Writing about Africa: who will hold you accountable?

I’ve been reading some interesting stuff on a mini-scandal involving a guy who was quoted in several news reports as being a spokesperson for Darfur refugees. Turns out the man, who went by the name Abu Sharati (clearly a nickname, though never noted as such in the stories), was actually probably a spokesperson for a rebel group. Read the whole discussion through these posts and their links (I’m pasting straight from my Twitter feed because I’m writing this from a net cafe): via @SBengali http://bit.ly/GPQOY & @robcrilly http://tinyurl.com/y8rhy9h.

Now, I’m truly sympathetic to the pressures that international journalists are under, their limited resources and their need to rely on sources like “Abu Sharati” because there is no time and no way to look for anyone better.  In my brief foray into journalism, one thing I’ve immediately seen is that it is vastly easier to criticize media than it is to report. But the fact that this error was caught is really important. Some hedging language should have been used in the original reports. The revelation will, I hope, promote more caution in the future.

But there is a deeper issue that this discussion points to: reporting about people who will not read your work and do not pay for your stories (indirectly or directly) means there are fewer incentives for good fact-checking. There is a structural paradox at the core of international journalism, especially in Africa: our American audience’s preceived lack of proximity to the stories we produce makes it (that audience) passive about the information it receives. 

When I worked as a fact-checker for California Lawyer Magazine, I could be sure that if I made a mistake about the most seemingly inconsequential of facts in a story — far smaller errors than those Rob Crilly describes in the post I link to above — someone self-important would write a letter berating us, or at least pointing out the error.

It was sort of annoying to get angry letters about miniscule stuff. But that process was a form of accountability that — as far I’ve been able to tell in my brief tenure — doesn’t exist in the same way for Western reporters in Africa. For a variety of reasons that, at their essence, reflect global power dynamics, very few people seriously take us to task when we get things wrong. When they do, it is harder for them to be heard. A bigger effective outcry can be raised over, say, mistating the year Bakersfield, California was incoprorated as a city than over sloppily stating the causes of a war in an African country.

It reminds me of William Easterly’s analysis of the ineffectiveness of Western aid to Africa versus the relative effectiveness of much public spending in the United States. The voters who control domestic public spending can have real information on its results. Those same voters support foreign aid based on filtered and imperfect information,  heavily influenced by assumptions and sentimentality. Meanwhile, the poor for whom the aid is supposed to help have almost no say in how it is allocated. So aid keeps on getting wasted or spent inefficiently.

Similarly, journalists’ constituents, as it were, are domestic readers, while the lives their stories affect are those of people who have little way of providing feedback on their reporting.

This is neither the fault of the American readers nor the journalists nor (of course) the people their stories talk about. The kind of democratic accountability that exists for domestic reporting of the news is a sort of economic process, in that it is based on a bunch of individuals using the resources available to them to make decisions they believe to be in their interest. It’s not that the reporter on the San Francisco Unified School District is a more responsible person than the reporter who writes about Darfur. There’s just far less pressure from the latter’s audience to get every fact right. (And as both bloggers above note, far fewer resources available for fact-checking.)

So it’s all a question of amoral information economics, occuring in a charged context of international politics. But even if it it’s not really a moral issue, we should still be looking for solutions.

I’m encouraged by the prospects for improvement. This is a place where the growing online audience within Africa — and online  links to scholars and diaspora communities — can play  a big difference. I’ve never bought the idea that Twitter and blogs can start revolutions, but these networks truly bring journalists closer to more diverse audiences. So it’s exciting to see people catching errors like the Abu Sharati mistake, and the discussion actually growing online. In the days of pure print, with local-only distribution, the problem of foreign journalists’ lack of accountability to their subjects was much more intractable.

So let’s continue to engage these important criticisms.

Correction: Leave it to me to mistranslate “Abu Sharati” in my original post. It means “chief of chiefs,” explains the Social Science Research Council’s blog. Still an obvious nickname, but not simply “father of Sharati,” as I had written.

2 thoughts on “Writing about Africa: who will hold you accountable?

  1. Excellent post, Eamon – and one that speaks to journalists around the world. My newspaper is starting to use “community reporters” (who, naturally, are not paid) and it is so demoralizing – who are these people, what are their agendas, what credibility do they have? That stretches to bloggers, twitter-ers, etc. etc. It’s a frightening picture for journalism, which is so, so essential for so, so many reasons.

    Anyway, I’m posting this on my facebook page, and passing it around the newsroom.

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