Pap-ping Africa

Ms. Frances Mensah Williams

Reporting on Africa has become so outrageous in some media that it’s less about serious reporting and more like paparazzi-style journalism, says Frances Mensah Williams.

It has been said that facts are a series of accepted falsehoods and I’ve remembered this definition many times when listening to ‘facts’ and statements made about Africa, often delivered with great authority and little hesitation.

At a conference I recently attended, the point was made by a senior media practitioner that it is not the media’s responsibility to portray Africa positively.  Sensitive to criticism that the media should somehow be sprucing up Africa’s image, his view was that they can’t portray negative events other than as they are – ‘It is what it is’, he said.
 

But is it? When journalists say that they are reporting the facts, the fact is that everyone’s version of the facts can differ.  Not necessarily out of an intention to be dishonest or malicious, but because the experiences they are relating are, by definition, going to be through the prism of their own interpretation, frame of mind and understanding. Ask a policeman who has to take statements from several witnesses to the same accident whether there is such a thing as an incontrovertible fact.

And when enough people repeat one version of someone’s facts, it takes on a life and veracity of its own; enough for people to cease questioning the basis upon which the observation was first made.

Following me so far? Good. Because the fact is (in my opinion) that much of the reporting on Africa that I read has allowed people to get away with too much for too long.  

One positive outcome of the advent of blogs, online media and comments boxes is that they have given the general populace a platform to deliver stinging rebukes to those journalists and commentators who have hitherto been able to share their ‘facts’ without challenge.  There are times when the comments that follow such articles on Africa are far more enlightening in their take on the subject than the original report.  Unfortunately, there are also times when the comments that follow show that the article has successfully misinformed its readers.

Reporting Malice

While serious journalists may sometimes draw what appears to some of us to be unbalanced judgements about events in Africa, by seeming to ignore the multitude of good news items and focusing on the negative, they are generally operating according to professional guidelines.

There are some commentators, however, and usually with higher profiles than credentials, who have taken reporting on Africa to a new low. Easy to ignore, perhaps, until they are given column inches in publications that should know better.  You would expect a paparazzi-friendly tabloid to cater to an audience that is looking for titillation and sensation. What is worrying is when serious and credible media outlets start to follow this trend. The result is that reporting on Africa has become so outrageous in some media that it’s less about serious reporting and more like paparazzi-style journalism.  

Facts or Fiction?

In a recent article, musician and self-described activist, Ted Nugent, referred to Africa thus: “Africa isn’t called the Dark Continent for no reason. Africa has forever been a political nightmare full of overt corruption, tribal warfare, genocide, murderous regimes and brutal dictators.

“There is no country in Africa that truly respects freedom or the rule of law. The majority of countries in Africa are in economic ruin because of political corruption and a history ugly with cruel despotism. That’s why starvation and disease are rampant. AIDS is projected to kill as much as half the populations of some countries. Genocide is a way of life. There is little light in Africa.”

Now there’s clearly nothing to be gained in pointing out to someone who writes this that, over the next 20 years, Africa’s economy is predicted to grow at an average rate of over 7% and that the rate of return on foreign investment into the continent is now greater than for any other developing region, with sub-Saharan Africa producing six out of the ten most rapidly expanding economies in the past decade. The framework and agenda for Mr. Nugent’s ‘facts’ are clearly evident.  What really worried me when I saw this was that this column appeared in The Washington Times, a massively influential publication read by many of America’s political leadership.

Similarly, a piece published by Thomas Morton of Vice magazine includes the following comment about roadside water sellers in a report on Ghana: “Unless you’re a relative or close friend of someone in the ruling class, you can look forward to a long and fruitful career in water sales.”  My problem with this? Mr. Morton is fully entitled to write whatever he likes; what surprises me is that this was published on CNN, with an Editor’s note describing Morton’s publication as a “very transparent” and “unique approach” to journalism. Personally, while there are words I could use to describe the article, they wouldn’t be these.

The good news is that there are some media outlets that are open to questioning ‘facts’ about Africa and presenting different views of this enormous and diverse continent. A recent piece in the Irish Times (Out of Africa: a continent of entrepreneurs) included the following: “We’re used to seeing Africa as poor and helpless, and it certainly has its problems. However, it’s also a hotbed of entrepreneurship, where phone-fixers, DVD hawkers, clothes sellers and internet start-ups are thriving.”

Inconvenient (Un)Truths

I am certainly not advocating that we don’t publish and discuss the challenges and the negative issues Africa faces. But in order to arrive at real and workable solutions, our starting premise needs to be rooted in a truthful and realistic analysis of the situation. A brilliant speech by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spells out the dangers of listening to a single story and accepting that as the truth.

The old and tired stereotypes about Africa are not only unhelpful, but also untrue in the light of today’s rapidly evolving global economy. Reporting that is rooted in ignorance, prejudice and sensationalism not only offers a distracting counterpoint to the real narrative but, taken to its extreme, can become a real hindrance to potential opportunities for investment and growth.

‘Perception is reality’

Paparazzi sell their wares to the highest bidder without a care as to what impact these pictures will have on their subject. Well aware that even a hastily snapped picture taken out of context and with parts of the scene left out, could fetch them a tidy sum, they are less than concerned about how their buyers are going to interpret the pictorial ‘evidence.’

For some celebrities, even bad publicity is better than no publicity, and being pap-ped is a sign that they are relevant and in demand; even if it means that they have to orchestrate the carefully posed ‘accidental’ photos themselves.  

In the case of Africa, though, we need to call out these signs of paparazzi style reporting because perception matters and, in this case, it has the potential to hamper or even reverse the positive economic gains made to date in some parts of the continent and  which need increased levels of investment to be sustained.

Perception becomes reality and perceptions can last long after the causes for those perceptions have changed.  In challenging some of these opinions presented as ‘facts’, we are often hampered by a lack of data to fight back effectively against what we intuitively know to be false.  This is where governments, institutions and businesses can help.  

Governments can help by doing the right things in the first place and not indulging in the kind of negative behaviour that generates these miles of negative column inches.  African governments have to be serious about what they are doing if they want the continent to be taken seriously.  

National institutions can help by collecting, collating and preparing information and data that will shore up the good news stories and counter the malicious and the ideologues who have their own reasons to write Africa down.  Businesses can help by engaging more effectively with the media and providing newsworthy information rather than weak press releases, thereby reinforcing the fact that much of Africa is open for business and generating investment returns that are now attracting the global investment heavyweights.

A dignified silence in response to poor, incorrect or downright malicious reporting only works on those who understand dignity. Respected media outlets may want to attract publicity and more readers through sensational, one-sided stories but may have to settle instead for contempt. For our part, instead of accepting stories concocted to fit a pre-selected image of Africa, like some of the tabloid media we are all guilty of occasionally scrutinising, we need to remain vigilant about how the continent is presented.  

By challenging, commenting and critiquing stories in the media and by holding those that write them accountable to the truth, we can each play our part in keeping the media honest and balanced – giving the continent the breathing space it needs to continue solving the many challenges it faces.
 

By Frances Mensah Williams, the Chief Executive of Interims for Development, a Human Resources and Training consultancy and Editor of ReConnect Africa.com (www.reconnectafrica.com) an online careers and jobs publication for African professionals around the world.