Friday, April 27, 2012

How The US Media Gets It Wrong On Africa

Foreign Policy has a great piece of journalism critique currently up on its website that's well worth your time to read.  In it, author Laura Seay discusses the generally lousy state of reportage coming out of Africa, though her critique can be extended to the entire way that the profession is currently practiced in America.

Part of her critique is quite familiar: that the US media only turns to Africa during times of outright disaster/war or when there is an “American” angle to a story: the viral media sensation of the KONY2012 campaign being an example of the latter.  And African reporting tends to quickly fallback on to outright ethnic stereotypes – comparing events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness, for example.

But the why of this situation is where the story really starts to get interesting.  Seay lays the blame on American press outlets trying to do African reportage on the cheap and accuses American journalists of frankly being rather lazy in their duties.  Most major US media outlets rely on only two or three correspondents to cover the entire vast African continent.  Based in some of Africa's most metropolitan cities – Nairobi, Johannesburg – they are expected to parachute (figuratively, not literally) into hotspots as the need arises, even if that hotspot is on the other side of the continent.  Imagine if a foreign news outlet expected their New York City-based reporter to run out to Iowa to cover a sudden blight of the corn crop, a topic well outside their expertise, and you get an idea of the point Seay is trying to make.

Meanwhile, those journalists who do find themselves in Africa, tend to be rather lazy.  Seay gives the example of reporters headed to the war-torn borderlands between Sudan and South Sudan.  With no knowledge of the local situation or language, reporters tend to rely on locally-based “fixers”.  In South Sudan, one prominent fixer is an American expat named Ryan Boyette, who was the subject of several human interest profiles by outlets like NBC and the New York Times in the span of just a few weeks.

It wasn't always this way, once outlets like NBC or the Times maintained extensive networks of locally-based foreign correspondents.  But these positions have been a victim of cost-cutting measures.  The result has been a noticeable decline in both the quality and quantity of foreign affairs reporting by US media outlets.  All of which reminds me of a recent discussion I had with a friend whom I hadn't seen in a long time.  We talked about the world, and the media coverage of it.  For world news, it turns out we both relied primarily on a selection of foreign sources: the BBC, al-Jazeera English, even the occasional program on Russia Today; given Seay's critique, perhaps that's no surprise.
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