In defence of western journalists in Africa – By Michela Wrong

JournosAfrica

Journalists and academics: not really in the same business, guys. (Photo: Kigali Wire).

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.

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20 thoughts on “In defence of western journalists in Africa – By Michela Wrong

  1. I have a friend who works in training up management skills in the region, especially post-DDR, and when I completed my degree and could cite liberals, neo-liberals, and the occasional neocon, he asked “but what about what’s happening there, now?”

    My first few years post-university saw those type of questions being asked a lot; pragmatic questions which usually wanted a due diligence and an accompanying spreadsheet of some sorts – especially if money was going to be invested.

    While the complex roots to situations are often sought, sometimes starting off with the simple helps…

  2. Noble idea behind the piece but not very convincing arguments. Especially not addressing the actual dangers of dominant narratives, where journalism plays a central role. Dominant narratives inform policy interventions including aid policies, which often exacerbate the problems.

  3. As the comment above notes, the article glosses over the power of the media in shaping narratives (more so than any academic piece).

    Also, not all academics sit in the ivory tower analysing from afar; many spend far longer ‘in the field’ than journalists who move from story to story and crisis to crisis.

    Indeed, wearing body-proof armour in the back of a pick-up with an editors’ deadline to meet doesn’t in itself lend greater legitimacy.

    Interesting if deeply flawed argument that ends up being as defensive as the academics she criticises?…

  4. I don’t think Wrong is saying that there’s no role for academics, just that a journalist is trying to inform a generalist audience. A news story has to compete with a breakfast-eating reader who is considering moving on to the heart-warming piece about a rabbit stuck in a tree or the sudoku. Journalism isn’t really trying to drive policy. I suggest that if policy making is driven by news appetite alone, this would be the fault of those in a position making policies, not the journalist.

    A discussion of the epistemology behind a story may be interesting, but sometimes people need to try and communicate about what’s happening in Darfur, I’d think.

    As the caption to the photo says, journalists and academics are not really in the same business.

  5. Part of the problem, I think, is that Westerners lack much tacit knowledge about Africa. All we know of Africa is what journalists tell us about the latest coups or ethnic violence. It’s as if we derived our entire understanding of airplanes from news stories of plane crashes and hijackings.

  6. Thank you, Michaela, for using your legitimacy and experience to speak out on this, when others of us perhaps can’t. The clear self-promotion aspect of some of these critiques has been particularly galling, at a time when there are still a good number of “Western” journalists struggling to do a good and regular job of reporting from the African continent against daily-diminishing odds — editors who won’t risk their jobs to endorse reporting they think won’t sell, while the outlets that do care are too poorly funded to support in depth work. While there are sometimes legitimate criticisms voiced in these articles, the overall tenor and blanket condemnation will only help to further constrict good coverage, as those of us who continue to struggle begin to truly feel that it just isn’t worth it. The net result will be less good coverage, not more.

  7. Great points, totally agree. The unwillingness of some to make conclusions, or to make any unqualified statement comes from the cowardice of saying “honestly, despite my extensive knowledge of the particulars of the situation, I dont know what policy option is best”

  8. Nuance can be achieved in few words. Try clarifying that extremists are usually the ones doing the killing, and not everyone of one group hates everyone of another group. This is a narrative that is very difficult to overcome with regular people (in my case, with university students), and part of the problem is that it seems to be repeated over and over in many media outlets because of inattention to use of words. Also, journalists could achieve some nuance by not using the terms ethnic or sectarian violence. It’s violence for a variety of reasons, but calling it ethnic or sectarian violence leads people to believe that the who (Hutu extremists identifying Tutsis via identity cards) is the same as the why (Hutus hate Tutsis,which is not always the case, and suspicion towards other groups does not always lead to killing). Since most everyone has some sort of ethnicity or religion, how are these types of violence any different from others whose root causes are extremism, poverty, political power and greed, etc.? Rather than complain about word count limits and difficult conditions, which I am sure make the job of reporting extremely difficult, perhaps you could think about the message your 600 words send. Albeit difficult, nuance doesn’t doesn’t always mean academic loquaciousness.

  9. All Africans ask is that you listen to their view of events and give it some value, rather than the Western view.

  10. I believe most western journalists try their best. Nevertheless, they must be so prickly when their work is assessed. They need to understand the enormous impact their writing has on policy-making on Africa. They must have the humility to accept that sometimes make mistakes or misreport. CNN has done so variously e.g. reporting that civil conflict had broken out in Kenya while it was actually a terrorist attack by extremists and they were not willing to retract despite a twitter campaign by Kenyans. Beyond the question of nuance, sometimes entrenched stereotypes affect even straight up factual reporting and all journalists, western or otherwise, must be committed to the principle of accuracy and fact-checking.

  11. just stating the obvious: reporters can easily add a short statement that indicate a situation is complicated – you can yell that from a departing bus. but they rarely do. i’ve always found that very strange. why not simply write: “this situation is complicated”? when i was a reporter, i added that to pieces about small town politics in Ohio – and the editor, to her credit, left it in. because it was true. it is unfortunately often the case that reporters and editors believe that things are simple and can be simplified down to a few statements. they would do everyone a great service if they simply said, ‘this is a complex problem or situation and what happened today can only be understood well when considered as part of a much longer, larger story.” and if they were really honest they could add: “and we don’t have space to tell it here.” lol

  12. Excellent article, followed by the usual inane comments. For me, personally, I am sometimes the expert quoted by the press, in which case I get a small window for altering the dominant narrative, and sometimes I am the reader trying to get an overview of what the dominant narrative is. When, on the occasion I am somewhere in between, wanting deeper insight without becoming an expert, I peruse the specialist journals.

    When it comes to the press, the articles themselves are not the problem. The problem is the readership, which, by its nature, is interested in spotlight journalism. How many people would have been interested in emerging tensions in South Sudan before violence actually broke out? It is absolutely implausible that say, the Telegraph would maintain a monthly update to keep its readers adequately informed on South Sudan before a ‘newsworthy event’ actually takes place. That is not the journalists fault, nor even the editors, but the time constraints of the reading public.

    As for the dominant narrative comment above… an uninformed audience needs a dominant narrative as a starting point for assimilating information. If a talking head, such as myself, can find a better way of projecting the idea, the reputable press are generally interested in that opinion. But expert opinion itself must rely on a substrate of accountable information, and a client who is willing to pay for the underlying opinion. The frequent absence of both of these,make talking heads in Africa far too rare on the ground.

  13. Weak arguments by this author, I think. And there are many of us, both South Sudanese and international analysts who live here, who are critical of the western media and who also spend our lives jogging round in the back of jeeps, worrying about landmines and getting shot at because we live here, not because we get parachuted in for a few days.

  14. “African Arguments” blog – most of the comments seem to be from Western-sounding names.

    Do Africans read blogs like this? Michaela Wrong has told us (in many words), that she “simplifies her news stories for a WESTERN audience” – after all, she is a WESTERN journalist.

    As an African, journalists like Michaela Wrong will never serve me – they aren’t employed to tell a story to Africans.

    So why don’t we move this debate to “The Guardian”? Does this debate serve any purpose on an “African Arguments” blog?

  15. This is so poorly inspired.

    Let us be frank here, there is NO justification in delivering inaccurate pedestrian thought in the name of facing “the daily pressure to feed the insatiable news beast”. Your job as the journalist is to provoke thought with the say you DO have. You create a trend that is hard to break – you feed people inaccuracies in BULK because you have “so much to produce”. In truth, it is much easier to produce many short pieces than singular lengthy ones, or would you care to produce your own version of Daas Kapital for instance?

    We only seek that you spend a little more time chewing the story because there is no point in sending out poor quality work; do a little more ground work. At the end of the day, you garner more respect. This article is a prime example.

    You sound slightly ignorant and greatly uninformed, and in truth, lazy. That is the one thing that makes journalists, journalists. You ARE in the know. You’re expected to be.

    Africa for instance is not another planet, we are not too hard to decipher, why then would articles reflect such poorly informed hypotheses? You could deliver half a paragraph that would satisfy the demand for factual and insightful journalism. This article is indeed reductive.

    Kindly get it together.

  16. Obviously, not all writers are guilty of the same practices. Even those with complete understandings are constrained as some have mentioned.

    There will also always be those with more knowledge and those with more experience. If you are one of those people, and you want to be heard, go for it. Write whatever you want. Major media is being eroded by sources like africanarguments. We, as readers or writers, can do our best by supporting them and making sure the tendency towards simplification slowly ends.

  17. Thank you for your gracious explanation Ms Wrong though it has never escaped the general African public’s notice that sensationalism and hype sell news quicker and better than the solid sad truth. With regards to the genocide in in Darfour, resources and age-old neocolonialist pillage and plunder tactics are to be blamed… With reference to Eritrea, I have yet to read your book I Didn’t Do It For You but the general feeling is that there is an underlying bias and a penchant for eurocentric views and sources. Although the reason behind this might well be (as you yourself point out here) English speaking monoglots, it is too as we Eritreans have become quite humourously of saying, “Ms Wrong is always wrong!” ;-)

  18. Wrong is right in many respects, but I have encountered a lot of journalists who just do not bother to learn the dynamics behind the scenes, and their limited view is what the western audience feeds on. I once encountered a Doctor in A European country who told me that she loved Africa but for all the wars. I pointed her to the fact that most of Africa is in fact peaceful, but the good news never makes the headlines. People remember only the snap shots they get from the news. Academics do not have the same reach.

  19. Ms. Wrong, I think, if there is not enough time or space to report it accurately, don’t bother. I say this as an African living with the everyday consequences of the misrepresentations of Africa. I don’t know how many times people on the streets of the UK (where I now reside) have opened conversations with “Oh! its terrible in(insert African country here) isn’t it?” “aren’t you lucky to be here!…” I do my best in the face of such perception challenges, but frankly, I don’t need them, and I don’t need the ordinary person on the European street believing I should apologise for my existence merely because I am an African. Unfortunately, this “othering” of Africans as a mass of misfortune and the underlying racism accompanying that narrative has gone on so long and has so saturated the “western audience”, that the western journalist, has successfully turned himself into one of Africa’s major challenges today. The dominant “understanding” of Africa and Africans does really affect the way the world interacts with us, how they perceive us, what opportunities we get, what doors will be opened, what doors will be firmly shut. Western Journalists do Africa and Africans everywhere a great disservice by “feeding the news beast” at our expense . It would be better if they didn’t bother at all instead of painting this inaccurate and limiting caricature of our realities as Africans. Most Africans don’t go about daily life jumping into bushes full of deadly venomous snakes whilst dodging intense tribal enemy fire as we make our way to the WFP food aid shelter. It simply can’t be right that such a vast swathe of humanity can only be perceived as a continent of ills.

  20. Well lets take a look at one of the over simplified statements you made, and one that is somewhat common knowledge for those interested in such conflicts.

    ” the killers manning the road blocks worked on the basis of identity cards distinguishing Tutsis from Hutus. Not much nuance there.”

    Surly the nuance comes from understanding what exactly Tutsi and Hutu are. Most Europeans I would ask would describe them as different tribes, or at least different Ethnic groups… they are not.

    Tutsi and Hutu were actually different class’s upper and lower class’s, the separation of the two people was done by the Belgians who introduced the notion of identity cards in order to create an apartheid between the two people. Context is sometimes nice no?

    Also if this was an Ethnic or tribal conflict then you would expect the violence to be random act’s from everyday members of the two communities, however they were calculated and sponsored by Political entities, with political motives and carried out by trained and equipped personnel.

    Granted the scale of violence was massive, but we don’t see much reporting on the Ethnic or Tribal conflict currently taking place in Ukraine, and if we do it is certainly not the underlying message.

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