Sunday, December 18, 2005

Media reporting on Africa and Iraq

It would seem that there is wide agreement in the fact that the Western media (and American in particular) stands accused off gross overgeneralizations, negative perceptions and a contemptuous lack of interest in the African continent and the issues she faces. According to an analysis of two of America’s premier news paper, The Washington Post and the New York Times, done by the TransAfrica Forum over 70% of the news items analyzed focused on some negative aspect, mainly conflict and AIDS. A similar survey done for the “African Presidential Archives and Resources” found a similar lack of interest in Africa and a general negative slant in the reportage, the author concluded that coverage of Africa betrayed: “an almost contemptuous lack of interest in the potential and progress being achieved on the continent.”

A number of excuses/reasons can be given for the above problem, a general focus in the media on easy to digest, sensational stories, as Professor Virgil Hawkins of Osaka University puts it: “Attracting viewers and readers means grabbing and keeping their interests, and this requires keeping stories simple, sensational, and easy to understand” Moreover, the American press focuses on what David Gergen calls “Parachute Journalism”, quick in-and-out reportage on a crisis, case in point this summers fixation on famine in Niger. Their also exists an inability or unwillingness to delve deeper into African issues, away from the “echo-chamber” that is the capital, as former executive editor of the New York Times says of his time in Zaire: “I felt a little fraudulent that I was writing authoritatively about a subject I knew little about. I knew the capital and this was a vast country. The rest I was doing was mostly hearsay.” Joseph Lelyveld As Lelyveld later notes, when he begun reporting from the interior, his stories stopped appearing on the front pages and were in stead buried in the paper, this portrays yet another problem, a general reluctance by editors to allow for African news, believing that no one wants to read about Africa: “One editor told me that nobody cared if African countries got democracy.”

This lack or skewed reportage creates negative perceptions about Africa in the general public, as the British Department for International Development notes: “The content study found a marked imbalance in the way developing countries are portrayed….The audience study found that television was a strong source of beliefs and impressions about the developing world. The viewers generally perceived the developing world in a negative way, blaming this on the media.”

Parallels can be seen between the media’s reportage on Africa and that of the situation in Iraq. As an analysis by the Conservative Media Research Council shows, most news reports about Iraq are decidedly negative and focus on the insurgent attacks. CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s similar admission is equally telling: “Every soldier I talked to today said the media hasn’t done a good job telling the full story from Iraq. It’s a complaint I’ve heard before, and certainly understand. I do think television tends to focus on the bombs and the bullets, the most dramatic headlines. So much of what happens here never makes the nightly news.” As noted British journalist Robert Fisk notes, many of the journos in Iraq are cooped up in hotels or the green zone and do not do much “street reporting”, therefore, they can not verify information and are caught in the same “echo chamber” that Lelyveld found himself in 1960’s Kinshasa. The Iraq portrayed in the media is one that is full of violence, where no commerce exists and the Iraqi people are hopelessly caught in a cycle of desperation. However, as shown by last weeks election turnout, Iraqi’s are interested and participating in their political process, moreover, according to a recent poll, they are optimistic about their personal lives and believe that things have improved in the last 3 years. However, we should note that there are worries about the state of the overall country, but their own local circumstances are good.

It is true that the country is experiencing many teething problems, as should be expected for any nation in transition. However, there is a need for balance, as there is a need for more balanced reportage on Africa, the same needs to happen for Iraq (and as the DFID noted, all developing nations).

An interesting commentary on the media reporting about Katrina.


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