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How Should Journalists Write about Africa?

   /   Jul 3rd, 2012News, Opinion

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.

4 Responses

  1. Bret says:

    Tmsruge focuses too much on lambasting the west and not enough on the extreme corruption on his continent.

    He preaches about “balance” to journalists like Nick Kristof but never ever EVER complains about his own corrupt politicians who are much more morally corrupt than Kristof. It’s as if he’s afraid to take on the corrupt officials of his country. Furthermore, Ugandan civil society could really do with a person like @tmsruge but he prefers to stay in America and complain about America.

    If African governments didn’t steal money meant for drought relief, there would be no famine to write about. Mention that to @tmsruge and he will still, somehow, end up blaming the west.

    I’m all for positive news about Africa, I love it. But @tmsruge needs to stop “killing the messenger” when 900 people are slaughtered during tribal fighting in South Sudan and some journalist writes about it.

    • Khatundi says:

      @Bret, I hear you! It’s funny how these African governments keep getting money in spite of their corruption which really irks me. It’s kind of like giving money to a drug addict.

      When I think about Africa and change, I think it will and has to come from the people themselves. In my opinion, in the case of say, Kenya, it means Nairobians have to decide to care about the folks in Kibera and not just ignore them. There’s a tendency to just keep on walking, oblivious yet aware enough that the imprint of hardship are deeply bound in ones psyche. On the streets of Nairobi there are often lots of people with severe physical handicaps and people tend to just walk over or around them (myself included). I bring that up because I think many of us are desensitized to the point of inaction. So when it comes to corruption, poverty, disease and violence….we have heard and seen so much that all we can do is lament with one another, tsk tsk and complain.

      It’s for this reason that I prefer more positive takes on stories about Africa. We need to reset our compassion buttons. And I think this will give us some time to see ourselves differently to a point where we can believe it. Maybe, we have internalized that we are corruption, poverty, disease and violence and in that space it’s impossible to think of planting community gardens and mentoring youth.

      I mentor at risk girls in western Kenya and wonder sometimes why arent more Kenyan’s doing something to help our communities thrive. It’s necessary for MORE African’s to roll up their sleeves to make change happen from within.

  2. TMS RUGE says:

    @Bret,
    Wow, talk about killing the messenger. It is one thing to accuse me of staying in America, but it is another to be completely ignorant about the work I do do for my country and continent.

    I won’t bother educating you about it.

    One thing is clear, we do agree about the corruption in our countries. However, if there was no easy money to steal, we wouldn’t have corruption as rampant as it is now then would we?

    We as civil society in Uganda and elsewhere are waking to our own agency to solve our own issues, this is a slow process. And it will grow enough to where we are the voice and we don’t need Kristof et all to be our voice.

    We should also remember that Kristof’s audience is America, not our governments. He writes so that America can do something about an issue that’s beyond heir control. It is this imperialistic agenda that I have a problem with. America has become too comfortable with sovereign interference. When are we ever going to govern our selves if we don’t even have our own voice? For all of Kristof’s good intentions, he is not our messenger. We are.

    Perhaps he should direct his efforts towards child trafficking in, inner city violence, gun control, erosion of civil liberties, voter fraud… You know the things no one wants to talk about in relation to America?

    • Bret says:

      “if there was no easy money to steal, we wouldn’t have corruption as rampant as it is now then would we?”

      Great attitude. “Meh, bound to happen.” It is corruption that causes the famines and wars Kristof writes about. You don’t have a chance of censoring him or any news agency until your back yard is cleaned up.

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