Africa In The Western Media
Cycle of Contra-Positives and Selective Perceptions
By Alhaji G.V. Kromah
Posted April 30, 2002
Editor's Note: On April 24, 2002, Alhaji G.V. Kromah, former Assistant Professor of International Communication & Media Law at the University of Liberia, who subsequently served as Minister of Information, presented a paper on Africa in the Western Media to the African Studies Program at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. Find below the full text of the presentation.
The persistent phenomenon of how the Western Media have continued to treat Africa negatively is as topical today as it was nearly two decades ago when many Africans and other aggrieved proponents campaigned for the adoption of a new world information order as the best corrective approach. I suggest, not in any new way or fresh revelations, that the problem about Western media reporting on Africa goes beyond professional inadequacies and structural bias. Socio-cultural factors have continued to account significantly for the stereotyping archetype, which has remained a hallmark of Western collection and dissemination of information about Africa.
For the purposes of this discussion, I shall highlight British and American media environments to explore the problem. And in this framework, it would be helpful to capture some of the complications that derive from the lack of energy many Western news reporters demonstrate in ascertaining the real identities of their African subjects. In many instances, Western media practitioners present fatalistic and selectively crude images of Africa to prove to their already misinformed audiences that they have visited the continent or are knowledgeable about its activities.
We must also revisit the effects the nature of global media ownership has had on news flow from and to Africa. Equally important is the dilemma African journalists face, while serving as stringers and correspondents for the external media.
Exploration of our subject matter must necessarily begin with perusing some fundamental facts, which may allow us to appreciate the contradictions, if not hypocrisy, seen in the media's exercise of freedom and responsibility.
Some Basics of Africa Identity
It should be elementary to say that Africa is neither a country nor a language. Unfortunately, a huge portion of the population in the United States considers Africa to be a single country or a language. I have actually had Americans ask me to speak African.
Well, the fact is that Africa consists of more than 54 independent countries, and is the second largest continent next to Asia. It should not be difficult to understand that the continent's population of nearly 700 million speaks more than 1000 main languages. Historians sometimes refer to Africa as the Mother Continent for an important reason. Some 175 million years ago, Africa was the center of the landmass called Pangaea.1 It gradually broke up into the continents of North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Antarctica.
There is also abundant information about humans originating from Africa. Theories, supported by ongoing archeological findings, are illustrative. The two major seemingly opposing schools of thought about the origin of modern man, the Homo sapiens, point to a common African ascendant.
One proposition, commonly referred to as the Out of Africa Theory, suggests that between 50,000 and 200,000 years back, modern man emerged from Africa and moved on to other parts of the world. The other theory proposes that today's humans simultaneously appeared in Africa, Europe and Asia. The latter study nevertheless says all of these humans come from the Homo erectus species, which left Africa about two million years ago.
The Out of Africa Theory received a boost two years ago when Swedish researchers used genome/DNA techniques at the Swedish University of Uppsala to demonstrate that Africa is indeed the origin of all humans. Prof. Ulf Gyllensten, who led the study, said their work was the first study in which the genome was being used in a sufficiently large number of individuals to come out with very strong evidence supporting the Out of Africa Theory. (Genetic study roots humans in Africa, BBC Online, Wednesday, 6 December 2000, London).
In a 1998 study published by the National Academy of Science in Washington, DC, professors at the University of Texas in the United States collaborated with their Chinese counterparts in a research that shows the Chinese are African descendants (DNA traces Chinese back to Africa, BBC Online, September 30, 1998). The Chinese and American experts used DNA tests to study 28 population groups in China, which mostly showed that the groups were African descendants.
History is consistent about Africa also being the cradle of civilization. Spanning from ancient Egypt to Ethiopia in the northeast, to the ancient empires of Mali, Songhay, and Ghana in the West, Africa has flourished in civilization.
The Nile Valley along the northeast, remains historically credited for the inventions its African inhabitants bequeathed to modern civilization.
In his writing, African Peoples' Contributions to World Civilizations: Shattering the Myths, Paul L. Hamilton summarized the African people's accomplishments in the following categories:
1) The Sciences: Accomplishments included astronomy, the 365 1/4-day calendar, the study of anatomy, embalming, chemistry, and mathematics (geometry and trigonometry), and the production of high grade steel and large scale architectural works such as the Pyramids in Egypt and the Grand Imperial Court of Timbuktu.
2) Inventions and Discoveries: the Africans are credited for phonetic writing, paper and ink, aspirin, tetracylcline, pregnancy testing, front porches and the house clock.
3) Social Structures: national government, universities, libraries, and belief in one God, grand funerals and beliefs emphasizing the afterlife.
4) Social Customs: circumcision, dice shaving; belly dancing, and branding animals with hot irons.
Psycho-Socio Legacy of Slavery and Colonialism
The brief and impressive African credentials outlined supra may lead one to wonder why then does Africa in the minds of some parts of the world, especially the West, seem to be notable only as a scourge of poverty, disease and savagery. What actually created the basis for the abortion of the development metamorphosis of Africa, the perpetual exaggeration of which seems to be a duty for many outside the continent? Perhaps a quick reflection on this may help us understand why many Europeans and Americans live with the selective perception that Africa is still struggling to get out of the Paleolithic and Stone ages.
History points to slavery and colonialism in Africa as two events that have had an overwhelming impact on the way Africans and Westerners think about each other. The two experiences effectively stopped the progressive growth of the technological society Africa had begun several hundred years earlier.
The psychological residue of slavery expresses itself in the mindset that the Africans, no matter where they are located in the Diaspora, have a fixed status below that of their Caucasian and other descendants. Slavery - particularly the buying and selling of black people between Africa the West - is an experience that seemed to have left the severest psycho-sociological impact in the American society. The black man and woman in America were useful only in helping to meet the labor demand of their masters. The indelible imprints have continued to threaten racial harmony despite the progress made to create a just society.
The perception of black humans as second class has accordingly made many Americans to view Africa and everything about Africa with jaundiced eyes. Unfortunately, not even formal education or position in government guaranteed that racial prejudice would not linger on. The great President Abraham Lincoln of the United States, in his debate with opponent Stephen Douglas in1858, is reported as offering the following viewpoints: "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes - nor of qualifying them to hold officer, nor to intermarry with white people."
When Liberia became the first African independent republic in 1847, the United States government did not recognize the sovereignty until 1862, though the founding of the country involved American efforts and ex-slaves. And indeed slavery was the underlying reason for the diplomatic delay. Washington thought it faced a dilemma over the kind of reception that would have had to be given to a black ambassador.
From European interaction on the other hand, Africa has never socially recovered from the disrepair inflicted by colonization. In addition to slavery, European colonizing and Balkanizing of Africa put forth a similar condescending imagery of the African. Notwithstanding European experiences in Africa, racial discrimination continues to be a problem in London, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, Madrid and other Western European capitals. The massive natural resource wealth that has continued to pour into the Western world has had little effect on determining whether Africa should be viewed as a partner or as a stepchild.
Slavery and colonization did not only crudely interrupt African progress, but left a legacy that propels media coverage of Africa in a skewed faction. The equation provides that news is only news when it satisfies the expectation of the consumer whose mindset about Africa is little more than the pictures of Tarzan and gorillas. It then becomes a matter of a routine display of the symbolism that convinces the Western media audience that indeed what is being viewed, read or written is "African." Except for the parading of malnourished and naked babies in front of television cameras, one gets the impression that Africa has remained in suspense since the days of the dinosaur.
Media Ownership and Structural Imbalance
For more than three decades now, news agency wire service has continued to be a critical means of news transmission globally. The key world news agencies are owned by shareholders in Western countries. The Associated Press (AP) and the United Press (UP), founded in the United States, are two of the four leading wire services with monopolistic effects. According to its own information bulletin, AP, which was founded in 1848, is the largest news organization in the world providing news, photos and video for more than one billion people a day. The AP says it serves 5000 radio and television stations in the United States, and has nearly 9000 subscribers to its services from 121 countries.
Equally powerful are the Reuters news agency, operating out of Britain, and the Agence France Press (AFP) commonly called the French News Agency based in Paris. The AFP is the world's oldest news agency, founded in 1835, and like Reuters, it has stringers and correspondents around the globe.
These four Western-based wire services for many years virtually determined what the audiences in their home countries heard about the rest of the world and vice versa. They set the tone and duration of international topical issues. Given the nature of psycho-socio homeostasis history has produced, the news agencies tailored the news coming from Africa, whenever events were reported from the continent. From the subscription figures of the AP, one may exponentially determine the collective influence of the Western wire services.
In sharp contrast, the content of the TASS News Agency, the state-owned wire service of the defunct Soviet Union, did not only report events about Africa and other spots, but provided detailed background information and even wrote relevant commentaries about these events. At the Liberian news agency in 1970's, my colleagues and I often found the TASS dispatches more useful in our news analysis programs. And similarly, another state owned news agency, Xinhua of the People's Republic of China, loaded its reports with statistics and other detailed information.
Xinhua and TASS, which became ITAR-TASS after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, presented a form of competition to the Western wire services as far as the depth of stories was concerned. And as a result many news agencies and media houses outside of the West greatly utilize the services of the two news agencies. Xinhua has particularly become potent in its Southeast Asia sphere of operation.
The non-western news agencies' policy of avoiding the sensationalism identified with Western media reporting has been both a source of strength and a downside for all parties. Though African and other clients of the non-western agencies find the detailed reporting useful, state ownership of these news agencies often meant mixing their reporting with commentaries that border on some anti-Western propaganda.
With the Cold War at its height in the 70's and the 80's, my colleagues and I at the Liberia news agency and the Liberia Broadcasting Corporation carefully distilled the news from the propaganda. We eventually developed the skills to do this, and in the end we combined in a balanced and locally useful way, dispatches coming from all of the wire services.
The challenge posed to AP, UP, Reuters and AFP by TASS and Xinhua has not stopped the dominance of the West. Language and educational experiences are an advantage for the West. Russia and China found it difficult to compete with the heavy cultural European vestiges left behind by colonialism in Africa. Africans seek higher education in Europe or the United States. Besides, the media technology and news presentation formats are mostly English, French, or American.
The Western wire services have also effectively maintained their informal monopoly and superiority in providing news about Africa and the rest of the world to their Western audiences. Xinhua and TASS have simply not been able to penetrate. Their importance is noted only when they carry reports that have critical implications for the West.
The technological revolution in international broadcasting - radio and television - has made an overwhelmingly diversified imprint on global society. Wars and disasters are telecast to the world as they happen. Competition among American television stations over their desire to report from the scene of events has pushed almost every American network and cable group to go international. The latest is the MSNBC, which has made the regional Middle East conflict and the Afghanistan operation as a regular feature of their nightly news.
MSNBC's Ashley Banfield has become the company's version of CNN's Christianne Amanpour, who acquired fame by reporting from the battle zones of Bosnia and Korsovo, as well as penetrating the secluded domains of power in Iran and similar places. Besides CNN, which has built some credibility for reporting to the world about the world, the American broadcast stations reporting on international affairs target the American audience. Catering exclusively to a particular national audience has always been fraught with parochial tendencies.
In this technological explosion and unprecedented excitement in journalism, Africa has not benefited. In fact, the advancement has been used to reinforce in vivid pictures, the stereotype imagery that has lived with the American and other Western audiences. If events in African countries ever make it to the news, they are presented to the audience as an exception to normal things.
It has been suggested somewhere that one way the imbalance reporting between the West and Africa can be dealt with is to deploy the services of local correspondents and stringers for the big Western institutions. The experience in this area has not escaped one of the fundamental bottlenecks - ownership and policy. A British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) African radio program demonstrates the point.
The BBC radio news program called Focus on Africa has probably become the number one listened to international program in every African country that English is understood. The daily program appears to have become a forum for Africans to vent their frustrations and also have the opportunity to criticize their leaders since that opportunity is not available under dictatorial governments. Recent civil wars on the continent, particularly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the Focus on Africa program virtually became the only means through which people in the West African subregion and other parts of the continent got informed about details of events.
Behind the façade of giving opportunity to Africans to air their opinions about national issues however, a set of editorial policies firmly restrict the freedom. BBC stringers and correspondents report only what the London editors believe ought to be aired. And the criteria for transmission in many instances have little to do with professional journalism. If a guest in a pre-recorded interview said things that did not speak favorably of Britain, those portions would either be edited out or the entire interview discarded.
Here is a personal example. I was in London in 1984 on an official mission as Minister of Information. The editor of the Focus on Africa invited me for an interview, and his first question was about the pending 1985 presidential elections in Liberia. He asked if I knew Military Head of State Samuel K. Doe was going to stand for the civilian presidential elections. I told him I did not know. He then asked whether the affair was a cloak and dagger business, and whether I was afraid of Doe. I in turn asked him whether he was afraid of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher because indeed she was commonly referred to as the "Iron Lady." I thought I was being humorous. The interview was never aired.
While Focus on Africa does provide a platform for Africans to evaluate wrongdoing on the continent, it has also become a forum that gives chance for African personalities to be insulted and abused in a way that will never be condoned if the scenario involved British officials.
It appears that this vicious cycle of controlling and tailoring impressions about Africa and Africans in the Western media can be interrupted from a sociological point of view. In the United States, a new program of education about Africa and the outside world has to be designed and aggressively implemented. Well thought out and easily understood forms of public tutoring on the realities of Africa can help discard the stone age perception still lingering in America about Africa and Africans.
It is true that prejudice and bigotry are hard to eliminate. But a sizeable portion of Americans, including African Americans, is just simply ignorant about Africa. Americans and their institutions interested in global understanding cannot rely on the media to change their attitude. The reciprocal entrapment between the media and their Western audiences on perceptions of Africa can be dissolved if journalists and their institutional owners wake up and hear members of the same audiences expressing knowledge of Africa beyond the Tarzans, tigers, and chimpanzees.
Ordinary people, including elders and children, must know that along with the huts, crocodiles and famine, African countries also have skyscrapers, multiple lane road networks, and other manifestations of modern life. Let people take the initiative, particularly in America, to teach the young children that Africa is not a single country and a single language. Let the children know that all forms of human beings come from Africa, and their geographical habitats were all once attached to the African continent. African Americans can play a crucial role in this educational drive.
While it is true that African countries and peoples have suffered because of the negative image, America has something at stake if ignorance is fermented. Knowing about the outside world, whether it is Africa or another part, has profound dividends for the United States, which sets the agenda not only for the West, but the rest of the international community.
I Thank You.
1) Hardened Images: The Western Media and the Marginalization of Africa (Asgede Hagos)
2) The Penguin Atlas of African History (Colin McEvedy)
3) Communication & Society - Today and Tomorrow (Sean MacBride)
4) African Peoples' contributions to World Civilizations: Shattering the Myths (Paul L. Hamilton)
5) The Atlas of African Affairs (Ieuan LL. Griffiths)