In Kenya in early March, a grenade blast linked to the terrorist group Al-Shabaab killed six people and injured 63.
Despite the isolated nature of the incident, CNN International reported the story as if the violence were widespread; on the newscast they displayed a dramatic graphic of a Kenyan flag with the words “Violence in Kenya.”
“You would have thought all of Nairobi was in flames,” said Eric Chinje, who was staying in a hotel in the city at the time. He said that, almost immediately, Kenyans took to social media to debunk the story; hashtags like #CNNApologise proliferated on Twitter. Soon enough, CNN was indeed apologizing for its story.
Speaking at the Columbia Journalism School on Thursday afternoon, Chinje, a longtime journalist and the current director of communications for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation spoke of the incident as an example of the way the western press covers Africa: too simply, and too sensationally.
Chinje, along with Andrew Rice, a freelancer who has written about Africa for publications including The Economist, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine, and Milton Allimadi, founder and publisher of a New York-based investigative outlet, Black Star News, spoke as part of a panel called “How Africa is Covered.”
“Coverage of Africa is caught between very irreconcilable extremes—on one hand, there’s the species of journalist who goes to Africa in order to find suffering, and if he can’t find suffering, he’ll travel wherever it’s necessary to find it, even if it means ignoring stories right in front of his face,” Rice said. “On other hand, there’s a sort of reflexive defensiveness that you hear from people on the continent because of their quite valid frustration at being called an irredeemable hellhole.”
Allimadi commented that the American press has long fixated on stories that portray the continent as exotic and primitive. As a result, he said, many western journalists and editors approach reporting there with biases that have been conditioned by decades of consuming what he termed “Fantastic Africa” stories. He places more blame on editors, whom, he said, as gatekeepers often steer correspondents to the sort of simplistic and gruesome stories that have long been equated with Africa.
“There’s a challenge between covering the fuller and more realistic image of the continent that competes with what the western world is accustomed to reading about Africa,” Allimadi said.
Corruptions and dictatorships, he added, are examples of major stories in Africa that are overlooked, because the press gets diverted by sexier stories. He pointed to how the media latched onto KONY 2012 and its “preposterous logic”: the idea that by plucking one evil man from the jungle of Central Africa, and by mobilizing American forces to do so, all problems in Uganda would be solved. He faulted the American press for failing to report abuses by Uganda’s military and to question the US’s alliance with these forces.
Chinje added that the western press also missed a number of economic stories in Africa, which he calls “a rising player in the global marketplace.” He argued the media’s narrow focus has blinded Americans, and particularly US policy makers and investors to the economic opportunities that other countries are exploring in Africa.
Rice advised foreign correspondents to make sure they explore subjects on their own terms.
“Don’t give us a rosy picture—that wouldn’t help the continent or people—give us a fuller representation. Show us there are young people in Africa. Talk to Africa entrepreneurs. Interview opposition parties—they’re never interviewed,” he said, noting that correspondents often report only what ruling leaders or western diplomats say.
Rice added that because of changes in the media landscape, foreign reporters are more and more inclined to this more thoughtful and critical reporting. Shrinking budgets and the gutting of foreign bureaus, he said, make foreign reporting increasingly the province of freelancers—often very young ones—who live in the communities they cover. This is different from the days in which a correspondent would fly country to country, dropping into conflict zones only to return to their privileged perch in a city like Nairobi.
Staffing has also changed at the bureaus that still exist. Rice noted that outlets are making concerted efforts to hire journalists native to a given region, replacing the model in which a handful of American correspondents relied on the local knowledge and language skills of a single fixer.
All three panelists agreed they see more African bylines than ever in America media and that, for Africa and America both, that’s a good thing.