A hot debate is raging about the quality of journalism about Africa. So we’re told in this summary of the now thoroughly personalized fight. In April, Laura Seay, an assistant prof at Morehouse, wrote a piece for Foreign Policy criticizing journalists covering Africa, and this week Global Post report Tristan McConnell wrote about why she’s wrong. (It’s a bit more juicy than that, so go ahead, take a look.) While mud slinging is never very interesting for me, I’m sort of glad this long festering debate is coming to a head, because it’s an important issue with a lot of misunderstandings. I sympathize with points in both essays, but I think there are problems with both as well. To wit:
On the whole, journalism on Africa is crappier than on other regions
There’s no doubt about it: coverage of the continent of Africa is way behind other regions, involves more of the parachute journalism that Seay criticizes, and employs fewer people covering larger areas. And more reporting on Africa contains hackneyed story lines, predictable clichés, glaring errors and oversimplifications. I am sure there are content analyses out there that show this, but as an intelligent (I hope) reader who has spent some time on the continent and a great deal more studying it, I can tell you it jumps out at me every day I read the paper. This is why criticism of media on Africa is such a popular topic on Twitter and everywhere else: people, especially in African countries, are fed up with the shoddiness of reporting, and tired of the tiresome and predictable representations of Africans. What other continent could be erroneously referred to as a nation in The New York Times, an error that still stands two weeks after this icky article was published?*
But for the most part, this is not the fault of individual journalists
For as much as all the above is true, I appreciate McConnell’s bristling at the broad brush with which Seay paints. First, it must be said that professional journalists, particularly in print, and in Africa as much as anywhere, are by and large an excellent group of people who genuinely care about their subject matter, who are deeply inquisitive, and who are willing to work harder for less money than skilled workers in an array of other professions. The industry tends to attract humanists, and people who believe the truth can set the world free. Not to say you don’t have your egotists and adventure-seeking hacks in the mix, but in my experience these are a minority.
And thank goodness, because if concerns like a career, saving money to raise a family, being close to your loved ones, and having health insurance were the primary motivations for working as a foreign correspondent or as any other kind of journalist, believe me, we’d have nearly none at all. I often wonder whether those who demand such high standards and insist on such a sense of responsibility from reporters have any idea just how little money they make, and how insecure their careers are. Even many established by-lines who seem constantly to be on assignment live check to check, and make big personal sacrifices to be where they are.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we should demand high standards from our journalists, no matter what they’re paid. I hold the profession on an almost sacred pedestal, and can’t suffer its abuse by its practitioners, even from someone who writes for free or for a pittance. But from a much more rational, behavioral-economics perspective, it is simply unrealistic to expect a stellar level of professionalism and critical thinking from people who are underpaid and unsure about their future prospects.
Journalism has never been an industry for those who want to strike it rich — at most it may attract glory-seekers — but it’s shakier than ever now, with a 30% surge in newspaper cuts last year. Some 1 in 3 newsroom jobs have reportedly been eliminated since 1989 (see previous link). Salaried foreign correspondents have been especially hard hit, because for American rags that are having trouble covering the local mayor’s office, that’s the simplest place to trim some fat and let CNN — or freelancers paid a couple of hundred dollars a story — to pick up the slack.
Africa seems to have been particularly neglected, partly because of the American public’s lack of deep interest in it. (If I had a dime for every awful time someone has cited Blood Diamond or Hotel Rwanda to me in a serious discussion about African politics… Really? Do you watch The Ides of March to decide whom to vote for for Congress ? Wait, don’t answer that!) Sloppy reportage on Africa that would cause an outcry if it was about a domestic subject raises no ire from most Americans, and thus is not changed. Africa is also extra neglected because even many otherwise intelligent editors, intellectuals, etc. still consider it an economic and political backwater, largely irrelevant except for the humanitarian questions it raises and the stunning inspiration it provides for fashion. Those working against this tide of ignorance have to spend so much time correcting misperceptions that there’s not much of a chance to pioneer different approaches. Meanwhile, the fact that a lot of Africans are rightly pissed off about how different media represent their continent does not have a major effect on what gets covered, since even though they are the subjects of the reporting, they are not its main consumers.
Seay’s criticism of reporting on Africa may be on point, but she doesn’t resolve this final paradox in the least. Journalists may be in love with lofty ideals, but that doesn’t mean the industry is a social service, even if we talk about it like is — for the most part, it’s a business, albeit a frighteningly underperforming one. Writing and reporting on Africa aren’t likely to improve based on business pressures. For-profit outlets have much bigger fiscal fish to fry than a few smart, disgruntled people who know better about Africa; and ad sales are made to companies in rich countries.
Journalists still need to listen to the criticisms
McConnell paints U.S.-based academics with the same broad brush that he says Seay uses on journalists, accusing her of casting stones from an “ivory tower.” This is really silly — if anything a cheap solution to the strains on correspondents in Africa is to regularly consult academics, whose expertise is free, and cultivated through years of careful study of history and theory, something Seay points out in her Twitter riposte.
The fact is that the street credibility of “being there” that puts a swagger in the gait of many a foreign correspondent — I’m not gonna lie, maybe me too — is really no proof of the legitimacy of their work. If you didn’t ask the right questions, talk to the right people, understand the history, then who cares if you witnessed the blood, sweat, and tears first hand, recorded the sound and the fury? Understand I am not pointing at anyone particular here, but it’s not a point of logic I follow. Absurd arguments throughout recent history have often been based on street cred — think of the colonial officer who has spent years at his post and returns to London to report on the savagery of the natives, or the white southerner of the 1950s who says folks up north “can’t understand the race problem down here because they don’t live it.” Or OK, for an example closer to home, think of Thomas Friedman, who almost always mortars together his glib arguments with some anecdote assuring us he’s physically been to the place under discussion (even if it was to take a taxi from the hotel to the golf course). He spent years in Beirut and Jerusalem and wrote a fine narrative of his experiences there which however totally misdiagnosed the underlying causes of the conflicts he witnessed (in my view, at least).
Unfortunately, the credibility-of-being-there argument seems to be the point in McConnell’s essay that has been most celebrated on the web, if the summary linked to at the beginning of this post is any indication. As journalists, if we think what we do is noble, we need to listen to these criticisms, whether they are from near or far, and see how we can improve our work. Clearly, there is room for it.
I mentioned that journalism is not a social service, but maybe it should be. As the business model crumbles ever further, it would be interesting to have Seay evaluate, say, work funded by the Pulitzer Center or another organization that is devoted to upholding excellent journalism in all its ideals, rather than struggling to get accidental hits from readers who were searching for vacation tips or for a review of The Last King of Scotland. From what I’ve seen, her criticisms do not hold up against much of the excellent work that has been funded in this way, which is telling. What if even more resources could be marshaled for such projects? It’s not impossible or unprecedented — philanthropic or idealistic investors have provided the foundation for entire newspapers and outlets in the past (think The Bay Citizen and the Hellman Family Foundation).
Involving more African journalists in Western outlets is another great and ultimately essential idea, but as McConnell points out this is not as simple as Seay makes it sound. Foreign correspondents are not just reporters but also interpreters (as are, for that matter, financial journalists and other specialists). Assuming the primary audience for American publications remains American, the task of foreign correspondents will continue to make issues distant from the reader accessible and interesting. This will require training — I know that I would need training if you assigned me the task of reporting on American affairs in a way that was engaging and accessible for, say, Rwandans. Luckily, there are many good training programs out there for African journalists, though I’ve not heard of many aiming to train foreign correspondents for international publications. Willing and available talent exists, and it needs to be cultivated just as American journalists are.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Would love more thoughts on how media on Africa can be improved — preferably by addressing it as the systemic problem it is.
*NB: Throughout this post I am essentially discussing the work of American correspondents in Africa, since that country’s media scene is the one I am most familiar with. I suspect similar points could be made about media in most other rich countries.