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The Representation of Africa in Western Media: still a 21st century problem

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Abstract

The May 13th, 2000 issue of the Economist, the influential British weekly magazine, has become famous for symbolizing how Africa is represented in the Western media. Aside from that week’s cover, which boldly described Africa as the “Hopeless Continent,” the lead article stated: “The new millennium has brought more disaster than hope to Africa. Worse, the few candles of hope are flickering weakly.” This ‘hopeless’ representation of Africa in the Economist, and indeed in most other Western media outlets, has persisted since the late nineteenth century during the era of slavery and colonialism. Africa has been known as the needy “dark continent” characterized by primeval irrationality, tribal anarchy, civil war, political instability, flagrant corruption, incompetent leadership and managerial ineptitude, hunger, famine and starvation as well as rampant diseases (Michira, 2002). This dominant representation of Africa in the Western media usually ignores the actualities and specificities of social and economic processes that occur in the continent (Jarosz, 1992). This representation also ignores the many political and economic success stories that have been taking place in the continent, especially in the last three decades. Although how Western media represents Africa has received a lot of academic and media coverage over the years, what is remarkable is that the issue stills persists even today. In this dissertation, I will investigate why Western media have chosen to maintain its colonial representation of Africa. I will review relevant literature, presenting different arguments on the representation of Africa in the Western media. I will then argue that Western media’s viewpoint on African issues has outlived its usefulness. My hypothesis is that Western media has chosen to maintain its centuries-old, colonial representation of Africa as a helpless, war-torn, poverty-stricken and corruption-infested continent despite recent political and economic growth and development in Africa.
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REPRESENTATION OF AFRICA IN
WESTERN MEDIA: STILL A 21ST CENTURY
PROBLEM
OGUH, CHUKWUBUIKE HENRY
This dissertation is submitted in part fulfillment of
the regulations for the MA International Journalism
for Media Professionals
Edinburgh Napier University
2015
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Table of contents
Introduction page 3
Literature Review page 5
Analyzing the Stereotypes of Africa in Western Media
Explaining the Persistence of Negative Stereotypes of Africa in Western Media
Defending the Use of Negative Stereotypes on Africa in Western Media
Understanding the Impact of Western Stereotypes of Africa
Abandoning the Use of Western Stereotypes of Africa
Methodology page 27
Original Research/Artefact page 30
Conclusion page 31
Bibliography page 33
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CHAPTER ONE
INTRODUCTION
The May 13th, 2000 issue of the Economist, the
influential British weekly magazine, has become famous
for symbolizing how Africa is represented in the Western
media. Aside from that week’s cover, which boldly
described Africa as the “Hopeless Continent,” the lead
article stated: “The new millennium has brought more
disaster than hope to Africa. Worse, the few candles of
hope are flickering weakly.”
This ‘hopeless’ representation of Africa in the
Economist, and indeed in most other Western media
outlets, has persisted since the late nineteenth century
during the era of slavery and colonialism. Africa has
been known as the needy “dark continent” characterized
by primeval irrationality, tribal anarchy, civil war,
political instability, flagrant corruption, incompetent
leadership and managerial ineptitude, hunger, famine and
starvation as well as rampant diseases (Michira, 2002).
This dominant representation of Africa in the Western
media usually ignores the actualities and specificities of
social and economic processes that occur in the continent
(Jarosz, 1992). This representation also ignores the many
political and economic success stories that have been
taking place in the continent, especially in the last three
decades.
Although how Western media represents Africa has
received a lot of academic and media coverage over the
years, what is remarkable is that the issue stills persists
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even today. In this dissertation, I will investigate why
Western media have chosen to maintain its colonial
representation of Africa. I will review relevant literature,
presenting different arguments on the representation of
Africa in the Western media. I will then argue that
Western media’s viewpoint on African issues has
outlived its usefulness.
My hypothesis is that Western media has chosen to
maintain its centuries-old, colonial representation of
Africa as a helpless, war-torn, poverty-stricken and
corruption-infested continent despite recent political and
economic growth and development in Africa.
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CHAPTER TWO
LITERATURE REVIEW
In its research into how the British people view the
developing world, the British charity – Voluntary Service
Overseas (VSO) – identified what it called the Live Aid
Legacy. VSO stated that the legacy is that ‘80% of the
British public strongly associate the developing world
with doom-laden images of famine, disaster and Western
aid’ (VSO, 2001). VSO also found that when UK media
consumers think of the developing world, Africa is their
stating point (p 5). The VSO report blamed the UK
media for creating the widespread perception that people
in the developing world – particularly Africa countries –
are victims, less than human and inferior (p 3).
Even though the VSO’s research was conducted over a
decade ago, its findings are still valid today. More recent
studies such as Harth (2012), Ayisi and Brylla (2013),
Asante (2013) and Poncian (2015) have confirmed that
Western media have continued to create images of Africa
that portray her as reductive, dependent and crisis-ridden.
Yet, this Western representation of Africa did not begin
in this decade – or even in this century. Wa’Njogu
(2009) stated that the history of the representation of
Africa in Western media could be traced back to the
earliest accounts of ancient history. In the 5th century BC,
the Greek historian Herodotus wrote The Histories,
which portrayed Africa as inhabited by savage and even
non-human creatures and, by comparison, presenting the
Greeks and Caucasians as the epitome of creation (p 2).
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After Herodotus, subsequent authors carried down his
stereotypes on Africa through the years until they were
reaffirmed in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution,
which was published in the mid-nineteenth century.
Wa’Njogu (2009) stated that Darwin claimed in his
famous book – The Origin of the Species by Means of
Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured
Races in the Struggle for Life – that Africans were still
evolving and therefore did not fall within the ‘favoured
races’ category with the same status enjoyed by
Europeans.
Darwin’s commentary on Africa laid the foundation for
several European explorers, missionaries, and literary
authors who provided the media images of Africa in the
late nineteenth century. Jarosz (1992) stated that the
metaphor “Dark Continent,” which is commonly used to
describe Africa in Western media even today, first
appeared around this time. In 1878, Henry M. Stanley,
the famous Welsh journalist and explorer, published an
account of his journey on the Zambezi River titled
Through the Dark Continent. Stanley wrote:
“I felt my heart suffused with purest gratitude to Him
whose hand had protected us, and who had enabled us to
pierce the Dark Continent from east to west, and to trace
its mightiest river to the ocean bourne,” (p 106).
Joseph Conrad, the famous Polish novelist, also wrote in
his famous novel – Heart of Darkness (1899):
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“Africa has become a place of darkness . . . And as I
looked at the map of it in a shop-window it fascinated me
as a snake would a bird – a silly little bird,” (p 107).
Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe stated that Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness portrayed the image of Africa as "the
other world," the antithesis of Europe and therefore of
civilization, a place where man's vaunted intelligence
and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant
bestiality (Achebe, 1977).
Wa’Njoga (2009) stated that the writings of these
nineteenth authors prepared the ground for twentieth
century Western journalists and academics to continue
their negative portrayal of Africa during the colonial and
post-colonial era. Biney (1997) concurred, stating that
with the formal independence of most African countries
in the 1950s and ’60s, anthropologists and modernization
theorists helped to portray a view of Africa as being
“emergent Africa.” The 1970s saw an image of
“dependent Africa,” advocated by the dependency
theorists who used the concept and theory of dependence
in analyzing Latin America, to understand Africa’s
underdevelopment. In the 1980s and ’90s Africa has not
only been portrayed has dependent Africa but as “crisis
and pitiable Africa” (p 1). Perhaps these widespread
images of Africa prompted the editors of the Economist
to label the continent, the “hopeless continent,” at the
very beginning of the 21st century.
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Analyzing the Stereotypes of Africa in Western
Media
In her TED talk at Oxford in 2009, Nigerian writer
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the dangers of
a single story. Adichie stated that a single story creates
stereotypes, which are not just untrue, but also
incomplete. “They make one story become the only
story,” (Adichie, 2009).
Indeed, the popular stereotypes of Africa in Western
media have essentially turned the continent into a one-
story issue. There are hardly any positive stories about
Africa except stories of war, danger, darkness, violence,
poverty, disease, and hopelessness. Michira (2002) stated
that Africa is often portrayed as a homogenous entity
comprising uncivilized and heathen peoples who are
culturally, intellectually, politically, and technically
backward or inferior.
Several studies – both old and fairly recent – have
confirmed that Western media does portray Africa in a
negative light.
Schraeder and Endless (1998), for instance, investigated
the portrayal of Africa by The New York Times between
1955 and 1995 and found that “73 percent of all articles
provided negative images of African politics and society”
(p 32). The researchers also found that in 1955 images
were mainly “negative” at 67 percent, this trend reached
92 percent in 1985 and 85 percent in 1995. In a similar
study by the Biko et al. (2000), the researchers analyzed
The New York Times and The Washington Post coverage
of Africa between March and mid-August of 2000 and
found that out of 89 stories 84 percent were ‘negative’.
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The researchers concluded that “judging from the
disproportionate reporting of ‘negative’ news over
‘positive’ news, there is an imbalance in the reporting
of news from the African continent.” All these studies
used the broad word “negative” to group all the African
stereotypes in Western media. This lack of specificity
makes it difficult to analyze the kind of stereotypes often
used by Western media to portray Africa.
However, researchers such as Harth (2012) have
attempted to categorize the stereotypes of Africa
commonly most used by Western media. She stated that
these stereotypes are not just vague, but founded on
several myths that support the tone and message of the
stereotypes. She identified ten myths that categorized
most stereotypes that are commonly associated with
Africa in Western media. The myth of lack of progress
promotes the idea that Africans are backward and
isolated from global processes without any significant
contributions to technology, trade, art, history, or politics
(p 12). The myth of timeless present promotes the idea
that Africa is a place that has not evolved and remains
largely unchanged compared to other developed places in
Europe and America. In the myth of the primitive or
exotic, African customs, culture, and traditions are often
glorified as “exotic,” almost primitive, and subtly
inferior. It may appear as if Western media may be
celebrating African heritage with these kinds of
stereotypes, but the underlying message may be
celebrating African inferiority (p 13). The myth of
tradition or ritual regards African traditions,
ceremonies and rituals as static, constant or unchanging
rather than dynamic. Myths of African continuity
suggest that Africa is homogenous and undifferentiated.
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Thus, Western media don’t normally regard Africans as
different from one another and their disputes with each
other as legitimate reasons for wanting self-rule and
independent nations (p 15). Myths of lack of history
state that since Africa is a static place, it cannot have
history because history changes over time. According to
this myth, Africa’s history arose from colonization
efforts of Westerners. Myths about Africa’s geography
suggest that Africa is a jungle or desert without modern
cities. However, this notion is simply erroneous because
only 5 percent of Africa’s landmass is considered to be a
jungle or desert (p 15). Myths about Africa’s
population promote two contradictory notions that
Africa is either over-populated or under-populated. In the
first notion, Africa is portrayed as over-populated
because of excessive childbearing arising from
irresponsible and uncontrolled sexual activity. The
second notion suggests that Africa is under-populated
because many people are dying of killer diseases such as
AIDS. However, these notions are inaccurate. Firstly, the
notion that Africa is overpopulated is simply wrong: the
population density for Africa is about 65 people per
square mile while the population density of the U.S. is 76
people per square mile and the population density of
Asia is 203 people per square mile. Secondly, the notion
that Africa is under-populated because of AIDS and
other deadly diseases fails to acknowledge the largely
successful efforts of African governments, supported by
international aid agencies, in combatting killer diseases
(p 17). Myths about poverty in Africa promotes the
idea that most Africans are poor and helpless except for
corrupt generals or politicians and business people.
However, the reality is that Africa has a diverse
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distribution of wealth. Indeed, about 50 percent of sub-
Saharan Africa’s population lives on less than $1.25 per
day, according to the Word Bank. But sub-Saharan
Africa’s middle class has tripled in the last 30 years,
reaching 35 percent of the population, according to
figures from Delloite and Touche (2012). Myths about
Africa’s hopelessness evidences itself when Western
media decide that Africa is not worth their time; Africa is
a lost cause, or Africa cannot be a valuable part of global
decision making. However, the same cannot be said
about other developing countries in Latin America or
Asia. There are hardly any stories of hope, success, and
happiness from Africa unlike other developing countries
(p 18).
Mezzana (2003) has proffered some suggestions on the
procedures and practices most Western media use to
produce certain representations of the African continent.
These include: (1) processes of selection/omission of
news items connected to the cultural, organizational and
professional mechanisms of the so-called “agenda
setting”; (2) “de-contextualization”, which is the kind of
reporting that strips facts about Africa of any historical,
social, political, cultural or economic background
information; (3) “evenemential” approach, which is the
highest degree of sensationalism whereby when speaking
about Africa, only crises, wars, famines, epidemics, etc.
are reported; (4) dramatization or description of events in
Africa only in terms of dual conflicts between
individuals or groups; (5) over-simplification or
attribution of events in Africa to clichéd or shallow
schemes; (6) dehumanization or elimination of the actors
in favour of entities or abstract processes or stereotypes;
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(7) excessive personalization or individualization that
can trigger off “leaderism” (this occurs when national
government leaders are placed in the limelight but the
role of civil society is placed in the shade); (8) the use of
simple binary oppositions to describe complex situations
(e.g. primitive/modern); (9) the use of synecdoche (i.e. a
figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole) e.g.
when populations such as the Maasai are used to
represent the entire African continent; and (10) the abuse
of specific terms, for example use of words like “tribal”,
“primitive”, “animism”, “savage”, or “jungle.”
Explaining the Persistence of Negative Stereotypes of
Africa in Western Media
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Poncian (2015) stated
that European colonial powers created and disseminated
negative images about Africa in order to justify their
activities and domination of Africa. But given the fact
that these negative images still persist even in the 21st
century, the author observed that other factors could be
responsible for the phenomenon more than the European
portrayal of Africans (p 74). Indeed, several scholars
have proffered diverse reasons why centuries-old,
negative images of Africa have continued to be
propagated in Western media.
Susan Moeller (1999), the author wrote the widely
acclaimed book – Compassion Fatigue: How the Media
Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death –, blames
American media outlets for promoting crises and
disasters using “formulaic reporting” (or stereotypes),
sensationalism and references to American cultural icons
in order to capture and hold the attention of audiences
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(Moeller, 1999). She stated: “The operating principle
behind much of the news business is to appeal to an
audience – especially a large audience – with attractive
demographics for advertisers.” In other words, Western
media sensationalizes Africa and other developing
regions in order to command their audience’s attention to
satisfy commercial interests. Moeller added: “As
journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair,
nearly all reporting on Africa is a pastiche of Evelyn
Waugh's Scoop and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
(p 13). Michira (2002) agreed with Moeller’s
observation, stating that most Western media outlets are
corporations, which are driven by the profit motive. As a
result, commercial interests often shape Western
portrayal of world events. Michira (2002) stated that
when Western media outlets select stories that only sell
and omit those that cannot, the results is what he called
“crisis-driven journalism”, which churns out news faster
and faster with headline-seeking superficial coverage that
seizes on the outrageous, the dramatic and the
exceptional without bothering to place it in its proper
context.
Academic analysis and writings about Africa may also be
responsible for the persistence of a negative image of
Africa in Western media. Poncian (2015) argued that
numerous Western books have cover images and titles,
which paint a negative image of Africa even if the
writers do not intend to malign the continent. He listed
some books such as The Trouble with Africa (Calderisi,
2007), Africa in Chaos (Ayittey, 1999), Africa Betrayed
(Ayittey, 1992), No Refuge: The Crisis of Refugee
Militarization in Africa (Muggah, 2006), and Everyday
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Corruption and the State: Citizens and Public Officials
in Africa (Blundo & de Sardan, 2006). Poncian (2015)
stated that writers and publishers often try to sell their
books by using negative images about Africa to capture
the attention of readers (p 75). Michira (2002) also made
similar arguments regarding the treatment of Africa in
Western academic writings. He argued that Western
students are rarely exposed to literature containing
accurate information about African history and
geography. He stated that textbooks that cover Africa in
Western schools only perpetuate popular stereotypes of
the continent using popular terminologies with featured
pictures of “wild” and “exotic” Africa where animals
take center stage. According to Quist-Adade and Van
Wyk (2007), the main reason for this portrayal of Africa
in Western academia is that Western educational system
in general, and the North American system in particular,
treat other cultures and histories as peripheral and
inferior. The researchers noted that most Western
educational systems are essentially rooted in the Greco-
Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions as well as
European history, which assumes that the West is the
exemplar of humanity and progress while the rest of the
world should inevitably follow the same developmental
path (p 86).
Perhaps the greatest reason for the persistence of
negative images of Africa in Western media is the
foreign policy of Western countries and the activities of
non-governmental agencies as well as other institutions
committed to humanitarian aid. Asgede Hagos (2000) –
who investigated the relationship between the U.S. press
and the American state on issues relating to Africa,
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especially during the decolonization efforts in the 1980s
and ‘90s – argued that the US media neglects Africa
because it is of minor strategic importance to the foreign
policy of the United States government. Hagos stated
that Africa only receives media coverage in the U.S.
press when the events suit the U.S. government’s foreign
policy or strategic interests. This researcher’s
observation is even truer today compared to the period of
his study, which focused on the national liberation
movements in South Africa, Eritrea and Western Sahara
in the 1980s. Today, in keeping with the global anti-
terrorism policy of the U.S. government (and most other
Western countries), Western media focuses on events in
Africa such as Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, Al
Shabab militants in Somalia, Islamic State militants in
Libya, etc. Furthermore, the worldwide media attention
that some West African countries received during the
Ebola crisis in 2014 also demonstrates this phenomenon.
In the addition to the foreign policy of Western
governments, the activities of non-governmental
agencies (NGOs) and other humanitarian institutions also
result in the persistence of negative images of Africa in
Western media. Poncian (2015) stated that most NGOs,
in their quest to raise funds for their administrative and
humanitarian activities, strategically use images of child
soldiers, emaciated children, slums, dirt, etc. to prompt
viewers in Western countries to donate funds. Gidley
(2005) aptly describes this strategy as circulating
“development pornography” – a kind of perverse
enjoyment people get out of viewing other people’s
suffering. Quist-Adade and van Wyk (2007) – who
studied the activities of North American NGOs in Africa
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– stated that the current preoccupation of these NGOs
with propagating “development pornography” to raise
funds, leave viewers with a very negative image of
Africa. They stated:
Graphic and manifest depictions of poverty, projected on
a mass scale by an increasing number of organizations
over a long period of time, cannot but have an impact on
the consciousness of the target audience (p 80).
The researchers argued that though the NGOs may have
good intentions during their “development pornography”
campaigns, this strategy sets the law of unintended
consequences to work. They noted:
The implicit message of “development pornography” is
that without Western aid, charities, and donor support,
Africans will soon be extinct from starvation and disease
(p 80).
The researchers added that these “truncated” and
“simplistic” messages reinforce and entrench existing
stereotypes as well as strip Africans of their dignity and
humanity, and spawn racial prejudice.
Defending the Use of Negative Stereotypes on Africa
in Western Media
Several scholars have dismissed the arguments that
Western media creates and propagates stereotypes about
Africa. Martin Scott (2009), who has written extensively
on this subject, stated that the notion that Western media
wrongly misrepresents Africa has been overstated. In a
recent article published by the Huffington Post, this
researcher noted:
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The central narrative in almost all of this commentary
begins with a series of broad claims about how Western
news coverage of Africa is stereotypical, ‘negative,’
sporadic, marginalized, inaccurate and/or lacking in
context and analysis. These sweeping statements are then
seemingly supported with an anecdote or example –
usually drawing on the very worst recent examples of
coverage. The argument then quickly moves on to
offering explanations for this ‘negative’ coverage.
Reference is usually made to geopolitical interests and
journalistic routines and practices. The narrative ends
with an appeal for future coverage to better reflect the
‘true’ face of Africa (Scott, 2012).
The researcher stated that what is almost entirely missing
from the narrative above, as well as from most academic
research into the issue, is robust empirical evidence. To
prove his point, Scott (2009) conducted a content
analysis of six of the most widely read UK newspapers –
The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily
Express, The Sun and Daily Mirror – from June 4 to 18,
2007 (p 536). The researcher compared the number of
articles covering Africa with coverage for China and the
USA. He said he chose these two countries because they
both received relatively large amounts of coverage in the
UK press (p 537). His results showed that African affairs
were the subject of 155 articles, US affairs were the
subject of 292 articles, and Chinese affairs were the
subject of 74 articles over the fifteen-day period. Out of
the articles covering African affairs, the researcher found
that only 23 percent covered negative topics such as civil
conflict. He also found that African articles were often
fairly large and five out of the six newspapers had an
African article on their front page. From these results, the
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researcher concluded that, in terms of the amount,
positioning, and the type of articles, the character of the
UK press coverage of Africa is “encouraging.” He stated
that UK press coverage is not as marginalized, negative,
and trivial as it is widely accused of being (p 554).
The biggest flaw of Scott (2009)’s arguments and
research data, in my opinion, is that he conducted his
research over a short period of time – just fifteen days! In
fact, the researcher noted in his report that “the small
sample period used in this investigation does present
problems regarding the reliability of results” (p 537).
Given the fact that Western media has negatively
portrayed Africa for centuries, I think that it is
inadequate to present contrary arguments and research
after observing the phenomenon for just a few days.
In my opinion, the strongest defense against the
widespread criticisms of Western media’s portrayal of
Africa is the fact that horrific events – war, famine,
diseases, corruption, etc – are indeed occurring in the
continent on a large scale. As Robert Guest (2004), a
former Africa editor for the Economist, is quoted as
saying in his book – The Shackled Continent: Africa’s
Past, Present and Future –: “The reason (journalists)
report that Africa is plagued by war, famine and
pestilence is that Africa is plagued by war, famine and
pestilence. They will stop reporting this when it stops
being true,” (Nothias, 2013). Robert Martin (1994), a
Canadian law professor, has also dismissed most
criticisms of Western coverage of Africa. In his review
of Africa’s Media Image (1992), a landmark book on
Western portrayal of Africa, Martin (1994) wondered
why the book’s editor – Beverly Hawk – would say that
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Western coverage of Africa emphasizes poverty, disease
and famine “as if poverty, disease, and famine were
inventions of the media and not concrete realities which
afflict millions of African men, women, and children” (p
184). Martin (1994) stated:
What we have here is an example of victim-oriented
writing. Facts are beside the point; what is important is
expressing how awful things are, as well as the power
and implacability of the forces which beset the helpless
victim (p 184).
More on this point, Poncian (2015) stated that Africans,
rather than Westerners, are to blame for the portrayal of
Africa in Western media. The author stated that although
war, political instabilities and corruption does not define
Africa in its entirety, the fact that these events still occur
negatively affects the perception of the continent (p 76).
For instance, the author stated, Transparency
International ranks Africa as the most corrupt region in
the world, with the continent losing about 25 percent of
its GDP or about $148 billion to corruption every year.
Over the last 40 years more than 20 African countries
have experienced at least one period of civil war. It is
estimated that 20 percent of the population in sub-
Saharan Africa live in countries that are formally at war
(p 76). It is reported that the official development
assistance to sub-Saharan Africa was equivalent to about
12 percent of the continent’s Gross National Income
(excluding Nigeria and South Africa) in 2005 (p 76).
Given all these grim realities in Africa, Poncian (2015)
concluded that it would be difficult for Africa to have a
positive image in Western media. He stated:
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Nowhere in Africa has a conflict been imposed from
outside the country. Wars and instabilities have therefore
been triggered and sustained by the Africans themselves.
As such, it is not surprising to see the West continuing to
perceive the continent negatively (p 77).
Despite these arguments, what is clear is that Africa is
not the only continent where war, disease, and famine
occur on a large scale. Most parts of Latin America, the
Middle East, and Asia have also suffered, and are still
suffering, from conflict, corruption, diseases, etc.
However, these regions have never been labeled
“hopeless,” “helpless” and “dependent.” Ogazi (2010)
stated my point in this way:
In my lifetime, no other continent has been so adversely
portrayed in Western media as Africa. What happened to
objectivity and fairness, and a responsibility to inform
and educate the public about other people and their
culture, and way of life which breed mutual respect,
reduce tensions, racism and injustice? (p 38).
By giving undue attention to the calamities in Africa,
Western media has largely failed to educate the world
about the diversity, uniqueness, and potential of the
African continent.
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Understanding the Impact of Western Stereotypes of
Africa
Several scholars have offered numerous suggestions on
the consequences of Western portrayals of Africa. These
critics have suggested that the phenomenon leads to
misinformation, stereotyping, validation of white
privilege, excessive fear of foreigners (Seay and Dionne,
2014) and even mishandled foreign policy interventions
(Besteman, 1996). According to Baker (2015), the list of
purported consequences has now become so long it is
almost internally contradictory. For instance, Jeffrey
Sachs (2005), a leading proponent of Western aid
regime, attributed what he saw as a shortfall in aid
funding to “an amazing reservoir of deep prejudices”
toward Africans that has “become accepted as truths by
the broad public.” By contrast, William Easterly (2006)
(in addition to other African intellectuals such as Moyo
[2009] and Wainaina [2005]), have criticized
“paternalistic” sentiments, suggesting that the Western
aid is needed to “save” or “fix” Africa. Despite these
intense debates about the impact of Western portrayals of
Africa, there have been very few studies that attempted
to provide empirical evidence to substantiate their
arguments.
Baker (2015) has attempted to shed light into this grey
area by studying the impact of Western media narratives
on white Americans’ attitudes toward Africans as well as
the manner in which these attitudes shape their opinions
about aid. In her study, he conducted two different
Internet-based surveys in 2011 and 2012 on 3,031 non-
Latino white Americans. In the first experiment, a
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random selection of respondents viewed a photograph of
a poor black family from Cameroon while another set of
respondents viewed a photograph of a white family from
Moldova. In an effort to isolate the impact of race and
hold objective need constant, the researcher told both
sets of respondents that the average person in both
countries live on $5 per day (p 5). Respondents then
answered a series of questions about the poor in foreign
countries and about international aid. The results showed
that respondents in the Cameroonian treatment group
were more likely than those in the Moldovan treatment
group to agree with statements such as this: “There is
little people in poor countries can do by themselves to
improve their livelihoods.”
The second experiment was designed like the first one:
one group of respondents seeing a photograph of a white
family and the other the photography of a black family.
The only difference was that the countries involved were
Armenia and Guyana. The researcher said he chose these
countries to protect against claims that the first
experiment had discovered a stereotype about Africans
but not blacks (p 6). Nevertheless, this experiment
returned the same result as the first one. The respondents
who saw the black family were more likely to agree with
statements such as this one: “When it comes to
improving their economic standard of living, people in
poor countries are like extremely sick or paralyzed
patients; they are completely unable to help themselves.”
Given these results, the researcher concluded that the
photograph of the black families, whether Cameroonian
or Guyanese, “prompt pushed” white respondents to
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23!
perceive less agency – less capacity for self-improving
action – among the foreign poor. The researcher also
stated that the photograph of the black families generated
high levels of “paternalistic” thinking toward foreigners
of African descent, which led to less opposition to
foreign aid. However, the respondents’ generosity toward
black foreigners faded away in the face of information
that black recipients were not “paternalistically”
controlled i.e. given freedom to use aid-funded benefits.
The researcher quoted Vandeveer (1986) who defined
paternalism as the notion that the actions or preferences
of certain persons require interference from others, on
the basis that such persons cannot be trusted to do right
by themselves or others if left to their own devices (p 3).
The researcher stated that her findings reveal a rare case
of greater generosity to one’s “racial out-group” than to
one’s “racial in-group.” Nevertheless, this generosity
does not mean that prejudice is absent. On the contrary, it
is grounded in a widespread underestimation of Africans’
and Caribbean’s agency stemming from the
“pornography of violence” (Zachary, 2006),
impoverishment and helplessness propagated by Western
media (p 14).
From Baker (2015)’s findings, it is clear that one of the
greatest impact of Western media narratives of Africa is
the persistent flow of development aid to the continent
via aid agencies – or the White Saviour Industrial
Complex as termed by Nigerian-American writer, Teju
Cole (2012). Indeed, this flow of Western aid to Africa
has helped the continent combat killer diseases such as
Ebola, malaria, polio, AIDS, etc. But more Africans still
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live in poverty today despite the $1 trillion in
development aid that has been spent on the continent in
the last 60 years (Moyo, 2009). What Africa really needs
is investment to create jobs and combat poverty, which is
the root cause of most killer diseases. And Africa will
not attract significant foreign capital if Western media
keeps portraying the continent as a place of lack and
need rather than a place of potential and opportunity.
Abandoning the Use of Western Stereotypes of Africa
Many scholars have offered numerous suggestions on
how Western media can change its current portrayal of
Africa. But the snag in all these research is that scholars
don’t usually support their arguments with solid
empirical evidence.
For instance, Mezzana (2009) offered several
recommendations for deconstructing Western stereotypes
on Africa. She advocated for using sensitization and
education programs involving the Western public. The
author stated that these programs could promote the
desire to have better in-depth and qualified information
on the African reality. Furthermore, she said these
programs should also involve journalists working in
news organizations. According to the author, news
organizations should select correspondents who have
lived and worked in Africa, or those who intend staying
there some time. More so, Western news organizations
should train their journalists via training courses on
history, African culture courses, methods for selecting
and handing news; African reporters should also be
trained not only professional updating courses but also
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25!
special courses to revive cultural identity and social
responsibility. Finally, the author recommended the
creation of a “real and proper” international ombudsman,
who is able to put forward a benchmark for analysis and
accurate intervention on the image of Africa. Then the
author advised Western journalists to create a network of
“friends of Africa”, especially African diaspora, who
have committed themselves to spread a more exact image
of the continent.
As earlier stated, most of Mezzana (2009)’s suggestions
are vague and mostly impractical for real-world
journalists dealing with deadline pressures, reduced
budgets and security risks. An international ombudsman
will be largely shunned by most international news
organizations and it could be too expensive for these
cost-cutting media houses to create programs for
sensitizing or educating their audiences. However, I
believe that Western “parachute” journalists would be
better equipped to put African stories in proper context
when they are taught African history, culture and
politics.
Wa’ Njogu (2009) proffered what I consider to be the
best suggestions for dealing with the issue of Western
portrayal of Africa. He advised Western news
organizations to hire more Africans into their
newsrooms. He said that even though there is no
guarantee that African recruits would produce better
coverage of Africa, but this strategy could have an effect
when such reporters move into management positions.
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26!
It is a fact that ethnic minorities, including Africans, are
largely underrepresented in Western newsrooms. Ainley
(1998), quoted in Mellor (2012), stated that in the mid-
1990s only 1.8 percent of members of the British
journalists union were non-white, and only 15 percent of
8,000 on local journalists are black. This lack of diversity
in most Western newsrooms certainly contributes to the
misrepresentation of Africa in Western coverage. I
believe that if more Africans are allowed to cover their
continent, either as full-time staff or freelancers, Western
media reports will be better balanced.
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CHAPTER THREE
METHODOLOGY
In this production dissertation, the method of research is
the production of an artefact. I have argued that Western
media continue to use centuries-old stereotypes of Africa
in their coverage of the continent. The purpose of my
artefact is to challenge these outdated stereotypes by
presenting an image of modern Africa that places its
problems in proper context, devoid of all the hype around
famine, diseases, and war stories mostly seen in Western
media.
The focus of my artefact will be on Nigeria – the country
I consider to be the perfect African country for
challenging Western media’s stereotypes on Africa.
Although Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and
its largest economy, the majority of Western coverage of
the country focuses on the Boko Haram crisis that
currently ravages its remote northeastern regions. There
is hardly any mention in Western media of Nigeria’s
remarkable progress in many areas of its developing
economy. Consequently, in my artefact, I would attempt
to showcase modern Nigeria and its achievements in
areas such as telecommunications, financial services,
consumer goods etc.
I initially planned to film a short documentary by
interviewing major industry leaders in Nigeria. But the
constraints of time and availability of good equipment
prevented me from pursuing this objective. After seeking
advice from the module leader and fellow students, I
decided to write about six magazine articles on Nigeria.
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28!
My artefact has been presented on Medium, the popular
blog publishing platform, as a special feature on Nigeria
– highlighting major sectors of the economy. I believe
that a website is an ideal platform for presenting my
artefact because audiences can easily consume and
access its content using either mobile devices or desktop
computers. Thus, my artefact would be potentially
accessible to the nearly two billion smartphone users and
the 1.7 billion desktop users worldwide. In Nigeria alone,
my artefact could potentially reach half of the over 150
million Nigerian mobile users who can surf the Internet
and a third of the 170 million Nigerians who have access
to broadband Internet.
Aside from accessibility, a web platform can be easily
promoted and marketed via social media channels, search
engines, blogs etc. By sharing my artefact on social
media, for instance, it could reach a potential audience of
about 1.5 billion people on Facebook and about 300
million people on Twitter. In Nigeria, my artefact could
reach the 15 million active Facebook users and the three
million active Twitter users. With the help of search
engine optimization, I could position my artefact to draw
readers from the billions of people who use Google
everyday.
Unlike film, a web platform allows constant editing and
modification after my artefact has been published. Thus,
I can update or adapt my content, if need be, making it
more relevant to audiences over time.
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29!
Having said all this, I must also give some reasons why I
chose to publish my artefact on Medium, the blog
publishing platform, rather than on a conventional
Wordpress-based platform. I chose Medium because I
can easily present my artefact as a special feature,
consisting of inter-linked articles, rather than just
individual posts. With Medium, my artefact could also
reach a ready-made audience of writers and readers, who
spend 1.5 million hours on the platform every month.
Furthermore, Medium provides a uniform, professional
layout without adding themes or widgets, as is the case in
Wordpress.
!
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CHAPTER FOUR
ARTEFACT
My special feature on Nigeria can be assessed via the
link below:
Rising from the doldrums: a special look at some sectors
of Nigeria’s fast growing economy.
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31!
CHAPTER FIVE
CONCLUSION
Africa has a poor image in Western media. For centuries, the
continent has been depicted as a poor, aid-dependent, disease-
riden, unstable, resource-cursed, war-torn 'dark continent' that is
unfortunately polluted with about 10 percent of the World's
population. As Chavis (1998) said:
With the stroke of a journalist's pen, the African, her continent,
and her descendants are pejoratively reduced to nothing: a
bastion of disease, savagery, animism, pestilence, war, famine,
despotism, primitivism, poverty, and ubiquitous images of
children, flies in their food and faces, their stomachs distended.
In this dissertation, I have argued that Western media’s
representation of Africa has not changed despite recent political
and economic developments in the continent. Again Chavis
(1998) aptly stated:
Little is said about Africa's strategic importance to so called
industrialized nations; her indispensability and relevance to
world development, global technology, and the wealth of
nations, derived from involuntary African largesse, are not
acclaimed in the media.
Rothmeyer (2011) states that the consequences of this skewed or
incomplete reporting on Africa are not just a disservice to
readers but also a negative influence on government policy.
Indeed, Western governments have given African countries over
$1 trillion in aid to Africa in the last 50 years with mixed results
(Moyo, 2009).
Yet, as Africa continues on the path of growth and prosperity,
Western governments must begin to treat Africa as a reliable
trade partner, not a recurrent aid recipient. This will begin to
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32!
happen when Western media raise up to their responsibilities to
inform their audiences about Africa by putting her problems and
challenges are placed in proper context.
!
33!
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