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How can journalists reinvigorate coverage of Africa?

How can journalists reinvigorate coverage of Africa?

Since 2006, The New York Times has held its annual "Win a Trip" contest with reporter Nicholas Kristof, offering students (and starting from this year someone 60 or over), the chance to accompany Kristof on a reporting assignment to Africa. Participants apply by submitting either an essay or a video explaining why they should be chosen for the experience.

This is just a small part of the wider attention Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, pays to Africa. His second Pulitzer, won in 2006, was awarded for his coverage of the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Kristof's most recent column appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review on July 1st, and reflected on his latest African adventure within the "Win a Trip" contest. At the same time, and as he points out on his blog, the column was also an attempt to address a broader discontent about the way news media and journalists write about Africa.

Despite having dedicated great attention to Africa, Kristof fears that journalism only focuses on the dark side of the country: wars, poverty, disease, and humanitarian disasters that encourage the perception of the continent as a basket case. This narrative leaves out the story of the Africa that is on the move, or the "bustling dynamos of Botswana or Ghana", as he said.

On the other hand, for some issues or regions, the problem seems to be "not their over-coverage but, rather, their under-coverage". Kristof gave the example of eastern Congo, the "most lethal conflict since World War II", that has been dedicated few column inches.

The rift is between putting certain issues in the limelight to drive public attention while avoiding painting an overly catastrophic picture. To balance these two tendencies, Kristof usually tries to remind readers that two sides of the coin exist for every story.

The real problem, however, is that "it's hard to get readers interested in Africa". Not only does his column readership plunge whenever he writes about the continent, but even positive news articles risk attracting "about zero readership".

Kristof's reflection presents at least three questions: Firstly, as he wrote in his blog posting, "how do we adequately cover the disease and poverty of Africa, without leading readers to an unfairly grim perception of the entire region?" Secondly, who shapes the news agenda? And finally, just what are readers interested in, as apparently Africa doesn't raise much interest for the Western/European readership.

Journalism traditionally shapes the news agenda and the role of quality journalism should be that of highlighting and covering the news necessary for citizens to exercise their duty of citizenship. Journalism is therefore a pillar of democracy.

But the question remains, should news media focus on important issues in spite of the attention - or lack of - they attract among readers?
This comes up against the double nature of journalism: the "paradox of the Fourth Estate", as George Boyce describes it, "with its head in politics and its feet in commerce".
News media should serve democracy and democracy is best served by an independent news media (even if not all news media does support democracy - but this is another story). On the other hand, a newspaper is also a commercial product and has to respond to consumer interests.

As has already been reported, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are coming to the aid of quality investigative journalism, helping to cover stories in-depth and filling the gap newspapers are sometimes no longer able to fill due to high costs (foreign bureaus for example) or the time speed.

Why is Africa not a top issue? Why doesn't the continent attract the attention of Western/European readers?

We can speculate that newspapers write about China, India and Russia in part for the economic role they play on a global level, in the same way that the Middle East and North Africa - particularly given the recent uprisings in the Arab world - receive a lot of focus for the consequences they have on Western stability. These are not the only reasons, of course, but there are general themes that can be identified which feed the global news agenda. The themes concerning Africa are overwhelmingly negative.

It is also important not to feed a purely Western perception of the issues that African journalists themselves should have a prominent role in covering. They are the ones who should be putting Africa on the international stage, giving prominence to the vast array of untold stories the Western news media chooses to ignore.

Such questions are not easy to answer, but just beginning to speculate about them is a good start for Africa.

Sources: New York Times (1), (2), Editors Weblog



Federica Cherubini


2011-07-07 12:50

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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