The bad news syndrome in the media coverage of Africa

Today, more than 40 per cent of the continent’s one billion people do—a proportion roughly comparable to China’s and larger than India’s. By 2030, that share is projected to rise to 50 per cent, and Africa’s top 18 cities will have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion. Our future is bright and full of potential – but the rest of the world will never know that until we begin to tell our story as it must be told.

I begin this piece by borrowing from the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s famous satirical essay, How To Write About Africa: ‘Always use the word “Africa” or “Darkness” or “Safari” in your title. Subtitles may include the words “Zanzibar”, “Masai”, “Zulu”, “Zambezi”, “Congo”, “Nile”, ‘Big’, “Sky”, “Shadow”, “Drum”, “Sun” or “Bygone”. Also useful are words such as “Guerrillas”, “Timeless”, “Primordial” and “Tribal”. Note that “People” means Africans who are not black, while “The People” means black Africans.

‘Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

‘In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannas and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.’

The above aptly captures how the west views Africa through the prism of its biased media. To the average westerner, Africa is synonymous with war, famine, disease and all kinds of disaster. This image is reinforced by what has become known as the ‘bad news syndrome’, under which all  the positive developments taking place on the continent are not deemed to be newsworthy and therefore go unreported.

This stereotype was reinforced early last year when President Trump described African countries as ‘shitholes’. That distasteful remark dominated and distorted the coverage of Africa in the global media. As if that was not enough, the recent New York Times job description in an advert for an East African correspondent specifies reporting along the lines described above. (This is elaborated upon by a fellow columnist on this portal). It is a tragedy!

There are so many authentic African stories that aren’t being told because they don’t fit the ‘template’ of existing western media platforms. We, as Africans, need to own our platforms to start telling our stories in the way we want them to be told. There’s increasing political will among our leaders to pull the continent out of the doldrums. Liberia of today is not the Liberia we knew ten years ago. The same applies to Sierra Leone. After a drawn out and messy electoral process nearly two years ago, Kenyans are back at work. President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga have buried the hatchet in the supreme interest of the nation. The Rwanda of 1994 is now a beacon of economic and social progress.

Earlier this month, African leaders meeting in Niamey, the Niger capital, signed the operational phase of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which could become the world’s largest trading bloc.

There are still a number of problems in Africa – corruption, poor economic mismanagement, a handful of dictators that refuse to go and frustration among youth who choose to migrate to Europe – are just some of these problems. But these are very different problems from those that we had 20 years ago.

The continent is getting its act together, with many countries having improved on their ratings in the various indices that exist to measure competitiveness, quality of life, safety and other important factors. In 1980, just 28 per cent of Africans lived in cities. Today, more than 40 per cent of the continent’s one billion people do—a proportion roughly comparable to China’s and larger than India’s. By 2030, that share is projected to rise to 50 per cent, and Africa’s top 18 cities will have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion.

Our future is bright and full of potential – but the rest of the world will never know that until we begin to tell our story as it must be told.

The African story that the New York Times of this world like to peddle are inaccurate and dangerous. The authentic story about Africa speaks of our realities as we live and experience them. This story can only be told by Africans who live it, how they live and in words that have meaning to their lives.

We must tell our story, it is our story and that story is not being told. Telling that story begins by Africans speaking for ourselves. Each of us has a fascinating story to tell of how we lived the last 20 years. We can’t tell these stories if we do not own the platforms to do so. Of course global media houses carry such stories, but often, the headlines, the perspective and the voice that tells our story is so unfamiliar that it is impossible to identify with. And it’s only ever bad news about us that makes the front pages! Africa makes the news only when it bleeds!

The real story is in how we are harnessing technology, creating our own channels, and communicating our stories.

This is the role African media professionals must own as ours to play. This story is told through the success of companies like MTN and Standard Bank across Africa; Iroko in Nigeria, that has over 2 million followers; M-Pesa in Kenya, Ecobank from Togo, Tanjet in Tanzania; Chocolate City in Ghana; Guanomad in Madagascar and Dangote, whose investments stretch from West to Southern Africa!

And this is the time to tell the story – when technology makes it possible to record and broadcast to millions an inspiring story through a smartphone and a democratic social media. Our future is bright and full of potential – but the rest of the world will never know that until we begin to tell our story as it must be told.

Jon Offei-Ansah is the Founder and Publisher of Africa Briefing, the London-based pan-African newsmagazine (https://africabriefing.org)

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