If journalists are the watchers of the state, “Who watches the watchers?” (“Quiscustodietipsoscustodes?”), as the Roman poet Juvenal put it?
Wherever you live in the world, you quickly figure out which news sources to trust, which biases go with which newspapers, TV stations, journalists, reporters, etc. Such media literacy and scepticism is a must. It’s no different in Uganda, where I live, or anywhere in Africa. I assess the value of information on a story-by-story basis, reading between the lines to figure out the difference between what I want to know and what the powers that be want us to know, taking relevant bits and pieces from a range of sources, analyzing and weighing the credibility of whoever’s doing the reporting, all in order to avoid falling for propaganda. It’s the only way to reassure myself I’m getting some semblance of the truth.
But I wonder how Europeans and Americans who get their news about Africa from the international press/TV stations verify what they are reading/hearing if they don’t have a friend in the country they’re reading about. How can they tell when a story is being spiced up just for them when the reality is slightly more banal?
We know that sensational news about Africa is great for the foreign press, especially so now that newspapers are feeling the pinch (because there’s so much free – if sub-standard – news available online). And we know, despite the recent changes of tone in some journals and newspapers, that the default view of Africa for most is still that of a somewhat primitive and pained continent; however unfair that may be, it’s just the way it is, though the consequences are serious: the detrimental effect it has on perceptions of Africans and the continent; the way being portrayed as helpless and in need of aid actually makes some Africans conform to the stereotype; the way this aid fuels corruption, and creates low expectations, and so on.
So I’m always thankful when I see one of the major international news outlets running a series that sheds some positive light on the continent, such as CNN’s African Voices and other similar features and segments that show a different side of Africa, from music to inspirational Africans, creativity and African achievements. However, it would be naïve of anyone to believe that such features will ever be more than token pacifiers to compensate, just a little, for the doom and gloom of Africa-related content and headlines: death, poverty, corruption, disease, coups and struggles.
I have met quite a few “Africa correspondents” in my home country. They are usually put up in nice hotels, with a generous per diem as they cover the story. I’ve met them because they end up talking to people like me, usually in comfortable surroundings far from the location of the troubles they’re hoping to write about, maybe even over a glass of wine. What they want when they talk to people like me is someone on the ground who understands the situation they’re reporting on, or who can at least point them in the right direction. All good journalistic stuff, nonetheless, something gets lost between talking to various sources and actually filing the report. Many of those interviewed say what they think the journalist wants to hear, as if reading from a script titled “breaking news.” I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes: the translator tells the source that they need to speak about Kony attacking Uganda, and lo and behold the source tells them that Kony is attacking Uganda. Tell them what they want to hear and it’s a wrap. I think this happens not because people don’t have opposing opinions, but out of fear. Fear of contradicting government officials, public figures, religious leaders and so on, most especially to the foreign press; few want to be associated with headlines likely to upset their government. It’s different when Ugandans are interviewed by the local press. They know which reporters to avoid, which heartfelt opinions they can safely voice and which ones they’d be better off keeping to themselves, but with an unfamiliar foreign journalist, they just can’t be sure of who they’re talking to and how much it’s safe to divulge.
We are all familiar with those “voice of the people” segments on international and local news programs intended to show diverse viewpoints and differing opinions on a particular subject; now imagine those “diverse” opinions coming from a single questionable source and the resulting “facts” being copied and pasted and used as headlines around the world. Sometimes a source that a foreign reporter deems credible is far from it, and wouldn’t fool a local journalist for a second. I know many local journalists who could write more knowledgeably than foreign journalists about events that are reported on in the international press, and would thrive if given the freedom and opportunity to really practice their craft without intimidation from politicians and government officials with brown envelopes, but they aren’t getting those opportunities. I’m not bashing journalism at large, or foreign correspondents for that matter; there are people that take what they do very seriously, don’t cut corners and make every attempt at non-biased and accurate reporting. And I know it’s harder these days than it once was to report on anything with a high degree of accuracy because the speed with which information travels over social media and the internet puts serious pressures on journalists to create extensively researched pieces in no time at all - editors want stories quickly and the more sensational the better since that makes money and money is tight in these recessionary times – but perhaps foreign journalists ought to always be paired with local journalists when covering a story in Africa. They’ll learn from one another and what ends up in the international media would probably be less sensational.
In 2010, when Ani Dewani was kidnapped and murdered on honeymoon in South Africa, there were differences in the way the incident was reported on depending on whether the newspaper was South African or British. What really happened wasn’t yet clear, and the South African reports tended to describe what the husband had told the police, and generally ended with something about police interviewing the husband and appealing for witnesses. The British reports did the same, but almost always spiced up their report with a paragraph or two about South Africa being dangerous and violent, and some papers, like The Telegraph, used this as an opportunity to run several articles about crime in South Africa and about how dangerous the townships are.
It’s easy to sensationalise such a story because when your readers already associate South Africa with crime, they’re going to lap up stories that strengthen the association. If people are already primed to read the worst about Africa, the temptation is to keep giving them the worst.
South Africa was still beaming from successfully hosting of the World Cup, which I believe is what prompted the speedy response from local media outlets to the way the incident was reported in the British press. And then the story took a dramatic turn when the deceased’s husband, a British citizen, became the prime suspect for the orchestration of the murder. The police chief handling the case at the time stated “You [in Britain] are not crimeless...We should not come here as if we are spotless in our own countries. I’m simply saying we are dealing with an international phenomenon.”
The BBC shot a documentary in Uganda in 2011 in which British DJ Scott Mills interviewed gay men living in Uganda’s slums and titled it The World’s Worst Place To Be Gay. The criminalization of homosexuality in Uganda – and in several other countries in Africa – is indeed a serious issue, but the worst place? Really? How about Saudi Arabia where you can be beheaded for being gay? But can you see the BBC running such a documentary about Saudi Arabia with that title? And nowhere in the documentary was the role of American evangelists in whipping up anti-gay sentiment mentioned. But that title was irresistible to UK rags because their readers were/are prepared to read that the worst of anything is in Africa, and they're prepared for this because they are accustomed to reading/hearing reports that are slanted this way. Of course, this being a report about Africa, the poor living conditions of the interviewees had to be emphasized, as if they lived in such conditions because they were gay.
And how could we forget the meal the international press made of the whole Kony business last year. While everyone was busy speculating about the pros and cons of the campaign, discussing its inaccuracies and wondering where Kony actually was, $13 million in aid funds was allegedly being quietly embezzled by officials in the Ugandan Prime Minister's office. That was the real but less exciting story, as is the story of why aid often encourages corruption, so that people can start to get a better understanding of the context of Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index map.
If all the foreign journalists who wrote about Kony from within Uganda had been paired up with local journalists, would they have caught the embezzlement story? Maybe, maybe not. I have no idea who knew what when, but I’m fairly certain the Kony story would have been less of a distraction from other potential stories. Without the headline opportunities provided by the Kony campaign, what about Uganda would have made the news beyond our country. Probably the same old favourite: the governments’ anti-gay position.
Pairing foreign and local journalists is just one idea for improving the accuracy of reporting and dampening the tendency to sensationalise banal or complex stories, and it might not even be a workable solution, but it’s worth a try. Until that happens, the only solution I can think of for dealing with misinformation or dubious reporting is for regular people like myself to counter the inaccuracies with facts. Thanks to social media and the internet, you don’t have to belong to a massive media conglomerate to have a voice. Aspiring writers, African journalists, Pan-Africanists and whoever else reads something in the paper and thinks, hold on, that’s not quite right, can and should dispute it and challenge the opinion with their own information, facts and opinions. After all, that’s what the news is, a cocktail of facts and opinions that are true or false, accurate or misinformed, and each is merely someone’s version of the truth. You might not have the reach of the major media outlets, but if everyone who has access to the internet and cares about how Africa is covered does their bit to challenge misinformation or lazy reporting, foreign journalists will be forced to raise their game and check their facts, regardless of time pressure. Better late and accurate than early and misleading.