africa, as Baffour Ankomah, editor of New African magazine points out: “British people could be forgiven for thinking that Africa is the sum of what they see on TV and in newspapers so that they think that all of Africa is suffering. But this isn’t true.”
Not all war and famine
“Africa is made up of 53 countries,” says Ankomah, “and it’s wrong to extrapolate the unrest in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo to the rest of the continent. It’s an injustice.” Richard Dowden, journalist and the Director of the Royal African Society agrees. “Not all Africans are fghting or starving,” says Dowden writing in his acclaimed, recently published book ‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’. “Millions of Africans have never known hunger or war and lead ordinary peaceful lives.
But that is not news. Editors want breaking news but have little interest in explanations, let alone explanations from an African perspective.” “The media’s problem is that, by only covering disasters and wars, it only gives us that image of the continent. We have no others. When we see foods causing havoc in New Orleans we don’t think that all of America is permanently under water.”
And it’s not just the media that’s guilty of this negative reporting. Aid agencies and charities too regularly whip out images of suffering children to help get the much-needed money fowing in. Even Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day is not averse to cranking-up the emotional stakes to get TV viewers to dig deep. Sure, no one’s saying that more positive images are never shown or that the money raised by Comic Relief isn’t needed to help save lives, but just how helpful is the constant use of negative imagery?
Nobody from Comic Relief was available to comment when the Ethical Sceptic called their offce, however Richard Dowden has a response in his book:“Persistent images of starving children and men with guns have accumulated into our narrative of the continent: Africans are gun-toting, mindless warriors or hopeless, helpless victims who can do nothing for themselves, doomed to endless poverty, violence and hunger.”
Baffour Ankomah accepts that charity fundraising is a complex issue:“Aid charities do good work, but it’s a double-edged sword. If people in the UK see negative images of refugees and starving people in Africa again and again it just perpetuates the way in which Africans are viewed.” Many now believe that this negative and inaccurate reporting of Africa has had a long-term debilitating impact on the continent.
“Africa is still seen as a continent that’s lagging behind the rest of the world. It’s potential is rarely portrayed,” says Luther Bois, Executive Director of Panos Eastern Africa, an international media organization that puts marginalized African voices into the heart of the development debate.
“For example the technology revolution that’s now taking place in Africa – with the widespread adoption of mobile phones – is having a huge impact on the continent, but this is rarely reported in the West,” says Bois speaking from the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
A more balanced approach in the way in which the media portrays Africa is now increasingly being seen as vital in the development of the continent, as Audrey Mpunzwana from the business consultancy Africa Practice describes: “The media is an important source of information for investors, infuencing the rate, scale and location of investment fows to Africa.”
In a move to encourage more positive reporting on Africa, fve years ago the multi-national drinks company Diageo launched the annual African Business Reporting Awards which are organized by Africa Practice. In the years since their launch Mpunzwana believes that there’s been a change in the way in which certainly the business press has covered African stories.“It’s becoming more balanced and less skewed towards political unrest and disasters. This is vital to create an enabling environment for businesses to succeed in Africa – which would lead to less need for handouts,” says Mpunzwana. “What’s needed is the ability for African people to develop and trade, to be better educated – and to be masters of their own destinies.”
From Ethical Consumer, Issue 118, May/June 2009