Africa and the Media: Who is Failing Whom?

Published on 10th March 2009

Where is the focus?
There is a perception that Africa only receives negative coverage from the international media and, as a result, that the Western media are doing Africa a disservice. While there is little doubt that Africa has received more than its fair share of news coverage highlighting stories of death, disease, disaster and despair, it begs the questions: why does Africa only seem to receive coverage on all that is wrong? And who is responsible for this skewed representation of the continent? 

From the outset, it is important to acknowledge that Africa does not only receive negative press. One only has to watch CNN's Inside Africa or read the Washington Post to see positive stories emerging from the Dark Continent. 

As CNN Africa bureau chief Kim Norgaard said at the International Media Forum in South Africa in May 2008, while the news network had to report on the big negative stories, they also had a "moral responsibility to provide coverage on the full picture of Africa to help change perceptions and lives." 

However, research by Media Tenor between April 2007 and March 2008 indicated that Africa receives very little coverage from the international media, and the little that it does is predominantly negative, with Africa receiving the worst overall rating of positive stories versus negative stories of all the continents. 

The research also found that Arab and French TV channels broadcast the highest number of reports on Africa. Unites States channels, perhaps unsurprisingly, are at the bottom of the list, showing the least interest in Africa. 

Overall, according to Media Tenor, Africa still hasn't changed its media image of a "boiling pot of socio-political and humanitarian problems." 

So is the international media perhaps failing the continent? 

In the past, international media have been poorly represented in Africa, with just a handful of correspondents covering a vast and complex continent. This has resulted in sparse, narrow and superficial coverage of Africa in the overseas press. 

There are signs however that this is changing. Before the launch of Qatar's Al Jazeera English network in late 2006, Africa Bureau Chief Andrew Simmons said: "Large swathes of Africa have been uncovered by television news for too long. And so many parts of this beautiful continent suffer from what I would term reactive coverage. We want to carve out a news agenda that is pro-active. I believe that in doing so the outside world's perception of this continent could gradually change." The network set up English bureaus in Egypt, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe and shares the resources of Al Jazeera Arabic's African bureaus located in Chad, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal, Somalia and Sudan. 

Other news networks have followed suit and are investing more resources in Africa. For example, in February 2008, CNN broadened its presence in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa and appointed additional Africa-based correspondents. 

However, they are not helped by the lack of resources in Africa. As Helge Ronning of Oslo University points out, good foreign journalism is dependent on access to sufficient resources and deep local knowledge, both of which are just not readily available in the continent.

In the past, Africa has lacked the funds to set, rather than just receive, the news agenda for the continent.  

With this in mind, perhaps Africa then is failing the international media?

It can be argued that stretched international media houses also get their cues from the local media. South African media, for example, could influence international media correspondents' coverage of the country. Throw in that international media use local journalists or republish articles that have appeared in local papers, and the influence of local media increases. 

Perhaps then the international media reflects the country that the local news publications portray.

From my experience as the editor of South Africa The Good News, I have experienced the unwillingness of the local media to reflect a more balanced representation of South Africa. Bad news sells, that is a global accepted maxim for the mass media - and it's no different in South Africa. The good news is there, but, confined to the bowels of the publication, it is a lot harder to find. 

While I fully agree that we need to know all about the stories of crime, corruption, and incompetence that fill our papers, I believe that the media also have a responsibility to report on progress and positive developments in the country. Aren't journalists supposed to be balanced and objective? 

The net result is a news publication that is packed with stories of doom and despair, one that is imbalanced and one that, as a result, does the country a disservice and impacts the way South Africans and the international community view the country.

Perhaps, local media is failing Africa? 

The local media will dispute this - and claim that they do offer a balanced perspective.

So who is failing whom? 

I believe that Africa is actually failing itself.

Africans, African governments and African businesses should take the lead in presenting to the world a different face of Africa, one that highlights the successes, ingenuity and progress of the continent. According to Africa editor for Reuters Barry Moody, there is an "unprecedented interest in news from Africa." 

Since the advent of global media, the responsibility for deciding on what in Africa is newsworthy has been taken by the international media. If this is to change, African media needs to set the African agenda and to tell its stories of its challenges and also of its stories of hope, innovation, progress and positive developments.... from an African perspective.

There is evidence that this has started to happen. In June 2008, South Africa's independent television broadcaster launched a 24-hour news service and A24, a new independent pan-African 24-hour news and information channel - modelled on the al-Jazeera network - is broadcasting from Nairobi, Kenya via satellite and cable television, radio and the internet. 

"We want to start by giving broadcasters around the world an option to pick up features on Africa that highlight other aspects of our continent such as business successes and opportunities, sport, art, culture, environment, history and some current affairs as well," says the entrepreneur behind the A24 network Salim Amin. "This is content that they are not able to get anywhere else as they rely mainly on (the main international news wires), or the main international broadcasters, for their African content." 

And now, South Africa The Good News has launched a new website, Africa The Good News (, sponsored by MTN, that will offer another perspective of this intriguing and vibrant continent. 

The responsibility to improve Africa's media image abroad ultimately lies with Africans themselves.

As Tina van der Heyden of Rhodes University says "As long as bad news sells (and it most certainly will for a long time to come), we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for the Western media to realise that their images are not an accurate portrayal of Africa's reality. As Africans, we need to stop seeing ourselves through the eyes of the Western media and find a way to make them see us as we see ourselves." 

By Ian Macdonald


From Africa The Good News.


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