We often hear political and business leaders and Africanists talk about the need to “tell the African story.” For us, “tell the African story” means nothing. In other words, it is a cliché of no value. We don’t know what it is supposed to mean. It may be that the idea of a definitive “African story” gains traction as a response to bigoted representations of the continent that have been influential in Western journalism and thinking. But like the idea of the need for “positive stories about Africa”, it’s facile and unhelpful. Our suspicion is that political and business leaders say that when they feel uncomfortable with airing real problems that ordinary Africans experience. The phrase also assumes–as our blog title mockingly suggests–that Africa is a Country.
African journalists rarely think or talk about their vocation in these terms. In most cases, they lack the continental consciousness to think or write in this way. The national trumps any continental solidarity or focus. So does the local. Their focus is very different from their counterparts in the West who report on “Africa.”
Journalists are also under stress and lack resources to travel between or report from elsewhere in Africa. News organizations mostly republish wire stories or cut and paste reports from Western media. In South Africa, for example, it is not unusual for prominent newspapers to take their “international” and continental coverage straight from Western publications, often ones that stereotype Africans. For example, the Independent Group’s newspapers republish copy from Britain’s rightwing “Daily Telegraph” and the tabloid “Daily Mirror.” The worst is the Sunday Independent, where copy from the New York Times and Washington Post make up whole sections and the Mail and Guardian which reposts UK Guardian copy in bulk on its world news pages with very little edits. There’s a few homegrown networks (e.g. SABC Africa, which may not be operating anymore) or subsidiaries of “global” or US networks-like CNBC Africa, ABN News-which attempt a continental bias, but can’t help themselves in parroting cookie-cutter Western storylines, tone or foci.
That said, most African journalists, like their counterparts in the West, are connected to social media which means there is now no limitation to their stories being read by Western mass audiences and elites alike. One thing to do, especially online, might be to talk back to Western media about these stereotypes. We see that space opening up more and more. We are reminded of a piece written a while back by a former New York Times correspondent in India writing at the end of his tenure about how he had to get used to the idea that the subjects of his reporting read what he wrote and could now write back in real time.
At the same time, it should be noted that most of the time a Western foreign correspondent’s articles are of almost no interest at all to people in the country he or she is reporting from. The domestic news agenda is completely different — so that domestic media scandals are completely ignored by foreign correspondents.
Western media organizations tend to assume that their foreign reporting is taken much more seriously overseas than it really is. Ask someone in an African country what they think about Nicholas Kristof’s reporting, and invariably the answer will be: “Who?”
So what should be the role or contribution of the African press in Africa’s transformation?
Report stories. Investigate malfeasance. Get out of the newsroom. Produce compelling media. Give readers proper historical context. No PR stories. Using the vernacular can be helpful for meaningful reporting.
Lots of the journalism in Africa is not properly edited or thought through.
Without being prescriptive, if a continental consciousness has to develop, it should be akin to a non-essentialist pan-Africanism that is suited to this time that challenges and broadens received wisdom about the African continent and its people in Western media, countering ahistorical and decontextualized images of the continent and its people. With the web that is now not that hard to do. Without doing “development” journalism, journalists need to reinvent the narrative and visual economy of their African locales.
Global media, with few exceptions, have shown themselves time and again to be utterly unable to cover the continent in the depth and detail it demands, still less with any appreciation for Africa as a site of astonishing cultural and artistic productiveness. The imperative of journalists in Africa should not be to produce patronizing ‘positive’ news stories or PR-style neoliberal boosterism, but sustained daily work of presenting and engaging critically with the cultural and political life of Africa and Africans wherever they are and, crucially with its diaspora, now only a click away.
People need to stop taking this “potential investors” mumbo jumbo seriously. Governments are accountable to citizens, not investors. The idea that “potential investors” will be scared off by accountability journalism exposing corrupt practices is ludicrous. Look at Angola and the work of Rafael Marques de Morais through his site Maka Angola.
Marques has exposed scandal after scandal, but big oil companies still seem to want that Angolan oil. Some of the world’s most notoriously corrupt countries are also the most attractive to investors — not that their investment is of much good to ordinary people. A major challenge for all journalists is to think independently of the very pervasive neoliberal ideology of institutions like the IMF and World Bank, and media like The Economist magazine, according to whom all government policy must be dictated by the needs of “potential investors”. As the Malawian researcher and writer Jimmy Kainja quipped to us presidents like to do this supposedly very important thing called “talking to investors,” but nobody’s ever quite sure what the result is.