By Elliot Ross, Guest Blogger

We don’t give Africa a pass just because we are Africans. It’s a mistake to respond to blanket negative coverage with blanket positive coverage. Africa is overexposed not underexposed. We just get the wrong kind of exposure.

The words of Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama at a recent, wide-ranging conference on the media in Africa at Columbia University.

The forum challenged academics, NGO executives and journalists to address two main questions. What is the state of the media in Africa? And how is it dealing with perhaps the biggest emerging story continent-wide, the rise of the extractive sector?

There was broad agreement that Western reporting on Africa continues to be deplorable – “a hostage to dogma,” as Izama had it. And it was heartening to hear from talented writers such as Dayo Olopade, previously at The New Republic and now in Nairobi, that substantial efforts continue to be made to challenge the old cliches in writing.

Olopade is working on a book about Africa and technology called “The Bright Continent”, a project she was provoked to begin by Icelandic artist Stefan Einarsson’s winning entry in last year’s UN Print Ad Competition, entitled “Dear leaders, we are still waiting.”

Einarsson trousered 5000 Euros, and got to meet Antonio Banderas at the awards ceremony. “Nobody’s waiting for anything,” growled Olopade last week.

The most incisive discussion was of the way African journalists are reporting on their own countries. Among the difficulties pinpointed was the fact that only seven African nations have freedom of information legislation, though in the case of Nigeria this has not been for the want of trying.

And in Uganda, Izama has been leading the movement for transparency as the plaintiff in an ongoing court-case which he hopes will mandate the public disclosure of resource contracts.

NGOs as well as governments were criticized for frequently paying reporters for positive coverage, setting back the cause of independent journalism with every envelope passed across the table.

Revenue Watch’s Alexandra Gillies offered an instructive comparison of two Nigerian papers with differing relationships to government, This Day and Next, and their coverage of controversial oil minister Diezani Allison-Madueke.

Reporting on a major bribery scandal in the country’s oil sector, NEXT journalists Elor Nkereuwem and Idris Akinbajo wrote on April 15 that the most recent “ripoff has created an uproar in the industry, which has been smarting for the past year under what is generally seen as the incompetent, inattentive, and uncommonly corrupt leadership of Mrs Allison-Madueke.”

This Day’s interview with the minister the previous day had begun thus:

Mrs Diezani Allison-Madueke comes across as detached and straight faced Amazon, that is before you meet her. She combines the rare attributes of beauty, brains, charm and elegance. She is surprisingly friendly, warm and appears on top of her brief. Even at her age, her almond eyes mesmerize.

NEXT was repeatedly held up as a model of vigorous public-service reporting, and there was also praise for Liberian paper Frontpage Africa.

Burkinabé blogger Ramata Sore gave a rundown of other bloggers who cover the extractive industries, but said she is yet to find one solely dedicated to the topic. Reporting Oil and Gas was held up as a strong aggregator of coverage, particularly on Ghana, where the Jubilee Field is expected to provide the country with a billion dollars in new revenue next year.

Chola Mukanga was singled out for the quality of his site, Zambian Economist. Also well worth looking at is the work of the outstanding Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, who runs his own hard-hitting anti-corruption site, Makangola, and whose recent piece for World Affairs, “The New Imperialism: China in Angola” is essential reading.

In the broader discussion of how the African media reports on the rapidly expanding extractive sector, most panelists took a pessimistic view.

Long time human right activist Peter Rosenblum, now a Columbia professor, said extractive discoveries have transformed the economic basis for a whole swathe of African countries in recent years. He said it was “very hard for journalists to grasp the complicated enormity of what is happening” and to bring everyday meaning to this “massive dislocation.”

Rosenblum has read through all of the Wikileaks cables about mining in Congo, including those not publicly available. He called the level of sophistication he found in the documents “tragic,” saying they showed that international players as well as local press would do well to attempt to engage the issues in deeper and more serious ways.

He said what he called “the disaster tale, which everyone will tell,” diminishes a proper understanding of social and political change, and that NGOs tend to cling stubbornly to catastrophes while history moves on beneath them.

Rosenblum also said he had not found a single recent sale of natural resources anywhere across the African continent that has taken place at a fair market value. He lamented this “massive, multibillion dollar loss of value,” and stressed the need for far greater disclosure from governments on the terms of the deals they are entering into.

You can view images of the conference participants–courtesy of conference organizer Karen Attiah–here.

* Elliot Ross also blogged for AIAC on the visit by Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister to Columbia University’s campus.