Radical Idea of the Day: Hire Africans to Cover Africa

Laura Seay suggests a way to improve the media's often-awful Africa coverage:

Many major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent -- more than 11 million square miles. He or she will be based in Johannesburg or Nairobi, but be expected to parachute into Niger, Somalia, or wherever the next crisis is unfolding, on a moment's notice. At best, larger publications will have two or three regional Africa correspondents who are each responsible for covering 10 to 15 countries. The wire services tend to have broader reach, but even they cannot station a correspondent in every country....

There is an easy solution to this problem: Hire local reporters. One notable exception to the history of poor coverage of Africa is the BBC, whose World Service has long maintained correspondents in most of the continent's capital cities. Although the World Service's budget has been slashed repeatedly due to declining government support, the BBC has managed to keep much of its Africa coverage afloat by relying largely on local reporters to get the story. This has been particularly important in Somalia. For two decades, it has been nearly impossible for Western reporters to fully and freely report from Somalia due to safety concerns, but the BBC Somali Service's team of local correspondents and producers do an excellent job of getting the news out from their own country. There's no reason that other major media providers couldn't hire local reporters to improve their coverage as well. Rather than relegating them to second-tier or co-author status, why not hire Africans as country or regional correspondents? A reporter does not have to be Caucasian to provide objective and well-written reporting from the continent, and in many cases, this reporting is more nuanced than that of an international correspondent who spends five days reporting a story....

The problem is not simply that reporters cannot be expected to speak all of Africa's 3,000-plus languages; it is that foreign correspondents tend to rely on the same small group of fixers to arrange interviews, interpret, and manage logistics.

Yet fixers tend to take reporters to talk to the same subjects, over and over and over again. An echo chamber often results, as the same interviews are done with essentially the same questions and the same answers. The echo-chamber problem is much worse in conflict zones, where NGOs often arrange safe travel for reporters in a bid to get their stories out (and to raise funds for their humanitarian operations)....[T]his tends to produce very one-sided and nonobjective reporting. For example, much of the recent coverage of the conflict in Sudan's Nuba Mountains has been facilitated by the U.S.-based NGO Samaritan's Purse. Many of the reporters traveling with Samaritan's Purse have used the same fixer for their stories, Ryan Boyette, a former employee of the group who is married to a Nuba woman and runs a local effort to document atrocities occurring there. In the space of just a few weeks, Boyette also became the subject of a fawning New York Times profile by Nicholas Kristof, was a centerpiece of Jeffrey Gettleman's reporting for the same publication, and was interviewed by Ann Curry for NBC's Today. This is not to question Boyette's credibility or challenge his analysis (though he is far from a neutral observer), but rather to point out one of many examples of the way the West's Africa reporting becomes biased due to a lack of access and local language skills. As Karen Rothmyer noted in a Columbia Journalism Review article, many reporters working on Africa rely "heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources." It is thus no wonder that much reporting on Africa is so heavily focused on crises and that many pieces read like little more than NGO promotional materials.

On a related note, Binyavanga Wainaina, author of the classic "How to Write About Africa," tries to imagine an Africa that "was really like it is shown in the international media." It "would be a country," he writes. "Its largest province would be Somalia. Bono, Angelina Jolie and Madonna would be joint presidents, appointed by the United Nations." Click through for more.

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  • l0b0t||

    The Limeys are so good at it the Beeb even had a great sit-com about that very situation called Taking The Flak. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taking_the_Flak

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The downside to reporting from those too close to any emotional or sensational subject matter is often shoddy and not entirely objective work. Shep Smith and Geraldo Rivera of Fox News during Katrina or virtually any of the early reporting in the Trayvon Martin case comes to mind.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Neither Smith nor Rivera comes from New Orleans. They would be the Kristof in this scenario.

    Meanwhile, the Times-Picayune did a rather good job of covering Katrina.

  • l0b0t||

    Garland Robinette FTW!!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    But they were both much closer emotionally to the subject than anyone at the Time-Picayune. I didn't see any tears flowing through in the newsprint like I did coming through on Fox. (HTML, actually, since I only read the T-P stuff online.)

    So, obviously, point not taken.

  • sarcasmic||

    Who really cares about what is happening in Africa? Seriously.

  • NotSure||

    Africans for one, also the place will become increasingly important as China, America and others will make the place create more news as they seek strategic influence there.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Anyone who uses rare earth elements for anything, which is just about everyone.

  • Brandon||

    That's the same reason we will keep giving a shit about Nebraska for the foreseeable future.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Cradle of civilization.

  • ||

    "Its largest province would be Somalia. Bono, Angelina Jolie and Madonna would be joint presidents, appointed by the United Nations."

    Well, they have me fooled then. I fail to see how Bono would be any different than a non-elected dictator who bled a country dry for its own good.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    That map reminded me of this.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Hello, people! Welcome to What Fits Into Russia!
  • l0b0t||

    Man oh man, do I miss SCTV and Fridays.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    And Kids In The Hall.

  • l0b0t||

    Did you see their recent series Death Comes To Town?

  • Russell||

    The great Azanian lede writer, Mpoptkuuungt!choboq'lung asks of this problem :

    Ndebedebekluktaaase, pltock kluung! Columbia School of Journalism , klk! tpop!?

  • Evil Otto||

    WTF? Was that map written when Manchuria was a separate country from China?

  • Marty||

    There is a definite scale problem with the map, the US eastern seaboard is about three times the length of Italy and France is a bit smaller than Texas. As the US is about the same latitude as France and Italy, it the scales should be the invariant with choice of map projection.

  • Flemur||

    "There is an easy solution to this problem: Hire local reporters."

    There are already plenty of local reporters...

    "AllAfrica[.com] aggregates and indexes content from over 130 African news organizations, plus more than 200 other sources, ..."

    ...so the real "problem" is probably that few people are interested in reading/hearing about .... what, exactly are we supposed to be missing?


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