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Policy Brief: The Global Media Index for Africa

NEWS & NARRATIVES: PERCEPTIONS OF AFRICA IN THE GLOBAL MEDIA

By Tunde Olatunji   

 

WHY DO NARRATIVES MATTER?

Much of how we come to understand the world is mediated by narrative. From basic perceptions of morality and empathy, to more complex considerations about what qualities we choose as fundamental to defining an individual, group, or place. These determinations rely heavily on the stories we regularly tell ourselves in society and how these stories develop over time. For most of the 20th and 21st centuries, much of this responsibility has fallen to the news media–comprised of publications that parse through happenings around the world and distill complicated events into the elements that are most important to understanding the issue in question, its implications, and its principal actors. 

In this process of choosing what to include or omit, and precisely how these editorial decisions are made, news media helps construct a working understanding of how the world operates and how to understand the motivations of its wide range of characters. While this dynamic has been incredibly beneficial in demystifying an often complex world, what happens when prevailing narratives become divorced from the realities of the places or people they seek to help us understand?

 

PREVAILING NARRATIVES ABOUT AFRICA

The African continent is home to many countries that have recently undergone (and continue to undergo) significant socio-economic and political transformations common in emerging democracies. Perhaps as a consequence, the prevailing narratives about Africa and its 54 nations tend to reflect tropes that rely on outdated and overly-simplistic characterizations centered on instability, poverty, and violence. For the largest news organizations with global audiences in the millions (and individual stories that can reach hundreds of millions if not billions of people), this is particularly problematic because these mischaracterizations can have profound implications on a country’s (or continent’s) reputation internationally, and potentially slow the perceived progress of any meaningful developments occurring domestically. Almost one-third of all news reported within Africa itself is sourced from abroad, further compounding the risk of perpetuating these harmful stereotypes internally. 

This is not to say that reports of political, economic, or social unrest in Africa are completely unfounded. Notably, the Sahel, Central, and Horn of Africa regions have all recently experienced conflicts that are certainly worthy of international attention. The point of contention for Africa isn’t the reporting of negative stories, but rather the fact that these types of stories are the ones that tend to be deemed international news-worthy. The inevitable result of this overemphasis on strife is the prevalence of over-told and ultimately unrepresentative narratives about these places. Compelling arguments have been made to suggest that many of these issues are not necessarily unique to reporting on Africa but are rather reflective of general deficiencies in global reporting habits. For example, studies have found that depictions by western media outlets of foreign places–particularly those regarded as being at odds with the foreign policy positions of the publication’s home country–lean quite heavily on stereotypes relating to problems such as public corruption, instability, and social repression, sometimes–much like in Africa–at the expense of other important developments in these places that may diverge from these established narratives. What is quite unique to Africa are its particular geopolitical circumstances and its relative maneuverability in this context. As we’ve established, narrative change of the sort required to undo an extensive history of narrowly-scoped reporting is a long and complex process that requires dedicated resources and effort. Even for a country like China, which has undergone a seemingly impossible economic miracle over the last few decades, this process of narrative change to reflect these dramatic developments has been a protracted and contentious one, as incumbent storylines and framings have proven difficult to overcome in western media particularly. In many African countries, where resources to expend on these kinds of priorities are comparatively less abundant–and with likely less dramatic socioeconomic developments to boast over the same period of time–the scale of the challenge is considerable. But for this process to begin at all, Africa must be approached with fresh eyes. 

 

THE CONSEQUENCES OF NARRATIVES

A country’s reputation can have a profound impact on its ability to develop and sustain itself. Insights from the Reputation Institute’s annual RepTrak Index found a strong correlation between gains in a country’s reputational perception and increased economic growth in the form of exports, tourism, investments, migration, and education. Put simply, there are real, tangible costs and benefits associated with country narratives. Furthermore, for the women, young people, and other advocacy groups who have won hard-fought battles to build fairer and more equitable societies where they live, the resistance of these media narratives to the changing realities on the continent serve as a disservice to their efforts, as it diminishes the importance of these victories. 

 

HOW DO NARRATIVES CHANGE?

In considering ways that coverage of Africa can be improved, it is first important to acknowledge that a particular narrative is not created by any single institution or news story. It is rather the result of an entire information ecosystem that over time, over-represents a few narrow interpretations of what is being observed. The solution then is less a push to craft ‘good’ or ‘bad’ narratives in individual stories, but instead working to ensure that the inputs for each story stay consistent and true to the journalistic imperative of uncovering truth. Africa does not require new or specialized methods of coverage, it just needs the news media to approach reporting on the continent with the same rigor and inquisitiveness that is commonly applied to other contexts. These inputs–measures of breadth and depth of coverage, variety in the subject matter of stories, number of different countries reported on, as well as the size and makeup of newsrooms–are helpful standards by which we can gauge the extent to which media narratives, whether positive or negative, are reflective of objective and globally-acknowledged standards of reporting. 

 

THE ROLE OF NEWS MEDIA

Journalists today are facing a crisis of trustworthiness among their audiences. Much of this is the result of a changing global media culture that is increasingly skeptical of–and sometimes downright hostile towards–the kinds of press freedoms that have historically been fundamental to constructing and sustaining strong democratic societies. Charges of ‘fake news’ and accusations of rampant political bias in mainstream news reporting continue to dominate popular discourse, boosted in large part by repressive governments and other influential actors who have determined that a de-legitimized and muddled media environment likely work to stifle popular dissent in their favor. In the context of this tense dynamic, it is important that serious and thoughtful examinations of news media be able to distinguish themselves from these other more antagonistic–and often unfounded–campaigns. The ability to critique institutions of authority is essential, and critiques are more likely to lead to lasting and positive change if they are specific, in good faith, and solutions-oriented.  

 

HOW CAN WE MEASURE NEWSROOM PERFORMANCE?

1. Diversity of Topics: Ensuring that a wider variety of subject matter is covered in stories about Africa contributes to a fuller and more comprehensive representation of the continent, reflecting the complexity and richness of life in these places rather than a disproportionate focus on a narrow range of reductive tropes.

2. Diversity of Sources: The sourcing of context, expertise, or corroboration from a more varied mix of perspectives allows for the development of story narratives that are more insightful and reflective of the robust socio-political and intellectual environment that exists across civil society in Africa.

3. Depth of Coverage: Reporting that places a greater emphasis on the substance and practical significance of stories is ultimately more beneficial to readers. Measures of context, balance, stereotype, and framing help assess the extent to which a story goes beyond fact-stating to providing more informed understanding. 

4. Diversity of Countries: A measure of the number of individual African countries that make up the full catalog of Africa-focused coverage.The continent is home to 54 countries, each with its unique set of priorities, challenges, and concerns. This rich mix of interests needs to be appropriately reflected in the breadth of countries from which stories about the continent are drawn. 

 

WHAT IS RESPONSIBLE MEDIA CRITIQUE?

There are a number of metrics that can be adopted by newsrooms to assess the relative quality of their reporting practices. The Global Media index for Africa (GMI) is designed to be a health-check on the news media’s engagement with the African continent. Far from being a ranking or an exercise in naming and shaming of underperforming institutions, this index aims to encourage an overall shift of the industry towards practices that help assuage concerns over systemic biases in reporting about Africa or, worse, of an irreparably compromised fourth estate. This entails a focus both on highlighting possible areas of improvement as well as aspects of the reporting where publications are excelling. The GMI is  intended as an advocacy tool that will both reflect present conditions of international news reporting while helping to better reflect the present and future of contemporary African life.  

Download the full report here.

 

Tunde Olatunji is the Associate Director of Policy at The Africa Center.

The Global Media Index for Africa is a collaboration between The Africa Center and Africa No Filter that tracks how 20 of the world’s most influential news providers cover Africa. The research and report were produced by researchers at the University of Capetown. 

 

 

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