A few years ago, baffled by unfolding events in Darfur, I went to listen to an academic speak at London’s Frontline Club. A recognised expert on Sudan, he began by decrying the Western media’s simplistic portrayal of Khartoum-supported “Arab” raiders driving “black African” farmers off their land. “It’s a lot more complicated than that,” he said, calling for a more nuanced, multi-layered analysis.
After an hour and a half of contextualisation and qualification, I still had no answer to the questions that had prompted me to buy a ticket: “Why is this happening?”, “What are the various players’ motives?” and “What can be done to stop the killing?” Expressions in audience suggested I wasn’t alone. If there was anyone from the Foreign Office or Ministry of Defence there, hoping to glean tips for policy recommendations, they must have left frustrated.
I was reminded of that evening reading an article headlined “Why do we continually misunderstand conflict in Africa?” by Dr Lucy Hovil, a researcher at the International Refugee Rights Initiative. It came hard on the heels of “Why do Western media get Africa wrong”, penned by Nanjala Nyabola, based at the Harvard Law School.
The two women separately took issue with recent coverage of Central African Republic, where reporters have spoken of “sectarian” clashes between Christian and Muslims, and South Sudan, where the media has highlighted the “ethnic” form recent violence has taken.
Hovil argues that “reductive” interpretations of conflict lead to doomed peace formulas based on simplistic diagnoses of problems. Nyabola is more interested in language, arguing that it is impossible for a Western reporter who only speaks English to capture the essence of what it means to be a multi-lingual, multi-identity South Sudanese in war. “Africa just isn’t being heard right”.
These are two fine, thought-provoking articles. It’s never a bad thing for journalists parachuting into unfamiliar war zones to be reminded to keep minds open, assumptions on a tight leash, and to faithfully record what people on the ground actually say, rather than are expected to say. Many of us will have crossed paths with that reporter who writes most of his articles before the wheels of the plane touch down.
Yet the essays triggered a surge of impatience on my part. Articles attacking the Western media’s one-dimensional coverage have become almost as obligatory a part of African conflicts as stale-mated peace talks and UN funding appeals. Their writers usually just skirt shy of accusing the journalists concerned of racism, but that lacuna is helpfully filled by readers in the ‘Comments’ section.
There’s surely an element of the Straw Man argument about these pieces. To put it bluntly, just how stupid do these writers think readers are? Most of us can grasp the notion that not every German was a Nazi in WW2 and not every Frenchman joined the Resistance. We can also guess that Northern Ireland’s Troubles were more than purely religious in nature and that the Yugoslav civil war can’t be boiled down to Serbs versus Croats/Bosnians. We encounter “one-dimensional” references to these conflicts every day, but we grasp the notion that their true causes were rich and various.
I also wonder if a certain Panglossian wishful thinking is at play. Slap the messenger, because the message itself can be so distasteful. The truth is that in many conflicts, the causes of the violence may well be myriad and complex – aren’t they always? – but the way in which those tensions find expression once demagogic politicians and their propagandists get to work can be crude in the extreme. In December, soldiers loyal to Salva Kiir decided which men to drag from their homes and shoot by asking “What is your name?” in Dinka, a language alien to the Nuer. In Rwanda in 1994, the killers manning the road blocks worked on the basis of identity cards distinguishing Tutsis from Hutus. Not much nuance there.
The academics seem to have little idea how journalists actually work. I’m guessing that neither Lucy Hovil nor Nanjala Nyabola write their articles bouncing around in the back of an army jeep, jolting between poorly-defined battle zones, worrying about sand in their laptops, a dodgy satellite connection that might make filing impossible and driving over a landmine.
Nor do they face the daily pressure to feed the insatiable news beast with not just articles but blogspots, audio and video footage for their employers’ websites. Their pieces are probably written somewhere quieter, more attuned to reflection and analysis, and if they go into greater depth and subtlety, so they damn well should.
Academics enjoy word counts reporters can only dream about. Web-based news should in theory have loosened up space, in practice it rarely does, because editors know there’s a limit to how much information a general reader can absorb. Journalists use ‘reductive’ definitions because they don’t have the luxury of space. If you want to get any fresh information in your 600-word piece about modern-day Rwanda, then yes, you are going to summarise the 1994 genocide in one paragraph. You have to.
More fundamentally, the writers seem to have lost sight of the definition of news, which aims to convey distant events to a non-specialist audience as succinctly as possible. That’s a lot easier to say than do.
My Reuters training editor, trying to drum the principle of the concise ‘intro’ into pup reporters (it must answer six questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How), told us to imagine we were standing on an old-fashioned Routemaster bus, open at the rear. The bus is drawing away from the kerb and a friend on the pavement asks what’s going on. You have seconds to shout a précis. It’s a good exercise – try it. What you’ll discover is how this form of obligatory shorthand strips away nuance. A screamed “It’s a lot more complicated than that,” won’t really do.
Which brings me to back to the lost opportunity of that lecture on Darfur. A lot of academic writing excels at – even prides itself upon – a type of analysis either so intimately-focused or carefully-qualified that it confounds rather than clarifies. At the glimpse of a possible conclusion, this type of writer blushes and stammers, refusing on principle to answer the basic question put by the ordinary reader, as opposed to the diplomatic envoy or UN peace negotiator: “What’s going on?” Cover every angle, and you end up with an Escher staircase leading nowhere.
In targeting reporters who spend much of their professional lives badgering their editors to make room for longer – and yes, more nuanced – articles, the academics are essentially mis-directing their fire. It should not have escaped their notice that the sources of reliable, independent foreign news are not expanding to keep pace with modern technology. Al Jazeera’s arrival had a bracing impact, but foreign coverage of African hot spots remains dominated by a few international news agencies, with African newspapers and broadcasters making no real attempt to fill the space left by cash-strapped Western news outlets. That’s not healthy. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s warning about the dangers of “the single story” applies to reporting, too.
As it is, there’s a strong element of self-congratulation to the academics’ lament. “Why, oh why, aren’t journalists just like us?” they wail. To which the answer would be: “We don’t have time, we don’t have space, and anyway, that’s why you guys exist, remember?”
Michela Wrong is a writer and journalist.