A look into how Afro-pessimistic media reports fail to provide audiences with an accurate portrayal of Africa.
When reporting on Africa, many western media outlets project a glum picture of the continent. The often pessimistic angle taken by writers leads consumers to think of Africa as more of a place in need than as a place of hope. In this blog I will discuss how Afro-pessimistic media reporting fails to provide an accurate portrayal of some African nations, but how ‘Afro-optimistic’ reporting is helping to change this. I will be using the word Afro-pessimism to mean any way in which African nations are represented in a negative way.
‘Poverty porn’ forms one of the ways that some African countries are represented poorly. ‘Poverty porn’ involves exposing people at vulnerable points in their lives by taking photographs, such as the one above and broadcasting it. It is generally done with good intentions, trying to raise awareness and bring in charitable donations for those struggling. However, the constant portrayal of human suffering in TV appeals and articles alike create a depressing stereotype about the lives of those living in Africa.
Many celebrities unwittingly engage in perpetuating this stereotype. For example, Ed Sheeran’s 2017 comic relief appeal shows intimate details of children’s lives from a slum in Liberia. Often, Comic Relief appeals such as these show the children in misery and then once we, the audience donate, as hopeful and happy.
In 1989, The General Assembly of European NGOs created a code of conduct which sought to ‘challenge and guide NGOs to be attentive to messages that over-simplify or over concentrate on sensational aspects of life in the ‘Third World’ ‘. It was hoped that it would help curb the use of Afro-pessimistic imagery. However, in the 21st century, appeals such as Ed Sheeran’s comic relief appeal show how it is evidently still happening.
Colonial Roots and Biases
Without the context of why a nation is struggling, it can be easy to assume that they themselves are to blame. An example from Pahl (1995) shows how the media largely ignore the wider context of troubles being faced and in doing so make it seem as if the troubles experienced are purely their fault. Pahl (1995) writes that, ‘events [in Africa]…are often colored with nineteenth century and colonial European bias’. Pahl cites, ‘The irony of the U.S. invasion of Somalia “to help the poor starving people of Africa” is striking when the United States itself can be held partly responsible for that country’s violence and the resulting famine.’ This example agrees with the idea that colonial European bias can permeate news reports. Audiences cannot view the situation accurately if what they are presented with does not cover the whole story. So, while the U.S. are painted as saviours by western media, the Somalian’s are presented as helpless victims of their own self-inflicted issues.
Constructive Journalism as a Solution?
Zhang and Matingwina (2016) discuss constructive journalism (where issues are exposed but so are helpful solutions) as an alternative journalistic style. Their study, conducted from April 2014-2015 looked at the coverage from 32 news articles on the Ebola crises from both the BBC and China Daily websites and valued them as either ‘constructive, neutral and negative’. It was found that ‘China Daily featured more news stories with constructive journalism themes (62.50%) than the BBC (34.38%) did’. They concluded that constructive journalism ‘positively contributes to the representation of complex issues and reshapes the media’s discourse on Africa’. It can be recommended that more Western news outlets should employ the method of constructive journalism to create a more holistic presentation of issues in Africa.
Alternatively, ‘Afro-optimism’ (which refers to positively presenting African nations) is also present in the media. Nothias (2016) claims that, although 58.9% of articles about Nigeria ‘link the country to crime, corruption and fraud’, ‘41.4% link it to sport, democracy and infrastructure’. These statistics uncover a new perspective, showing reporters actually covering more positive news. Journalists and editors usually lean towards negative news regardless of the country, so the amount of positive news shown here is hopeful. Such a style of reporting helps negate negative imagery seen of African nations.
So, whilst it is important not to over-state the negative coverage received by African nations, it is equally as important to recognise the impacts negative reporting can have, such as creating harmful stereotypes. An increased use of positive imagery and more awareness about structural causes of issues and solutions will create a fairer and more accurate portrayal of Africa.
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McGee, S., 2005. Report on the Review of the Code of Conduct: Images and Messages relating to the Third World, Dublin: Dochas.
Nothias, T., 2018. How Western Journalists Actually Write About Africa. Journalism Studies , 19(8), pp. 1138-1159.
Pahl, R. H., 1995. The Image of Africa in Our Classrooms. The Social Studies , 86:6(1), pp. 245-247.
Streets, E. S. M. a. L. B. w. L. o., 2017. Youtube video. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5R3RBP82uw
[Accessed 6 February 2020].
Zhang. Y, Matingwina. S, 2016. A new representation of Africa? The use of constructive journalism in the narration of Ebola by China Daily and the BBC. African Journalism Studies, 37(3), pp. 26-33.