It's hard out here for us old Africa hands. We are desperate to see more coverage of important stories from the continent and for our neighbors to become more educated about the places where we study and work. Yet when we get that coverage, it tends to make us cringe.
Take, for instance, the current violence in northern Mali. In the last six weeks, Mali has experienced a coup d'état and a declaration of independence from rebels who now loosely control half its territory. The recent conflict has displaced approximately 268,000 people as various groups of Islamists and separatist rebels jostle for control of desert oasis cities as a drought-driven food crisis looms with the arrival of the country's hot season. The situation in Mali is by far the worst unfolding humanitarian crisis in the world today, but compared with say, Syria or Afghanistan, you probably haven't heard much about it.
Or consider the flurry of coverage of Central Africa that followed March's "Kony 2012" phenomenon. First of all, it is frustrating that it takes a viral Internet video or the involvement of Hollywood celebrities to bring attention to the depredations of groups like the Lord's Resistance Army. Even worse, many Africa correspondents file stories that fall prey to pernicious stereotypes and tropes that dehumanize Africans. Mainstream news outlets frequently run stories under headlines like "Land of Mangoes and Joseph Kony," seemingly without thinking how condescending and racist such framing sounds.
Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for "Congo" and "heart of darkness" yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticize the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?
To Africa-watchers, there is a clear double standard for journalistic quality, integrity, and ethics when it comes to reporting on the continent. It's enough to make us want to scream, or at least crawl into a corner and long for the days when Howard French covered West and Central Africa for the New York Times. Although he had to cover some of the continent's worst post-Cold War violence, French's mid-1990s reporting for the Times was nuanced and balanced, and reflected the reality of Africa as a place that is not simply a land of war and poverty, but rather a complex system of societies like any others filled with normal people doing their best to make a life.
Why is there so much bad reporting on Africa? Part of the problem has to do with the limited number of journalists assigned to cover the continent. Many major Western media outlets assign one correspondent for the entire continent -- more than 11 million square miles. He or she will be based in Johannesburg or Nairobi, but be expected to parachute into Niger, Somalia, or wherever the next crisis is unfolding, on a moment's notice. At best, larger publications will have two or three regional Africa correspondents who are each responsible for covering 10 to 15 countries. The wire services tend to have broader reach, but even they cannot station a correspondent in every country.
This is insane. Africa is a continent of 54 distinct states, all with multiple languages and ethnic groups and unique political dynamics. Nowhere else in the world -- not even in undercovered Latin America -- would one person be expected to report on so many complicated situations. Yet in Western media coverage of Africa, such a state of affairs is common. It could be argued that these limits are the product of declining revenues for traditional media outlets in the age of the Internet. It is true that foreign correspondents are expensive and revenues are down, but that ignores the fact that Western media coverage of Africa has always been done this way. Twenty years ago, most major Western media outlets also only had one to three Africa correspondents. Very little has changed.