Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Media coverage and African voices

This little video has been doing the rounds and making lots of people happy but Elliot Ross over at Africa is a Country has a problem with it. I think the criticism sticks. I enjoyed the video. Bits of it are funny. Bits of it remind me of the kind of humour that South African satire sites like Hayibo throw out all the time. The difference is that the South African satirists are poking fun at stereotypes. They're intended to be humorous. There is nothing deep and meaningful about them, except in that peculiarly cynical fashion that keeps South African comedy relevant.

This video is serious. It takes itself seriously. Or at least the people who make it take themselves seriously. It's part of an attempt to promote a more positive image of Africa. This isn't new. Lots of places try to rebrand themselves. Of course, in this case, unlike say South Africa - The Good News, the people trying to rebrand the place don't own it any more than the people who have been getting it wrong, as Ross points out.

It grates, too, because it's not true. It's still a one-dimensional attempt to speak for those who supposedly have no voice. But African people do have a voice. Many voices, actually. Is the problem with media coverage of Africa the fact that it's negative or that it essentialises an entire continent as "bad"? And if it's the latter, surely essentialising Africa as "good" is just as bad? Africa is a complicated mess of very different places and people but they all have this in common: they're ordinary. Not ordinary in a "look how normal they are because they use facebook" way. Ordinary, ordinary. Just normal countries doing normal things. Mozambique is having issues because the local police in Nampala want to rearrest members of the force who have been granted bail by the courts and are claiming it is part of internal disciplinary procedure. In Malawi there is an ongoing wrangle over whether the national stadium will be built in Blantyre or Lilongwe. Talk to a gold trader in Bunia in Ituri and he'll want to discuss the taxes that are eating into his profits because of local regulations and the new mining developments AGK is bringing, not the fighting long ago.

African stories that make the international news don't define the continent and its people any more than do stories that make the international news about the US or the UK. The top story in the "World" section of SA's News24 site right now is this: US woman held after biting dog. Laura Seay argues (FP) that one of the ways to fix reporting on Africa would be to hire more local media professionals. It's a good point - local people who are immersed in everyday news in the countries being reported on are less likely to get caught up in the big stories without sufficient grasp of the context (although, in fairness, there are reporters in South Africa who seem determined to disprove this).

The point is this: this isn't necessarily about the big nasty West being mean to poor, defenceless Africa; it's about bad journalism. Journalists anywhere in the world covering a situation they know nothing about and accepting stereotypes instead of fact-checking are bad journalists. I have nothing against the idea of sharing positive stories from Africa - it's definitely a pleasant change from some of the negative images put out by INGOs - but it's not going to fix sloppy journalism and media double-standards.

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More thoughts on this issue (also H/T) at View From The Cave

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