"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the pity party

In my last post, I asked, "If you took all the stories about African countries in American newspapers and removed those about poverty, disease, and war, I wonder what would be left?"

Ryan Briggs has an answer for the New York Times. I think it shows that the vast majority of their coverage is the story of general misery. Why? Some of it is valid. There is a lot of poverty, disease, and, unfortunately, war on the continent.

But the pity party is only part of the thousands of stories on the continent. It's unfortunate that a journalist can't get a headline in the NYT when he or she writes about women's cooperative associations or churches that take over the management of schools in order to keep them open or what it's like to dance under the Congolese stars until all hours of the night.

There are aspects of African states that are beautiful and peaceful and wonderful. There are people who make extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of others. But they don't usually make headlines.


Blogger Scarlett Lion said...

As a journalist working in the country of Africa, land of poverty, disease and war, these are battles I face every single day. I don't want to take pictures and write stories about these things at all. Sometimes I break down and do the dirty deed and take pictures of dying children, but most of the time I don't.

This means most of the time I'm broke and unpublished.

But, a few thoughts:

1) The media does not focus on the negative in Africa exclusively. Take, for example, New Orleans. During Katrina, it was in the news all the time. Stories of destruction, lives lost, ill health, etc. Now that New Orleans is trying to rebuild, it's in the media much less. Media - and consumers - want sad stories everywhere, not just in Africa. Likewise for Asia - there are more stories about the tsunami than there are about economic growth, more stories about Sri Lankan rebels than there are about Grameen doing good work in Bangladesh.

2) We as media consumers must demand more. We must say, we don't want those stories, we want the stories about women's cooperatives and beautiful places and wonderful people.

3) Media and consumers alike should abandon the idea of "postive stories" or "negative stories." I think both molds are equally dangerous and reductivist. Take for example the website "See Africa Differently." It's all about "positive" stories from Africa - how there is food in markets and people do use phones. It's just as biased and overly simplistic as an outlet that only covers famine. It adds to the idea of a dichotomy (Africa is ONE or the OTHER and not both and somewhere in between).

We must demand better stories that don't have a predetermined postive OR negative bent. We must ask for the complicated stories, the stories that take time and expense to collect, the stories that aren't immediately obvious and help us understand people and places in their context.

I think everyone has to play a role here. I spent a whole lot of time complaining about this and then a friend asked me to DO SOMETHING. So I did. I started the series on my blog Context Africa - because there are other types of stories being told and they deserve to be highlighted as examples for others and available for readers as a resource. I'm not saying this to toot my own horn, but I am saying this because we can spend a lot of time complaining (and let's face it, I still spend a lot of time complaining), or we can focus on the stories that are out there and try and create more of them.

The media gives consumers what they want. If consumers are offered something different, they might want it.

(Getting off my soap box now. Sorry for the rant.)

Saturday, May 30, 2009 6:53:00 AM

Blogger Katherine said...

Ditto. It's that kind of reporting that had me terrified to go to Africa; you can imagine my surprise when I found unspeakable beauty and hospitality, and subsequent frustration that no one back home could understand that unless they'd been themselves.

Have you seen the commercial for the series "Expedition: Africa"? I've taken to screaming "Fear-Mongers!" at the TV every time it comes on. Probably not as productive as the response above, but it sure feels good.

Saturday, May 30, 2009 10:42:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Great points, Glenna. I think you're absolutely right that it's consumer-driven. We have problems digesting the complexity of situations. It's a lot easier to paint the country of Africa as a land of poverty and war or as a place of noble suffering than it is to show the situation in all its complexity. And I love Context: Africa. I need to promote it more here.

Katherine, I haven't seen that ad, but now I'm afraid. Sounds like an effective response tactic.

Saturday, May 30, 2009 11:05:00 AM

Blogger Scarlett Lion said...

I didn't write the comment beginning for a shout out, but one will be accepted nonetheless :-) Think this has inspired me to write out a more detailed post about the WHY behind Context Africa. And just to rant about the media, because hey, that's one of my favorite things to do. Despite now "doing" something about the situation, that does not inhibit excessive complaining about the situation in any way, shape or form.

Saturday, May 30, 2009 2:29:00 PM

Blogger drkeith said...

Good post. OK, you asked for it. A little anecdote posted in Chappy's Hollow.

Sunday, May 31, 2009 11:22:00 AM

Anonymous Amber said...

It's so sad to see that all the headlines are about war, hunger and death.Maybe if the big publications will allow beautiful articles on the front page the mass media will slowly change.
But I wonder if nice news sell newspapers?

Friday, November 19, 2010 8:17:00 AM


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