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How Should you Cover Africa? Better Question: How Should we Consume Media?

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.

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{ 39 comments… add one }

  • Kay Johnson July 11, 2011, 6:14 pm

    Hallo Clyde !,

    Night ! Night !

    LILI x

  • Kyle July 12, 2011, 2:37 am

    A well-put post, my friend. The more places I visit, the more I learn how the media “spins” things for their consumers. I look forward to hearing more of your view on your visits to Africa.

    • phil July 16, 2011, 1:24 pm

      Hey Kyle,
      Thanks for the comment. I agree. The best way to dispel myths and spin is to visit places themselves.

  • Jenny July 12, 2011, 7:20 am

    Great post, Phil. Spot on, and well articulated. Thanks for sharing your experiences–both the stories of your journeys and your thoughts.
    Lots of Hobart love,
    Jenny

    • phil July 16, 2011, 1:28 pm

      Thanks Jenny, see you next week!

  • Evi @evitravels July 12, 2011, 8:13 am

    Excellent post. First thing that popped into my head is the coverage of Mexico in the States. You’d think every fifth person in the entire country gets decapitated by drug cartels.

    • phil July 17, 2011, 11:47 pm

      Yep, Mexico is definitely another place where coverage is incredibly skewed

  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures July 15, 2011, 11:57 am

    Wow I absolutely applaud this post and I couldn’t agree more! Most of my Africa news comes from NK.

    • phil July 17, 2011, 11:50 pm

      Thanks Andi :)

  • Mack Reynolds July 15, 2011, 4:23 pm

    wow, just wow. well written and hard hitting. you’re obviously passionate about this, and i could use someone like you to help steer me through all the nonsense. i’m a bit ignorant when it comes to the news because i don’t really watch much tv. my girlfrend’s mom is always watching fox news. she said it’s because she’s republican, but i’m really not interested in a group of suits hating on another group of suits. i will admit though, it can be a little entertaining from time to time; it’s like watching kids bicker in the sandbox. as for the selective coverage and pandering to the bloodthirsty masses, it’s really a shame how the news, a once helpful tool in daily life, has become a commercialized set of advertisements meant to entice us by prolonging coverage and actual results. turn on the local news and they’ll make you wait for it… something as easy as “casey anthony is acquitted” becomes 24 hour coverage and extraneous conversations among a bunch of nobody analysts.

    • phil July 18, 2011, 12:03 am

      Hey Mack,
      Thanks for your comment and the kind words. You are right. Nowhere is news more of a spectacle than it is on TV. Unfortunately, so many websites are moving in that direction as well.

  • Benny July 15, 2011, 8:41 pm

    We wholeheartedly agree. In fact, it was the perceptions in the media which had spread throughout the public which were the catalyst for us to travel to West Africa in the first place.

    We received quite a lot of media attention during out trip and we were grateful for the support and interest the travel blogging community gave us. We were even more grateful that we were allowed to publish pieces unedited.

    Unfortunately, we couldn’t say the same for many of the news media outlets many of whom interviewed us asking only of the difficulties and negatives we faced refusing to ask questions about any highlights or positives. The day we were due to appear on national television in Australia, the news cycle turned after a plane crash in the Congo and naturally we were bumped off – we could understand that. We couldn’t understand though that the same station later that day featured a 2-3minute slot on Ronaldo’s new Ferrari during the middle of the World Cup with the public’s eye focused on Africa.

    It would have been nice to have showcased Africa to Australia aside from the World Cup in South Africa where most journalists stuck to their safe haven compounds and didn’t venture out to cover the real Africa and it’s peoples.

    Nevertheless, the footage above is incredible and it’s from an even more incredible part of the world. The context makes it even more special having been there ourselves and it’s disappointing to hear many others weren’t provided with the same information and understanding.

    We’ll never stop writing about Africa and we have faith in the curiosity and of the travel blogging community knowing that blogs such as this will continue to multiply and more writers will uncover the real Africa, it’s people and it’s magic.

    • phil July 18, 2011, 12:23 am

      Hey Benny,
      thanks for the comment. It is frustrating that Ronaldo’s ferrari is considered newsworthy. Unfortunately, many people have an interest in that type of story. It won’t be until people are more educated and engaged by Africa that we will see a change in coverage. I think blogs will play a big role in this and in this regard, I very much appreciate your efforts with amateurs in africa. I think it’s important for people to realize that Africa is worth visiting for its own sake. Many people are not surprised if you tell them you are doing volunteer work in West Africa. They are surprised if you tell them you are just traveling. This is a problem. Hopefully, like you said, as more people travel there and report back, this will begin to change.

  • Matt July 16, 2011, 12:27 am

    I think your title says it all; “How should we consume media?” We should consume it with a critical eye and use our own brain to ask questions and interpret what we see and read rather than relying on media that has it’s own agenda.

    • phil July 18, 2011, 12:25 am

      Matt,
      That’s exactly what I was getting at, changing our approach to consuming media and information. The internet has given us a lot of tools to do this!

  • Kay Johnson July 16, 2011, 3:00 am

    The previous posts are right and it seems that everyone needs to activate some more ‘at source ! I have found your African reports invigorating because I have also travelled there, – mostly ‘in the rough’ i.e. truck & camping, and have have the squits & visited Timbuctou, on very swollen legs – due to 2 days & nights on a Niger river boat with little exercise & limted loo. ! To play back an accurate, overall, picture of Mali would be very difficult. There are vast differences north & south and strong tribal influences outside all the main ‘connurbations’. It would be like dealing with a fish – the head is at Bamako and the tail is, probably, around Timbuktu. The head prefers not to swim on down & avoids trouble if it can which leads each area to generate it’s own economy, ( & politics), from the river outwards, which is fine. They have food, they have medicine, – they also need rain. And the rural & more remote places in particular need support by DISTRIBUTION to assist & maintain the their local view. Did you manage to assemble any (more) ideas on what travellers, like myself, ergo, can do to help them achieve this ? Your travelogue is a very interesting one – what else can we do ?

    • phil July 18, 2011, 12:46 am

      Hi Kay,
      Thanks for the comment. On the media/perception end, I think one of the most effective things we can do is to travel and share the experience. I don’t know if I fully understand your question though… you are asking what more can we do to change perceptions about Africa or something else?

  • Kay Johnson July 18, 2011, 2:27 am

    Perception need confirming & updating constantly – but I was really interested in practical imput. I am trying to send a small donation to some chaps who ferried donkeys into Timbuktu. A light documentary was made of them about 10 years ago. It is understood that they are still in their village – so how do I forward funds to them etc. without being encompassed by the world of middle-men ?
    Do you have more travel to Africa planned soon ?

    • phil July 18, 2011, 1:32 pm

      You can western union them directly. Probably not an office in the village, but they can take transport to Mopti to pick it up. There might even be western union in timbuktu, although I don’t recall seeing it when I was there. I am planning on going back to west Africa in a few months if all goes to plan. Sorry I never got reliable info to you on the Niger visa. The consulate that was by apartment turned out to be just a sign for the consulate (it had been moved, but the sign has never been taken down). Here is a link to SONEF’s facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/SONEF-TRANSPORT-VOYAGEUR/218088634881811?sk=wall you might be able to post a question there..

  • Erica July 19, 2011, 9:29 pm

    Oh wow. I had absolutely no clue that there was NO coverage. I did know about the HIV thing in Washington DC but it is sad that the stories covered do make the country more stereotyped as savage beings.

  • Mikeachim July 22, 2011, 7:09 am

    I’ve seen it too. And it’s a disgrace. So many aspects to be seen – the lumping of the incredibly huge, ming-numbingly diverse continent of Africa into the ‘country’ Africa, a place rife with corruption, a dangerous, lawless place where everyone needs a gun and everyone gets mauled by lions if they stay long enough, where yes, pathetically poor, miserable, fly-spattered people do degrading things on camera…

    I remember my first Africa Is Big moment. It was watching Michael Palin’s “Pole To Pole”. The first couple of episodes was a brisk whirl through Northern Europe, and then he hit Africa…and stayed in Africa….and kept going through Africa…..Africa, Africa, Africa. And yet he was covering loads of ground. And *still* Africa kept going.

    I recently listened to an audio course on African history with an emphasis on archaeology, spurred on by a couple of lectures during my degree in ’00-’04. Before then, my knowledge of Africa was a colonialist European one. Cecil Rhodes, the Boer War, Stanley & Livingstone, Wilbur Smith novels. And the first episode of this audio course outlined for me very clearly how ignorant I was to the wider picture, and to Africa as it has been lived as a place for the last 1,000 years (and more, although archaeohistorical knowledge apparently gets hazy beyond that point)….

    Ask me 15 years ago what I knew of Africa in general, I’d have talked for 20 minutes. Now, I’d merely say “next to nothing”. I’d hope the omission of Africa from Fox’s news coverage is a sign of that kind of admission – but I know it isn’t. It’s probably because they think Africa isn’t yet newsworthy. Undeveloped. Immature. Lacking depth, civilization…..history.

    And sadly I don’t think they’re alone.

    What a mess.

    • phil July 22, 2011, 11:43 pm

      Mike,
      Well said. Africa is a big and complex place. I think that is the first thing lost in the limited coverage. Even after spending time there, my understanding has a long way to go. In Mali alone, there is so much history and cultural depth, not to mention the complexity of both urban and rural life today. For whatever reason, though, I have faith that the tide will shift. That more people will become connected to the continent in one way or another and that eventually, coverage of Africa will move in the right direction. Inshallah.

  • Dyanne@TravelnLass July 22, 2011, 1:14 pm

    Woa! I knew Fox News was wholly a crock of bias (“Fair & Balanced”, yeah right), but… that printscreen of their site navigation (no “Africa”???) truly takes the cake. Worse, they’re not alone in such nonsense. Indeed, as a traveler I find myself constantly bucking the spoon-fed dogma about many stray corners of the globe that abounds. Being a discerning media consumer takes WORK. Sadly, it seems that it’s “all about the money”. Thanks for a most thoughtful post.

    • phil July 22, 2011, 11:46 pm

      Dyanne,
      I was also astonished by the fox news bit. I knew they were absurd, but it’s still surprising to me. Not even a link??? You’re right, being a discerning media consumer takes work, more than it should. Glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you continue to share your experience of the world with others.

  • Claire August 1, 2011, 2:18 pm

    Phil,
    What a thought-provoking post. Just came across your blog today from Suzy Stumbles and I just keep finding more to read! I like the way you write and I feel like I learned more today about Africa than I ever did in school. My only experience with Africa is a trip to Tanzania-an amazing experience but too short to develop the love and knowledge that you have.

    • phil August 1, 2011, 3:57 pm

      Hey Claire,
      Glad you enjoyed the post. There is a lot I don’t know about Africa myself. It’s a big a complex place and I’ve found there is always more to learn about and discover. When were you in Tanzania? I also post a lot of Africa-related content (usually a mix of news, music, and interesting projects) on my fb page here: https://www.facebook.com/Phil.inthe.blank.dot.net if you are interested

  • Aussie on the Road September 24, 2011, 1:28 am

    This was such an eye opening post. While I guess I’ve always been aware that Africa really only seems to warrant mention in mainstream media when something bad is happening (or when the World Cup is on) – I never realized how all encompassing that had become.

    Really well thought out and well expressed. You’ve got a regular reader in me.

    • phil September 24, 2011, 12:51 pm

      Thank you, Chris. Glad you got something out of this post.

  • Steve September 24, 2011, 2:05 am

    Excellent article – I saw the out-of-context clip not long after watching the original Human Planet episode, and was deeply unimpressed by the negative coverage of the clip from some mainstream sites

    • phil September 24, 2011, 1:31 pm

      Hi Steve,
      Yes, I’m curious to see the clip in context, because I assume BBC does a better job explaining this event as part of their film. Huff Post and the like just view it as a traffic opportunity, which is really irresponsible when you think about it.

  • wandering educators September 24, 2011, 10:50 am

    oh, so important. thank you for this – i have a feeling i’ll be thinking about this article all day.

    btw, love your camel site.

    • phil September 24, 2011, 1:32 pm

      Thanks Jessie. Glad you enjoyed the post and the how to draw camels site :)

  • Nomadic Samuel September 24, 2011, 12:52 pm

    Phil, this is a really thought provoking article. I agree that a discerning eye (& a critical one at that) is necessary to filter or process what media is being fed to us.

    • phil September 24, 2011, 1:34 pm

      Samuel, definitely. Unfortunately for us, the media doesn’t make it any easier for us.

  • Jim September 26, 2011, 1:37 am

    Nice to see this. I write quite often about Africa and allude to wildlife conservation problems there- poaching elephants and rhino to feed Asia’s insatiable appetite for ivory and horn, and am surprised at how many worldly travellers are so unaware of the situation there.
    You and I just got to get together and spread more info on Africa!

    • phil September 26, 2011, 10:28 am

      Hey Jim,
      I remember you offering some insight into conservation in a comment on one of my earlier posts. Yet another issue that deserves far more coverage. I look forward to reading more about your efforts. Thanks for stopping by.

  • tobias h. February 3, 2012, 7:52 pm

    Hi Phil,

    I stumbled across your article researching for us media coverage/silence on african conflicts. Very well done, your efforts to uncover the non-coverage is appreciated, at least from my humble side.

    Thanks,
    Tobias

    • phil February 4, 2012, 8:32 am

      Thank you, Tobias. Glad you appreciate the piece.
      Take care,
      Phil

  • Menbi April 5, 2012, 3:57 am

    I remember in 2001, around end of August, I went to FoxNews to see what they were saying about a group of Americans who were put on trial by the Taliban for “possessing The Bible”. There was no one single news item. The plight of these Americans was a front page news on BBC and CNN (at that time CNN was still a respectable news org). Then fast forward two weeks, Fox is all about the Taliban.

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