Africa must break from negative narratives

Despite decades of conflict, death and tragedy, coverage of issues in Africa has often been ignored, oversimplified, or excessively focused on limited aspects. Deeper analysis, background and context has often been lacking, so despite what seems like constant images of starving children in famines, news of billions in aid to Africa from generous donor countries, the background context and analysis is often missing.

The western media has outdated and incorrect beliefs about Africa, the continent is commonly portrayed in global media as underdeveloped, underprivileged and delayed. According To Theresa Lotter, Managing Director of Media Tenor South Africa, “If one is to rely solely on media reports, 2014 was the year of terrorism and disease for the African continent. News of the Ebola epidemic dominated headlines, as did Boko Haram. The repercussions of this is that tourism figures plummeted and investment dissipated as geography was ignored – Ebola infections may have been limited to Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Mali, a mere 5 out of 47 countries, but countries as far south as Botswana were affected by the contagion effect of this  ‘fear reporting’”.

Though there has been greater interest in the continent over the past decade, it seems that simple and even crackpot theories about life in Africa are offered more than airtime – they are given centre stage.

It is the job of the media to scrutinise and analyse, but the public interest is not served well when this responsibility is twisted to perpetuate sinister stereotypes and peddle myths.

Media Tenor, a media research and analysis company will be holding an International Agenda Setting Conference on the 19th-21st of February in Switzerland in order to discuss these pressing issues and pave the way forward for changing perceptions of Africa.

In previous years, perhaps we had no choice but to accept a certain level of ignorance and misrepresented media coverage of Africa but, today, audiences on the continent and beyond demand more nuance, intelligence and balance. At the same time, Africans themselves need to drive their own positive media agenda and take ownership of the stories perpetuated about their continent.

According to research by Media Tenor, based on 104 951 global media reports, 18 197 of the reports focusing on African countries, only received prominent amounts of coverage in global media when the subject matter was negative.

 “This tendency to focus on the negative, while neglecting positive news coverage, is partly due to media sensationalism. Negative stories tend to be more dramatic, and thereby draw the attention of more readers, ” says Michael Matern, Researcher at Media Tenor.

 This trend is obvious when one examines  the dominant African stories of 2014, namely the Ebola outbreak. Reports on Ebola are replete with images of death and the violence of the disease, giving media consumers a real life equivalent of a Hollywood horror movie of alien invaders.

The sensationalist coverage of Ebola that many Western media outlets have conformed to is the idea of Africans as a monolithic block of dangerously diseased people.

While it is important to focus on the immediate crisis, initial coverage of the outbreak completely ignored the stories of the brave African health workers risking their lives to save thousands of their fellow citizens.

The terrorist acts by Boko Haram also generated a global outcry  specifically when 276 school girls were kidnapped by the group. However, positive issues such as Namibia’s successful implementation of electronic elections – the first of its kind in Africa - went almost unnoticed in the global media stage.

Africa’s global reputation reached a peak in 2010 as the world turned its attention to South Africa’s hosting of the FIFA Soccer World Cup. Once this has passed, however, Africa’s reputation began a steady decline as the world once again focused on the challenges faced by the developing continent.

“Africa has been repeatedly victimised by bad news reporting. Breaking free from this convention will be a difficult but necessary task, if Africa is to compete in the global media arena” said Matern.

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