How Should Journalists Write about Africa?
The latest debate on how (not) to write about Africa – this one between New York Times columnist Nick Kristof and Ugandan entrepreneur Teddy Ruge – has caused quite a stir. Ruge criticized Kristof for focusing too heavily on Africa’s problems in his columns, which he believes leads readers to believe the “whole continent is a misery basket.” Kristof said that while journalists need to cover rising Africa (as he recently did), they should also remember that tragedies in “Sudan, Congo, Mali, Somalia, Ogaden are under-covered, not over-covered.”
In truth, neither approach will do the continent justice. Focusing on what Ruge terms the “basket case narrative” will only perpetuate long-held images of sad African children who cannot survive without foreign assistance. It ignores the entrepreneurs, politicians, and systems that are improving life on the continent.
The opposite approach may be equally dangerous. Initiatives like See Africa Differently and Africa Good News highlight individual country successes (e.g., “Rwanda has the largest proportion of women in parliament in the world”), acknowledge development achievements, and celebrate individual African heroes. In one sense, these websites are a needed break from Kristof’s gutting articles about the “slaughter of innocents” in South Sudan. However, they rarely critique or qualify the successes. In celebrating increased female government participation in Rwanda, they do not ask whether this has a positive effect on gender relations at home. In mentioning impressive mosquito net distribution figures, they do not ask whether the supply chains are working as efficiently as possible.
Africa deserves better than a series of unqualified success stories. While these stories are a needed response to media’s coverage of African corruption, poor governance, and poverty, they will likely not change the public’s opinion of the continent.
There is a more moderate path journalists can follow. Part of the media’s job is, and always will be, to spotlight wrongdoing. If thousands are dying from a man-made famine in Ethiopia, the media is right to call attention to it. When doing so, however, journalists should acknowledge initiatives that are working to reverse it. If an organization has successfully rolled out a food voucher program, perhaps the journalist could discuss how it works and could be expanded. If new laws are being developed to prevent future famines from occurring, perhaps the journalist could discuss how those could alter the Ethiopian landscape in the next decade.
There are several differences between this and a traditional “good news” story. First, it lends itself to critique and qualification. Journalists can and should talk about some of the limitations of expanded food voucher programs. Second, it focuses on the power of an idea to solve a problem, rather than on an individual protagonist hero.
This kind of journalism – optimistic but cautious, positive but critical – may finally shift the needle on how the public views the continent.