Out of Africa: Western Media Stereotypes Shape Images
This article originally appeared in Issue# 61
As a graduate student just arrived from Zambia to study at Syracuse University in 1968-9, I developed the habit of scanning the local papers for news from my home continent.
It was a pretty futile search. I was increasingly dismayed at the near-total lack of news from any part of Africa being presented to Syracuse readers. I also soon discovered that the little African news that occasionally found the light of day and trickled into the Syracuse Herald and Journal was almost always negative. This inspired me to spend some of my free time embarking on a more serious investigation of news selection.
I requested permission from the news departments of those two daily newspapers to glean through their wastepaper baskets for telex sheets from wire services containing stories transmitted from Africa. I conducted this search for most of an entire week. While indeed not much was offered by the news services, I was nevertheless surprised to find that much of the little that came in was either "killed" or simply spiked for a more suitable publication date that never came.
When I asked an editor to explain these decisions, he told me that stories on Africa are routinely ignored because of a presumed lack of reader interest. "You see," he said, "America does not know Africa well. It never had a colony on that continent. Thus, unless the story has a strong human interest potential, there is no point using it, since no one will read it."
Of course, the editor was both creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and ignoring an obvious fact. The prophecy was simple: White Americans would never become aware of Africa unless they could learn enough about it to be interested, a process the media has a lot to do with.
The fact, at once more complicated and highly relevant to contemporary events, was this: American colonialism against Africans was practiced in the American South in the form of hundreds of years of slavery and second-class citizenship. At the time — the late '60s — millions of descendents of those slaves (over 12 percent of the U.S. population) were beginning to rediscover their African roots. Many of them were (and are still) highly interested in events in Africa. Their history and African background has much to do with current events in the United States.
The 1960s period of my study also coincided with the height of Cold War politics, with the United States then heavily involved in the Vietnam War. Africa was not of the highest concern in the super-power politics of the time. Nevertheless, news from Africa seemed essential to forming a complete picture of important happenings in the world, and this was lacking.
About the same time a lengthy newspaper account of an official visit to Africa by Chou En-Lai, then prime minister of the People's Republic of China appeared in a major paper. The Chinese had promised technical assistance for the construction of a railway line between central Zambia to the Tanzanian seaport of Dar es Salaam, on the Indian Ocean in Southeast Africa. It read something like this:
"Communist China has promised to build a railway line from the black-ruled and land-locked Republic of Zambia to the port of Dar es Salaam, capital of socialist Tanzania. This is meant to reduce dependency on trade routes with and through their southern neighbors, white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. The two black-ruled African countries train and harbor terrorists fighting to overthrow these white-ruled governments."
The implication was that Tanzania and Zambia were being taken for a ride because China didn't possess the necessary technology to execute such a feat of engineering. The promise was seen as simply an example of Communist propaganda.
A few years later, after I had returned to Africa and become the director of the Pan-African Literature Center in Kitwe, Zambia, I was reminded of this conclusion. My journalism students and I attended the inaugural ceremony of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Line (Tan Zam Railway). We actually were passengers on the initial trip of this "will never-be-built" line, riding safely for over 1,000 kilometers from Kapiri M'poshi near Kabwe in central Zambia to the seaside in Dar es Salaam. With the help of the "technically backward" Communist Chinese, the feat had actually been completed well ahead of schedule!
Influenced first by colonialism and then by Cold War politics, this contemptuous tone has long shaped and fashioned Western media perceptions of Africa. As I learned very quickly in the U.S, for American readers or viewers to be interested, news out of Africa must be negative. It must conform to the traditional stereotypes in its spotlight on grotesque and sensational events. It must show misery, corruption, mismanagement, starvation, primitive surroundings and, as in the case of Somalia, chaos and outright anarchy.
In Somalia and elsewhere, news reports show white people feeding black people. You never see Africans helping themselves.
Foreign correspondents in African capitals and their superiors in the media gate-keeping chain seem to have these perceptions ingrained in them. From newsgathering in Africa to publication and broadcast thousands of miles away, stories about Africa are looked at with these negative lenses. Even more unfortunately, reporters and editors with a broader vision run the risk of having their stories disbelieved and unused. Little wonder they learn to toe the expected line.
This dynamic explains why the life of Africa's varied and diverse countries is missing. We hear about famines and coups, but not the rejuvenation of its cities and the cultural vitality of its village life...about oppression and massacres, but not education, economic self-help and political development... about poaching and habitat destruction, but not ongoing active efforts at conservation, reforestation and environmental awareness.
Most telling of all, in Somalia and elsewhere, news reports show outside white people helping the black people. They never show black people helping themselves.
As a journalist I understand that "news" is still defined as a usually negative departure from the norm. I also recognize that in the eternal media race for larger circulations and higher ratings, profits and the bottom line dominate concerns about values and ethics.
As in Somalia, the "hit-and-run" mentality of Western media makes it easy to briefly light up trouble spots, while the years of exploitation and deterioration that produced them are left in the dark. The "here today, gone tomorrow" nature of much international reporting, with star newspersons briefly crowding each other at media feeding troughs, then jetting on to the next venue, doesn't help.
By definition such journalists know little of the language and less of the cultures they cover. They certainly never appreciate the subtleties and nuances of local history and interactions that take years to learn. They are neither accustomed or equipped to observe, understand or explain developmental situations that may change slowly over time.
As a Zambian, my observations are necessarily "out of Africa." But these observations of Western media shortcomings could be applied to many parts of the developing world. Admittedly, the negative patterns of coverage I've described were often conditioned by colonialism and Cold War politics. Unfortunately, they reinforced a pattern of ignorance and distortion that has not changed with the changing political systems. In the case of this news blackout at least, it is still very much a dark continent.