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Continental context is the key

Too often we, the media, lower our journalistic standards when we present Africa as a singular entity –- that is,…

By Lindsay Sample , in 2012 Africa: A Continental Confusion Blogs , on February 17, 2012 Tags: , , , , , ,

Too often we, the media, lower our journalistic standards when we present Africa as a singular entity –- that is, as a country and not a continent. In the fast-paced world of news reporting, we need to stop and think about how we can best represent the more than one billion people who live on the second-largest continent in the world.

It’s time that we acknowledge — and hold ourselves accountable to — the importance of context when reporting about Africa.

Images of exotic safari animals are often portrayed as "real" Africa, when I lived in South Africa, the only time I saw an elephant was in a game reserve. Image courtesy of Flickr user ©babasteve via Creative Commons.
Images of exotic safari animals are often portrayed as "real" Africa, when I lived in South Africa, the only time I saw an elephant was in a game reserve. ©babasteve via flickr.

Binyavanga Wainaina, an award-winning editor and writer originally from Nakuru, Kenya, tackled this topic in his 2005 article,HowtowriteaboutAfrica.” His piece didn’t provide the one-size-fits-all solution that some readers may have desired, however; he resorted to satire out of desperation over the mainstream’s constant misrepresentation of the continent on which he was born.

“Treat Africa as if it were one country,” he writes, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving.”

Later in the piece, he advises: “Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa,’ and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West.”

I find Wainaina’s blunt openness about his frustrations with mainstream representations refreshing, but only up to a point. For just as not all people in Africa are the same, not all stories written about Africa lack context and perpetuate stereotypes.

That being said, it should not be common practice to say that someone is going to or from “Africa” unless they are going to or from multiple countries on the continent of Africa. The more detailed the reporting, the more information provided to the readers, and the more informed and educated people can become.

Background, which explains the uniqueness and specifics of a nation, city, or group of people, is crucial.

“[C]ontextual background…including how the West contributed to the underdevelopment of Africa, are conspicuously missing from [most] Western media coverage of Africa,” argues academic and journalist Nana Bonsu-Amoako.

Understanding the history of global development and the politics within one or among several countries will produce better stories and fill the gap that Bonsu-Amoako discusses.

And as he rightly points out, a “reporting paradigm” needs to allow people within Africa to have a voice in telling their stories.