I would like to think that the Committee on African Studies’ decision to hold a panel event entitled “Africa in the Media” together with the Department of African and African American Studies just two weeks after I finished writing an article about the same subject (you can read it here) is more than mere coincidence. Of course I’m biased, but perhaps this convergence reveals the vital importance of Africa’s place in the media’s imagination. The significance of this question – and the controversy that surrounds it – was confirmed by what I overheard walking into the Tsai Auditorium a few minutes before the panel began. Caroline Elkins – perhaps Harvard’s best-known African History professor – said the content was “too sensitive” so it would not be streamed online
Professor Elkins began her introduction with this qualifier, and paused twice during the panel to re-explain it to newcomers (though she never re-introduced the panelists themselves). Her closedness was interesting, particularly since the highlight of the discussion was its emphasis on openness and freedom of the press. Revivifying Africa’s relationship to the media, according to the panel that spoke this afternoon, requires expanding both the depth of investigative reporting and the online accessibility of information.
“Africa in the Media” involved three experts in the field: Firle Davies, a producer for BBC’s African Bureau and a Neuffer Fellow at MIT; Janet Heard, editor of the South African Weekend Argus; and Jeb Sharp, a correspondent for NPR’s “The World.” The discussion began with a profoundly apologetic reflection from Jeb Sharp, whose position in the Western media implicates her in the pessimistic, crisis-driven reporting I described in my article. She admitted that she was “self-conscious” about the “unrelentingly grim” coverage, and that “we need to be doing more and better and fuller coverage of the entire continent.”
Yet, while she claimed that this self-consciousness is “a theme that runs through the newsroom,” her initial solution to the problem – “trying to think collectively about the structures of the way we do journalism to make sure there is better coverage” – was never really fleshed out.
As the discussion moved to the freedom of the press and local media coverage within Africa, precisely what “thinking collectively” about the structure of Western journalism meant remained unclear. In contrast, all three participants constantly referenced the “chaotic” environment of the newsroom as something that constrained the flexibility and depth of their reporting. This enigmatic, structural obstacle – the “chaos” – illustrates the sheer difficulty of repairing Africa’s image. However, two significant, recent developments in the African role in the Western media emerged from the talk that my article did not explicitly consider.
The first was the potential of the Internet to expand the West’s understanding of Africa. As a leveler of geographic and economic differences, the Internet has the potential to democratize information and break the constraints of the narrowing news window in print and on television. When asked by Dr. Elkins how students in the West should read news about Africa, Janet Heard pointed to the online availability of almost every major South African newspaper. Sharp echoed this advice, urging the audience to “go past the filter” and ask experts in the field which online aggregators of news sources across the African continent they use (I personally recommend AllAfrica.com). She also noted how NPR seeks to include online content with its broadcasts. In addition to sharing a two-minute story, they post a series of links to a variety of sources (other newspapers, academic articles, interviews) that provide historical context to ground the short-term snapshot provided by the news story.
The second place of change lies in the FIFA World Cup that will be hosted by South Africa this summer. Heart, as a journalist at the heart of the preparation efforts, said that she was “really positive,” and that “we [Africans] will continue to feel the good effects” long after the cup itself. This is similar to Sharp’s perspective, which emphasized at the very least the Cup will mean a very large contingent of Western journalists will travel to Africa. Hopefully this influx will “feed on itself,” and inspire a lasting interest in the continent in at least some of the journalists. While it would be naïve to place too much faith in the World Cup, it does promise new light will be shed on an all-too dark continent.
These two developments do not negate the point of “Africa: Why Do We Care?” but reinforce it. They emphasize that the strategy to re-conceptualize Africa’s role in the Western imagination will not be able to claim immediate victory. Rather, it requires contingent, particular shifts which work in a positive direction. The Internet and the World Cup exemplify these tactics – however, they are not the end but the beginning.