OPINION: Western Media Mishandle African Stories

The crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 is still being investigated. ( Mulugeta Ayene )

The crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 is still being investigated. (Mulugeta Ayene)

On March 10, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 tragically crashed only six minutes after takeoff. Unsurprisingly, the Western media handled the reporting of the accident poorly. For example, as Hannah Giorgis explained in the Atlantic, the media emphasized unsubstantiated fears about the airline and focused on the deaths of the non-Africans on board. The Wall Street Journal ran a headline titled, “Jet Crash in Africa Kills 157,” not bothering to specify the country in question: Ethiopia.

The news coverage of the crash reminds us of the seemingly endless list of ways the Western media struggles to accurately and ethically recount African news stories.

A recent report by the University of Southern California’s African Narratives project highlights these issues. The authors analyzed around 700,000 hours of U.S. television news and entertainment from March 2018, broadly finding that “Africa and Africans barely register on U.S. television and depictions of Africa are broadly negative.”

In television, only 14 percent of references to Africa were positive, and viewers were seven times more likely to see references to Europe. Furthermore, only five countries received the majority of television attention: Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Seychelles, and Congo account for almost half—49 percent—of all mentions of African countries. Which Congo, you ask? Good question. According to the report, the media rarely distinguish between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo, so “Congo” refers to both countries. Why Seychelles, the continent’s least populous country? News coverage of Robert Mueller’s investigation into a meeting between Trump’s and Putin’s associates in Seychelles sufficed to launch the island country into the top five.

Examples of ethically questionable coverage of the continent abound. Just look at the New York Times’ treatment of the January 2019 terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya. The newspaper published a piece online featuring a close-range photo of two victims, slumped in their seats. The decision to post the picture received wide criticism from Kenyans and Americans alike, who drew comparisons to tragedies in the West where the media provides victims with considerably more dignity.

The media not only struggle with current reporting but also propagate ahistorical accounts of the continent. A new Economist cover-page article begins with the sentence, “The first great surge of foreign interest in Africa, dubbed the ‘scramble’, was when 19th-century European colonists carved up the continent and seized Africans’ land.” It seems the magazine forgot about the transatlantic slave trade.

Journalism offers considerable benefits, including efficiency and accessibility. However, lack of oversight and expertise often accompany the field, especially when compared to academic output, for example.

The media wield significant power to shape how people understand the world. Western journalists should take care to better understand the narratives about Africa—and beyond—that are deeply embedded in society and how they can responsibly treat them. Not only is the accuracy of their news at stake, but so is the dignity of the Africans they report on.