While scouring the news around the world, I recently came across a fascinating article. Written by Laura Seay of Foreign Affairs, it criticizes the West’s media coverage of Africa.
This is not too surprising; there are plenty of articles which make similar critiques. But what’s really good about the article are its details into just how exactly reporters make the news you read about Africa. The second page of the article is especially enlightening.
It’s not pretty. Making news about Africa is kind of like making a hot dog – you don’t want to see how it’s done.
Seay writes about how most “major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent,” a tradition which has persisted for decades. Most of these reporters, of course, are hopelessly out of their depth and unable to deal (or speak) with the numerous languages in the continent.
So reporters, Seay continues, turn to “fixers.” The author goes into great depth about this phenomenon, and it’s worth quoting her in full.
The problem is not simply that reporters cannot be expected to speak all of Africa’s 3,000-plus languages; it is that foreign correspondents tend to rely on the same small group of fixers to arrange interviews, interpret, and manage logistics.
Yet fixers tend to take reporters to talk to the same subjects, over and over and over again. An echo chamber often results, as the same interviews are done with essentially the same questions and the same answers. The echo-chamber problem is much worse in conflict zones, where NGOs often arrange safe travel for reporters in a bid to get their stories out (and to raise funds for their humanitarian operations). Given the challenges of reporting in the midst of open conflict, this symbiotic relationship works well for both parties: The journalist gets the story, and the NGO gets good press for its campaign.
Seay continues with a specific example about a conflict in Sudan:
The problem is that this tends to produce very one-sided and nonobjective reporting. For example, much of the recent coverage of the conflict in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains has been facilitated by the U.S.-based NGO Samaritan’s Purse. Many of the reporters traveling with Samaritan’s Purse have used the same fixer for their stories, Ryan Boyette, a former employee of the group who is married to a Nuba woman and runs a local effort to document atrocities occurring there. In the space of just a few weeks, Boyette also became the subject of a fawning New York Times profile by Nicholas Kristof, was a centerpiece of Jeffrey Gettleman’s reporting for the same publication, and was interviewed by Ann Curry for NBC’s Today. This is not to question Boyette’s credibility or challenge his analysis (though he is far from a neutral observer), but rather to point out one of many examples of the way the West’s Africa reporting becomes biased due to a lack of access and local language skills. As Karen Rothmyer noted in a Columbia Journalism Review article, many reporters working on Africa rely “heavily, and uncritically, on aid organizations for statistics, subjects, stories, and sources.” It is thus no wonder that much reporting on Africa is so heavily focused on crises and that many pieces read like little more than NGO promotional materials.
All in all, it’s a fascinating article. You very rarely read things like this which unveil the secrets of how journalism is actually done. It’s not pretty, but it’s definitely worth learning about it.