Damian Aspinall

60 Minutes’ Africa ‘problem’

March 26, 2015
Damian Aspinall

The media’s narrative in Africa typically falls into at least one of three narrow categories, according to Columbia Journalism School associate professor Howard French: Immense Catastrophe, White Protagonists, or Wildlife.

CBS’ 60 Minutes hit on all three in recent months, prompting French–previously a New York Times west and central Africa correspondent–to send 60 Minutes’ executive producer Jeff Fager a letter Wednesday criticizing the show’s coverage. The letter was co-signed by more than 150 journalists, writers, and academics from the US and Africa.

60 Minutes has managed, quite extraordinarily, to render people of black African ancestry voiceless and all but invisible,” he wrote, calling on CBS to “rethink its approach to Africa.” For French, the tipping point came while watching a recent 60 Minutes segment on a British multimillionaire who took a family of 10 gorillas from a zoo in Britain and released them in Gabon earlier this month. That story followed a 60 Minutes segment from last November on a white South African animal behaviorist and “lion whisperer,” as well as a report on Ebola from Lara Logan in which seemingly no Africans were interviewed.


Kevin Richardson, the South African “lion whisperer” on 60 Minutes

The situation has since escalated. A 60 Minutes spokesman said: “60 Minutes is proud of its coverage of Africa and has received considerable recognition for it. We have reached out to Mr. French to invite him to discuss this further and we look forward to meeting with him.”

In an interview with CJR, French responded: “I told them I would be happy to speak with them, but the only basis for sincere conversation that I can detect would be engaging on the points of my letter, and they have not done that. I’m not trying to get an invitation to their office. I’m trying to engage a discussion about very specific points of criticism.”

Those points of criticism are not confined to 60 Minutes, but apply to the way Western media covers Africa generally. Internationally, the boom of certain South American or Asian economies, for example, have made those nations increasingly relevant to American financial interests, with media coverage subsequently improving. In Africa, that’s largely not yet the case. “Africa coverage lags, in my view, behind every other major region of the world,” French said. “Money compels attention, and to some degree it compels respect.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Yet even if it takes economic clout to draw eyeballs and thus nuanced reporting, in Africa there is a disconnect between media coverage and the continent’s growth, although publications like Quartz are beginning to take notice. “Africa today as a continent is—depending on whose estimate you take—growing roughly as fast or perhaps faster than Asia, economically speaking. Africa today, depending on whose definition of middle class you accept, has more middle class people than India,” said French. “Africa is urbanizing faster than any other part of the world. We get lots of stories about urbanization in China—and we should. We don’t get those stories about urbanization in Africa.”

Money compels attention, and to some degree it compels respect.

Essentially, there is no counter-narrative. And the media can fall into a vicious cycle of perpetuating the same tired stories—tragic disaster, foreign saviors, exotic animals—while assuming this is all that piques their audience’s interest. “There’s a failure, deliberate or not, on the part of the editors and producers who run the media to engage with the notion that it’s actually them who condition the interest of the readers and the viewers,” said French. “That’s why I did a public letter. I think that the news media suffers under this illusion that this is what the public wants and they’re simply passively doing their job, serving up the normal order of things.”

As international news bureaus around the world close and publications become more reliant on freelancers, nuanced reporting that is willing to challenge the conventional African narrative is also at risk.

But for now, French’s focus is squarely on CBS. “I’m going to go archivally through CBS 60 Minutes’ work on Africa. Because I’ve been watching the show—for better or for worse—for decades, and I don’t remember any particular segments that get outside of the boxes of what I’m talking about,” said French. “They say they’re proud of their coverage in Africa. I want to go back and see what they have to be proud of.”

The letter—with the most recent list of signatories—is below:

March 25, 2015

Jeff Fager, Executive Producer, CBS 60 Minutes (by email)

Dear Mr. Fager,

We, the undersigned, are writing to express our grave concern about the frequent and recurring misrepresentation of the African continent by 60 Minutes.

In a series of recent segments from the continent, 60 Minutes has managed, quite extraordinarily, to render people of black African ancestry voiceless and all but invisible.

Two of these segments were remarkably similar in their basic subject matter, featuring white people who have made it their mission to rescue African wildlife. In one case these were lions, and in another, apes. People of black African descent make no substantial appearance in either of these reports, and no sense whatsoever is given of the countries visited, South Africa and Gabon.

The third notable recent segment was a visit by your correspondent Lara Logan to Liberia to cover the Ebola epidemic in that country. In that broadcast, Africans were reduced to the role of silent victims. They constituted what might be called a scenery of misery: people whose thoughts, experiences and actions were treated as if totally without interest. Liberians were shown within easy speaking range of Logan, including some Liberians whom she spoke about, and yet not a single Liberian was quoted in any capacity.

Liberians not only died from Ebola, but many of them contributed bravely to the fight against the disease, including doctors, nurses and other caregivers, some of whom gave their lives in this effort. Despite this, the only people heard from on the air were white foreigners who had come to Liberia to contribute to the fight against the disease.

Taken together, this anachronistic style of coverage reproduces, in condensed form, many of the worst habits of modern American journalism on the subject of Africa. To be clear, this means that Africa only warrants the public’s attention when there is disaster or human tragedy on an immense scale, when Westerners can be elevated to the role of central characters, or when it is a matter of that perennial favorite, wildlife. As a corollary, Africans themselves are typically limited to the role of passive victims, or occasionally brutal or corrupt villains and incompetents; they are not otherwise shown to have any agency or even the normal range of human thoughts and emotions. Such a skewed perspective not only disserves Africa, it also badly disserves the news viewing and news reading public.

We have taken the initiative of writing to you because we are mindful of the reach of 60 Minutes, and of the important role that your program has long played in informing the public. We are equally mindful that American views of Africa, a continent of 1.1 billion people, which is experiencing rapid change on an immense scale, are badly misinformed by much of the mainstream media. The great diversity of African experience, the challenges and triumphs of African peoples, and above all, the voices and thoughts of Africans themselves are chronically and woefully underrepresented.

Over the coming decades, Africa will become the backdrop of some of the most significant developments on the planet, from unprecedented population growth, urbanization and economic change to, potentially, the wholesale reconfiguration of states. We would like see to 60 Minutes rethink its approach to Africa, and rise to the challenge of covering topics like these, and many more, that go well beyond the bailiwick of the staid and stereotypical recent examples cited above. In doing so, 60 Minutes will have much to gain, as will the viewing public.

Howard W. French

Associate Professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Author of China’s Second Continent and A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

Fatin Abbas, Manhattanville College
Akin Adesokan, Novelist and Associate Professor, Comparative Literature and Cinema and Film Studies, Indiana University Bloomington
Anthony Arnove, Producer, Dirty Wars
Adam Ashforth, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan
Sean Jacobs, Faculty, International Affairs, Milano, The New School and Africa is a Country.
Teju Cole, Distinguished Writer in Residence, Bard College/ Photography Critic, The New York Times Magazine
Richard Joseph, John Evans Professor of International History and Politics, Northwestern University
Leon Dash, Swanlund Chair Professor in Journalism, Professor, Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Michael C. Vazquez, Senior Editor, Bidoun: Art and Culture from the Middle East
Achille Mbembe, Professor, Wits University and Visiting Professor of Romance Studies and Franklin Humanities Institute Research Scholar, Duke University
M. Neelika Jayawardane, Associate Professor of English Literature at State University of New York-Oswego, and Senior Editor, AFRICA IS A COUNTRY.
Adam Hochschild, author
Peter Uvin, Provost, Amherst College
Pamela Scully, professor of WGSS and African Studies, Emory College
Eileen Julien, Professor, Comparative Literature, French & Italian, African Studies, Indiana University Bloomington
Mohamed Keita, freelance journalist in NYC, former Africa Advocacy Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Aaron Leaf, Producer, Feet in 2 Worlds, The New School
Dan Magaziner, Assistant Professor, History, Yale University
Marissa Moorman, Associate Professor, Department of History, Indiana University
Sisonke Msimang, Research Fellow, University of Kwazulu-Natal.
Achal Prabhala, Writer and Researcher, Bangalore, India.
Janet Roitman, Associate Professor of Anthropology, The New School
Lily Saint, Assistant Professor of English, Wesleyan University.
Abdourahman A. Waberi, writer and Professor of French and Francophone Studies George Washington University
Binyavanga Wainaina, Writer
Chika Unigwe, Writer
James C. McCann, Chair, Department of Archaeology, Professor of History, Boston University
Susan Shepler, Associate Professor, International Peace and Conflict Resolution, School of International Service, American University
Peter Uvin, Provost, Amherst College
G. Pascal Zachary, professor of practice, Arizona State University
Cara E Jones, PhD, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Mary Baldwin College
James T. Campbell, Edgar E. Robinson Professor of History / Stanford University
Nii Akuetteh, Independent International Affairs Analyst, Former Executive Director of OSIWA, the Soros Foundation in West Africa
Mary Ratcliff, editor, San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper
James Ferguson, Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor, Stanford University
Alice Gatebuke, Rwandan Genocide and War survivor. Communications Director, African Great Lakes Action Network (AGLAN)
Max Bankole Jarrett, Deputy Director, Africa Progress Panel Secretariat
Mohamed Dicko, retired Computer Applications Analyst in St Louis, Missouri
Mojúbàolú Olufúnké Okome, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, African & Women’s Studies, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Adam Ouologuem
John Edwin Mason, Department of History, University of Virginia
Dele Olojede, newspaperman
Dr. Jonathan T. Reynolds, Professor of History, Northern Kentucky University
Daniel J. Sharfstein, Professor of Law, Vanderbilt University
Claire L. Adida, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California San Diego
Lisa Lindsay, University of North Carolina
Anne-Maria B. Makhulu, Assistant Prof. of Cultural Anthropology and African and African American Studies, Duke University
Karin Shapiro, Associate Professor of the Practice African and African American Studies, Duke University
Garry Pierre Pierre, Executive director of the Community Reporting Alliance, New York City
Lynn M. Thomas, Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Washington
Martha Saavedra, Associate Director, Center for African Studies, University of California, Berkeley
Kathryn Mathers, Visiting Assistant Professor, International Comparative Studies, Duke University
Siddhartha Mitter, freelance journalist
Alexis Okeowo, Contributor, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine
Susan Thomson, Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Colgate University
Nicolas van de Walle, Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government, Cornell University
David Newbury, Gwendolen Carter professor of African studies, Smith College
Charles Piot, Professor, Department of Cultural Anthropology & Department of African and African American Studies Co-Convener Africa Initiative, Duke University
Adia Benton, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Brown University
Gregory Mann, historian of francophone Africa, Columbia University
Anne Pitcher, University of Michigan
Howard Stein, University of Michigan
Adam Shatz, London Review of Books
Peter Rosenblum, professor of international law and human rights, Bard College
Timothy Longman, African Studies Center Director, Chair of Committee of Directors, Pardee School of Global Studies, Associate Professor of Political Science, Boston University
Laura E. Seay, Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Colby College
Gregory White, Mary Huggins Gamble Professor of Government, Smith College
Robert Grossman, Producer
Daniel Fahey, Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley, and served on the UN Group of Experts on DRC from 2013-2015
Jennie E. Burnet, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Louisville
Kim Yi Dionne, Assistant Professor, Smith College
Lonnie Isabel, Journalist
Karen L. Murphy
Peter Lewis, Director, African Studies Program & Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS
Pamela Scully, Professor of WGSS and African Studies, Emory University
Ann Garrison, Pacifica Radio reporter/producer and contributor to SF Bay View, Black Agenda Report, Black Star News, Counterpunch, Global Research
Ryan Briggs, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Virginia Tech
Yolande Bouka, PhD, Researcher, Institute for Security Studies
Elliot Fratkin PhD, Gwendolen M. Carter Professor of African Studies, Department of Anthropology, Smith College
Gretchen Bauer, Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Delaware
John Woodford, journalist
Frank Holmquist, Professor of Politics, Emeritus, School of Critical Social Inquiry, Hampshire College
Alice Kang, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Institute for Ethnic Studies – African and African American Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Michel Marriott, journalist, author
Jennifer N. Brass, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Public & Environmental Affairs, Indiana University
Séverine Autesserre, Department of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University
Jill E. Kelly, Assistant Professor, Clements Department of History, Southern Methodist University
Dr. Meghan Healy-Clancy, Lecturer on Social Studies and on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Harvard University
Dayo Olopade, journalist, author
Mary Moran, Colgate University
Sharon Abramowitz, UFL
Rebecca Shereikis, Interim Director, Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa, Northwestern University
Barbara B. Brown, Ph.D., Director of the Outreach Program, African Studies Center, Boston University
Jeffrey Stringer
David Alain Wohl, MD, Associate Professor, The Division of Infectious Diseases, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Andy Sechler, MD, Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School
John Kraemer, Assistant Professor, Dept of Health Systems Admin. & African Studies Program, Georgetown University
Barbara Shaw Anderson, Associate Director, African Studies Center, Lecturer, Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies, African Studies Center, University of North Carolina
Adrienne LeBas, Assistant Professor of Government, American University, DC
Catharine Newbury, Professor Emerita of Government, Smith College
Ana M. Ayuso Alvarez, Epidemiology Programme applied to the Field, M. Art (Anthropologist)
Cynthia Haq MD, Professor of Family Medicine and Population Health Sciences, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health
Aili Tripp, Professor of Political Science & Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Gloria Ladson-Billings, Professor, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, Kellner Family Professor in Urban Education, University of Wisconsin
Anne Jebet Waliaula, PhD, Outreach Coordinator, African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Judith Oki, Salt Lake City, UT, former Capacity Building Advisor for Rebuilding Basic Health Services, Monrovia, Liberia
Sandra Schmidt, PhD, Assistant Professor of Social Studies and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University
Emily Callaci, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Louise Meintjes, Assoc Prof, Departments of Music and Cultural Anthropology, Duke University
May Rihani, Former Co-Chair of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), Author of Cultures Without Borders
Tejumola Olaniyan, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Selah Agaba, Doctoral Student, Anthropology & Education Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin
Casey Chapman, Wisconsin
Ted Hochstadt, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Lesotho)
Kah Walla, CEO – STRATEGIES!, Cameroon
Kofi Ogbujiagba, journalist, Madison, Wisconsin
Matthew Francis Rarey, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
David B. Levine, consultant in international development, Washington, DC
Claire Wendland, Medical Anthropologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Frederic C. Schaffer, Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Joye Bowman, Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Cody S. Perkins, Ph.D. Candidate, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Eric Gottesman, Colby College Department of Art
Lynda Pickbourn, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Economics, School of Critical Social Inquiry, Hampshire College
Kate Heuisler, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Henry John Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of African and African Diaspora Arts, Departments of Art History and Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Sarah Forzley, lecturer in the English department at the University of Paris 10- Nanterre (France)
Laura Doyle, Professor of English,University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Ralph Faulkingham, PhD
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology (and former Editor, The African Studies Review), University of Massachusetts Amherst
Dr. Jessica Johnson, University of Massachusetts Amherst History Department
Joseph C. Miller, University of Virginia ret.
Sean Hanretta, Associate Professor, Department of History, Northwestern University
Iris Berger, Vincent O’Leary Professor of History, University at Albany
Jackson Musuuza, MBChB, MPH, MS, PhD student in Clinical Epidemiology, University of Wisconsin Madison
Dr. Anita Schroven, Researcher, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany
Prof. Dr. Baz Lecocq, Chair of African History, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany
Monica H. Green, Professor of History, Arizona State University
Sandra Adell, Professor, Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, Broom Professor of Social Demography and Anthropology Director, African and African American Studies Program, Acting Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton College
Michael Herce, MD, MPH, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ)
Satish Gopal MD MPH, UNC Project-Malawi (Director, Cancer Program), UNC Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases
Mina C. Hosseinipour, MD, MPH, Scientific Director, UNC Project, Lilongwe Malawi
Cliff Missen, M.A.
Director, WiderNet@UNC and The WiderNet Project, Clinical Associate Professor
School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Groesbeck Parham, Professor, UNC (working in Zambia)
Norma Callender, San Jose
Harry McKinley Williams, Jr., Laird Bell Professor of History, Carleton College
Robtel Neajai Pailey, Liberian academic, London
Rose Brewer, professor, University of Minnesota
Fodei J. Batty, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science, Quinnipiac University
Graham Wells, MS. PE, (Professor, Retired), Dept of Mechanical Engineering, Mississippi State University
CHOUKI EL HAMEL, Ph.D., Professor of History, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies Arizona State University
Obioma Ohia, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Maryland Department of Physics
Paschal Kyoore, Professor of French, Francophone African/Caribbean Literatures & Cultures
Director, African Studies Program, Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter, Minnesota
Preston Smith, Chair of Africana Studies. Professor of Politics, Mount Holyoke College
Catherine E. Bolten. Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Peace Studies. The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
Michael Leslie, associate professor of telecommunication, College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida
Agnes Ngoma Leslie, Senior Lecturer and Outreach Director, Center for African Studies, University of Florida
Martin Murray, Urban Planning and African Studies, University of Michigan
Laura Fair, Associate Professor of African History, Michigan State University
Noel Twagiramungu, Post- doctoral Research Fellow, World Peace Foundation, The Fletcher School, Tufts University
Brandon Kendhammer, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Afircan Studies Affiliate Faculty, Ohio University
Sabrina Buckwalter, Communications Manager, Columbia University; Associate Producer, DRONE
Terrie Schweitzer, Writer/Consultant, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Ghana 2011-2013)
Ken Opalo, Stanford University
Youssouf Traoré
Ron Davis
Robin L. Turner, Associate Professor of Political Science, Butler University
Jeffrey Ahlman, Assistant Professor of History and African Studies, Smith College
Madina Thiam
Michelle Poulin, PhD, Consultant, The World Bank, Africa Region
Felicia Akanmou, Multimedia Journalism Graduate student- Indiana University, Bloomington
Sarah Watkins, Lecturer, Departments of History and Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
Simon Halliday, Lecturer, Departments of History and Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
Sally Orme, Educator, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Liberia, 2013-2014)
Beth Elise Whitaker, Associate Professor of Political Science, Affiliate Faculty in Africana Studies, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Rachel Strohm, PhD Student, Political Science, UC Berkeley
Nathan J. Combes, Ph.D. Candidate, University of California, San Diego
Heather Switzer, Assistant Professor, Women and Gender Studies, Arizona State University, research in southern Kenya, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Ethiopia ’98-99
Casey Chapman, Ebola Survivor Corps
Aristide Kemla, University of Florida
Peter Schmidt, Professor of Anthropology and African Studies, University of Florida, Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science
R. Hunt Davis, Jr. , Professor Emeritus of History and African Studies, Editor-in-Chief, African Studies Quarterly, University of Florida
Goran Hyden, Distinguished Professor, Political Science, University of Florida
Erika Kirwen, London
Léonce Ndikumana, Professor of Economics, Director of the African Development Policy Program, Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), University of Massachusetts Amherst
Rachael Clifford Ebeledi, Amherst, MA
Mwangi wa Githinji, Economics Department, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Gina Irene Njeru RT(R)(S) ARRT BAS HSA, University of Florida, Center for African Studies Program Assistant
Oliver Akamnonu, M.D., Physician, author
Robin Poynor, PhD, Professor of Art History, School of Art and Art History, University of Florida
Liz Poulsen, Master’s of Development Practice Program, University of Florida
Amilcar Shabazz, American Council on Education Fellow, Office of the President, New York University
Kate S. Peabody, Liberian
Alan Neuhauser, reporter
Matthew Adeiza, PhD Student, Department of Communication, University of Washington, Seattle
Robbie Corey-Boulet, Fellow, Institute of Current World Affairs
Nkemjika E. Kalu, Ph.D., Strategic Analyst, Abuja, Nigeria
Kim Foulds, Program Coordinator, Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program, Quinnipiac University
Susana Wing, Associate Professor of Political Science, Haverford College
Kevin Fridy, Associate Professor of Government and World Affairs, University of Tampa
Kukunda Liz Bacwayo, Uganda Christian University

Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw.