NY Times writer Nick Kristof recently returned from a jaunt through North and West Africa. He had a teacher and a medical student in tow, winners of his yearly trip-to-Africa contest. He took some flack for his chosen itinerary, which disproportionately featured the downtrodden and miserable, and for his post-trip write up, which included lines like “But the giraffes and villagers alike are hugely welcoming…” and quotations like “Before I traveled through these countries, my image of an African woman was of a helpless, downtrodden creature who could do little on her own. I am happy to be proved wrong” (from one of his tripmates).
Despite his title at the NY Times, I consider Kristof an advocate for certain causes, not a journalist. You won’t see me up in arms over his column or this particular trip, but I understand where his critics are coming from.
After his post-trip summary, Kristof wrote an article titled How Should we Cover Africa?: “It’s already very difficult to get readers interested in Africa (whenever I write about Africa, my column readership plunges)…” He suspects that readership would be even less if his Africa stories had happy endings. Whether that is true or not, Kristof’s point gets through: media is a commodity and people aren’t interested in consuming stories about Africa.
This is a picture of the “world” news navigation menu at foxnews.com. Africa, the second largest continent and home to 1 billion people, is nowhere to be found. I realize Fox is not a credible news source, but that doesn’t explain this omission. There isn’t an Africa link because Fox News knows that their audience wouldn’t click on it. Likewise, CNN rarely features stories from sub-Saharan Africa on their front page, unless the stories involve violence (preferably sexual violence) or cultural oddities like the one featured in the photo at the start of this post: Insect trappers profit from Uganda’s taste for grasshoppers.
The media is manipulated by our appetite for certain kinds of stories. As a result, coverage is deficient in many areas. Africa in particular suffers because there is already a staggering gap between perception and reality. The HIV/AIDS rate in Washington, DC is higher than that of Mali. Tell someone that fact and see if they believe you.
Lack of coverage is one problem. Lack of context is another. Not too long ago, this video went viral:
This clip, from a BBC documentary called Human Planet, was all over the internet with absolutely no context provided. Traffic hungry Huffington Post posted this video and wrote exactly 4 sentences about it, 2 of them emphasizing the fact that some fishermen were putting fish in their mouth. Without context, the video is savage, primitive, unsustainable, backwards.
What is actually happening in this video? In this region of Mali, Dogon Country, there are seasonal lakes that form during the rainy season. As the rainy season comes to a close, the lakes get smaller and eventually become isolated from larger sources of water. After a while, the lakes dry up entirely. The event shown in the video is held each year when the fish population is at its peak. It is a free-for-all, but there is no fighting and everyone waits patiently before the signal to enter the lake is given. Whether they are harvested or not, the fish will die. However it may look in this short clip, this form of fishing is sustainable. But that story doesn’t sell. Huffington Post, who regularly sacrifice quality reporting in order to attract more visitors, prefer the story of savage Africans catching fish with their mouths.
Our ignorance of Africa is institutionalized in so many ways. Mainstream media just adds one more layer of often incomplete and sometimes destructive information and imagery, mostly because they don’t have any evidence indicating that their audience wants comprehensive coverage.
Fortunately, there’s another side to this story. As a news medium, the Internet has led to watered down, bite sized stories from large news organizations. At the same time, it has led to the proliferation of free information. Blogs are being written all over Africa. Sites like Global Voices provide a multilingual platform for citizen journalists to communicate with the world. If I wanted to, I could rely solely on my twitter timeline for news from the continent.
Major news organizations are not going to change their coverage of Africa anytime soon. But as media becomes increasingly decentralized and driven by social sharing, me and you will have a greater say in what stories are relevant and worthwhile. In our ability to choose which stories we share, we have the power to support responsible journalism.
Use it wisely.