Africa: Stories to Be Told

Nieman Reports, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Africa: Stories to Be Told


Africa is portrayed in the Western media by its extremes, observes Ugandan journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo, a managing editor with the Nation Media Group in Nairobi, Kenya. Stories about its civil wars, human rights abuses, government corruption, disease and poverty, abound, but these have been joined by Western reporting that, in Onyango-Obbo's opinion, can be too willing to celebrate the promised reforms of emergent leaders for whom greater journalistic scrutiny should he applied. The result: "... the leadership in Africa became not only complacent, but also used the flattering international coverage to muzzle internal critics and vigorous independent reporting...."

As a BBC special correspondent who has reported on Africa for two decades, Fergal Keane says he is "a disenchanted member of the television Africa corps, tired of hearts of darkness coverage that reduces every African problem to questions about tribalism or native corruption and refuses to recognize sprouts of hope where they exist." He argues for a reporting paradigm in which Africans tell their stories and help viewers, listeners and readers "recognize the energy and vitality of this continent." Radio correspondent Jason Beaubien, whose African coverage is broadcast on National Public Radio, writes about a reporting trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that began with the hope of telling stories of year-long reconciliation efforts of its power-sharing government and ended as he confronted bribery and fled the country to escape the escalating riots. Photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale has worked in the DRC since 1999, and with words and images he explains why he strives to overcome huge obstacles to report stories of people's suffering. When an editor responds to a story proposed with the words, "We have covered Africa this year, so we won't be doing anything for a while," he bristles.

The Boston Globe's Africa correspondent John Donnelly explains why many statistics about Africa that reporters rely on can be so wrong and what inaccuracies can mean. His advice: "Just use caution when the numbers come out of Africa. Remain skeptical. Ask tough questions, and find ways to let readers understand the dilemma the numbers pose in their telling." While he was Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Nairobi, Davan Maharaj proposed "a story about how Africans live on less than one dollar a day." His idea turned into a six-part series called "Living on Pennies," with photographs by Francine Orr. As Maharaj writes, this "was an attempt to pull away, the statistical curtain and reveal a close-up view of how these Africans go about their daily lives."

Hilaire Avril, who writes for IRIN, the U.N.'s humanitarian reporting service, examines aspects of reporting relationships among journalists and aid workers. "Humanitarian workers have a growing skepticism towards journalists, especially those who 'parachute' in to do one story and then leave," he writes. Thierry Cruvellier, editor of International Justice Tribune, explores some consequences of the absence of adequate local coverage and "close independent scrutiny from the mainstream international media" of Africa's international criminal tribunals and reconciliation commissions. "To fill this information gap, international nongovernmental organizations have assumed the role of independent, private media companies," he writes.

Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole offered readers a way to see the human toll of Liberia's civil war, and images from her series, "Monrovia Under Siege," which won her the 2004. Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, open a series of stories about Liberia. …

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