Bad news syndrome

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions.

Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

The above are not my words but those of a friend satirising how western media views and reports Africa. To the average westerner, Africa is synonymous with war, famine, disease and all kinds of disaster. This image is reinforced by what has become known as the ‘bad news syndrome’, under which all  the positive developments taking place on the continent are not deemed to be newsworthy and therefore go unreported.

This practice is underpinned by the so-called aid and international charity organisations that bombard the western psyche with constant images war, famine, disease or disaster-stricken men, women and children on television screens on an almost daily basis.  As an African, I find such reports misleading and often insulting. And as a journalist, I deem such subjective reportage as professionally bankrupt. It is said that no news is good news. But I often ask, is all good news bad?

According to a survey by the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2011 that measures the relative position of nations’ and regions’ peacefulness, there was a dearth of reporting on the successful African countries last year. Botswana, Africa’s highest scoring country on the GPI received a total of three reports, Malawi (two reports), Ghana (eight reports) and Mozambique (15 reports). Coverage on these countries spread across 29 networks from 11 countries in a one-year period.

‘In other words, it is unlikely that television viewers around the world would have had any other opinion about these countries but existing stereotype,’ the GPI said. Mozambique, in particular, is suffering from the perception created by massive floods in 2002, which has seen devastation and social impacts. The reality, however, is that the country has since not just recovered, but shown excellent signs of economic success.

Taking the historical events in North Africa last year as a case study, it would be easy to attribute the extensive focus on instability issues to the intense coverage of the Arab Spring. However, according to South Africa-based media research group Media Tenor, a long-term trend of instability reporting was catalysed by events of the Arab Spring. Data provided by Media Tenor indicates that instability coverage on West Africa, for instance, increased over the past three years, rising from 40 per cent of total coverage in 2009 to 62 per cent of total coverage in 2011.

A focus on instability in Central Africa, albeit in very low volumes, has increased from 40 per cent to 50 per cent.  East Africa, particularly since Kenya’s recovery from political turmoil during and after the 2007 general elections, shows a slight decline in instability issues, falling from 70 per cent to 59 per cent in 2011.

That is why I applaud western publications like the Economist that are trying to debunk the popular notion that nothing good happens in Africa. The cover story of the December 3 2011 edition of the esteemed magazine paints a good picture of the changing Africa that often goes unreported. It said, among other things that, ‘after decades of slow growth, Africa has a real chance to follow in the footsteps of Asia.’

There are still a number of setbacks in Africa, but the continent is getting its act together, with many countries having improved on their ratings in the various indices that exist to measure competitiveness, quality of life, safety and other important factors. In 1980, just 28 per cent of Africans lived in cities. Today, 40 per cent of the continent’s one billion people do—a proportion roughly comparable to China’s and larger than India’s. By 2030, that share is projected to rise to 50 per cent, and Africa’s top 18 cities will have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion.

Also, many Africans are joining the ranks of the world’s consumers. In 2000, roughly 59 million households on the continent had $5,000 or more in income—above which they start spending roughly half of it on non-food items. By 2014, the number of such households could reach 106 million. Africa already has more middle-class households (defined as those with incomes of $20,000 or above) than India. Africa’s rising consumption will create more demand for local products, sparking a cycle of increasing domestic growth. These are some of the good news that most of the western media choose to bury because they don’t boost circulation or make compelling viewing to boost ratings!

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