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The Bane of Africa: Incongruent and Careless Journalism

Three ways to read a press article

· Africa

Journalism is a public profession that plays a critical role in helping democracy develop and function. As a common carrier of public discussion, it provides a public forum for criticism and compromise. It also carries with it a responsibility to improve the quality of debate by providing verified information, intellectual rigor and objective reporting. These are essential to the practice of journalism, as discussed by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book The Elements of Journalism (2007).

I greatly admire journalists. They, so to speak, carry the words and images of the world on their shoulders. They influence the way we see the world. So good journalism is far more than simple fact reporting. The profession requires that journalists be expert informants, watchdogs and storytellers, as well as good writers. They are expected to do their job with professionalism, integrity and transparency. Their sense of responsibility should compel them to convey information objectively, accurately, fairly, impartially, and with proportionality.

Unfortunately, bad journalism is all too common when it comes to Africa in the U.S. mainstream press. It is all too common to read articles that either fail to report important news about Africa or report important news shallowly, inaccurately, unfairly, or, more often than not, with a slanted focus. This leaves the average American sorely and dangerously uninformed and Africans sorely and egregiously misrepresented.

The latest example of how anything Africa is poorly reported on is the Washington Post’s March 16 article on the U.S. administration’s stance on global health assistance. The article is very disconcerting.

You can read this article in three different ways, but whichever way you read it, it is incongruent and one more example of careless journalistic writing, careless editing and careless publishing about Africa. I truly expect more of the Washington Post.

If you read it vertically, from headline to featured photograph and its caption to the featured attention-grabbing quote, the resulting conclusion is: bad actors support reproductive rights. The U.S. is building a global antiabortion coalition, and African women line up for … abortion? to join the coalition? No. To vote in “Yola, Nigeria, last year” (the presidential elections were in February 23, 2019!), a country that “supports family-planning” and is among “other bad actors”. Message: a veiled criticism of African women’s prerogative to reproductive rights.

If you read it horizontally, by focusing on key words, the resulting conclusion is: a report on a “key women’s conference” in New York and how the U.S. is tying its foreign aid for women’s empowerment to traditional family-centered values through an “ideological colonization” that condemns abortion, wants to ensure women continue contributing human and social capital through unpaid care and domestic work and backs nontraditional allies with dismal human rights records.

If you read it word-for-word, the resulting conclusion is: a report on two opposing views on family planning worldwide - those against it and for restricted access to reproductive health and rights and those in favor of it and against “gag rules”.

My intention is not to pick on the Washington Post. But I am a subscriber and read it every day in print form. For the most part, the coverage and reporting exemplify good journalism. But when it comes to covering Africa, I am very disappointed and more than a bit irked.

As a “boots-on-the-ground” expert in economic and human development in West Africa, I have had more than one Letter to the Editor ("What spurs this human low", “Do business with Africa – not in Africa”) published in the Washington Post and have posted more than one article (“Shine an Illuminating Light on Africa”, “The Hottest Business Growth Bandwagon", “An Im#BalanceforWorse").

In all of them, I express my dismay with how anything Africa is so tendentiously covered in the mainstream American press and then try to provide a more balanced viewpoint or some constructive criticism.

The article on the Trump administration’s global health coalition could have been a great and informative story about the importance of global health coalitions and how opposing stances on family planning work for or against progress or stagnation in countries like Nigeria. This West African economic and social behemoth has a high fertility rate that is fueling underdevelopment. According to the Nigerian Population Commission, the fertility rate is 5.5% or an average of 6 children born/woman and a 3% annual population growth rate. Even assuming a decline of total fertility rate to 3.7, with a population of more than 195 million, by 2050 the country is expected to grow to over 440 million…in a country that is the same size as Texas. Instead, the article in the Post is one more example of how incongruent and careless journalism has become the bane of Africa.

I recognize that if an article gets a detail wrong it doesn’t mean the fundamental facts are wrong. Journalists work hard, and many of the reasons for reader frustration or disgust are beyond the control of reporters. But presenting fundamental elements of a story (text, photo + caption and attention-grabbing quote) in a careless and sloppy manner not only reflects poorly on the journalists and their publication. It also effectively lowers trust levels and makes readers wary of the rest of future content and ready to seize every misstep.

The overriding objective of a journalist should be to empower readers and viewers to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their country and government. It is also his/her job to inform, educate, and guide about what is happening in the world at large. A great story is one that covers something that is of importance and relevant to their readers. It requires using verification, to ensure it is newsworthy and compelling, as well as reliable storytelling to make it interesting…without distorting it in any way, shape or form.

Good journalism can change the lives of citizens in both small and big ways. Bad journalism can diminish the value of their lives. And that is the crux of the U.S. mainstream media’s failure when reporting on anything Africa: even it involves conscious, systematic verification to produce a “functional truth”, it evidences some deeply ingrained problems: poor or incomplete verification, emphasis on conflict and negative news, lack of context, failure to connect the facts to relevance or misleading connections, perpetuating stereotypes, and even invasion of privacy. The end product: a constantly skewed picture of Africa.

In a world assailed with constant, instant and ubiquitous information and news, there is a growing need for readers to not only defend their right to “real” vs. “fake” news. We also have a responsibility to assess the strength and weaknesses of a news story. and to provide constructive criticism that can help professionals in the field be more sensitive to the experiences and viewpoints of people and organizations outside the traditional professional community of journalists. That’s what Letters to the Editor are for. Some letters I send and get published; others I send and are not published; other times I know they won’t get published and opt to practice my responsibility by posting an article on my web site and on Linkedin. This is one of those times: sent but not published and then developed and posted as a more detailed article.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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