Conflict reporting in Africa

‘In Defence of Western Journalists in Africa’, an article published earlier this year by renowned journalist and author Michela Wrong, responded to suggestions made (in particular by Lucy Hovil and Nanjala Nyabola) that Western journalists continually fail to adequately understand and appreciate the complexities of conflict in Africa. As a consequence, Hovil and Nyabola argued, the Western media provide explanations that are misrepresentative and misleading, which can be detrimental to the responses to conflict and opinions held about Africa and what ‘should be done’ (in itself part of the problem, the notion that Africa needs saving by the West).

For Hovil, coverage of ‘violence in Africa seems particularly prone to the scourge of one-dimensional descriptions’, leading the media to prescribe a label ‘that quickly becomes accepted as gospel and this explanation is hard to shift.’ How often are the terms ‘tribal’, ‘ethnic’ or similar called upon in Western reporting? According to Nyabola, ‘Africa just isn’t being heard right.’ What the Western world hears is a distortion of reality on the ground.

Wrong takes issue with such suggestions. Even if explanations for the causes of violence are simplified, readers are still able to ‘grasp the notion that their true causes were rich and various.’ Sometimes the way that tensions are experienced is just as simplistic as reporting suggests, making such criticism unfair. Political scientists and academics do not have to contend with the 24 hour news cycle, tight deadlines, meagre word counts, unreliable internet connections, the constant danger inherent in visiting a conflict zone, or making current affairs comprehensible for the layman, all of which affects the way that conflicts are reported.

Yet Wrong misses part of the point. Journalists might be trying to convey conflicts, violence and politics in Africa and across the globe as best they can, but fail to consider how important what they say is when it comes to shaping perspectives, opinions and, crucially, reactions and responses. Very often their coverage dictates how narratives are understood and what becomes the dominant and accepted interpretation of events.

Hence Hovil and Nyabola’s concerns that misrepresentations in the media can have a damaging effect. Journalism might not set out to drive policy, alter perceptions, or affect fundraising and advocacy efforts. But often it does. Wrong might believe that readers are able to understand that there are countless other causes of tension not dealt with in coverage, but the prevailing narratives that emerge do not necessarily reflect this.

Political scientist Severine Autesserre’s work on dominant narratives on the Congo explored how media coverage has tended to focus on the illegal exploitation of mineral resources as the primary cause of violence, the sexual abuse of women and girls as the main consequence, and the extending of state authority as the best solution. According to Autesserre, Western reporting of the emerging crisis in the Congo had sought ‘an uncomplicated story line’ that readers could understand, and where the conflict would lead to a straightforward solution. That the reality of the situation in the Congo could be accurately explained within this framing was not particularly relevant or important.

In particular, Autesserre argued the focus on sexual violence in coverage aimed to make a foreign conflict feel less foreign and more relatable to Western audiences. Yet the emphasis on this detail of the conflict meant that those seeking funding for or advocating on behalf of other victim groups found themselves unable to draw the attention of the media to horrific events where sexual violence had not been perpetrated, a situation that endures. The Congolese conflict has been dubbed Africa’s First World War, and undoubtedly Western media coverage and reporting has drawn vital attention to it. But at what cost? With some aspects of the conflict highlighted and some forgotten, can the simplistic nature of some journalistic reporting be defended as Wrong seeks to?

The favoured refrain of political scientist – ‘It’s more complicated than that’ – should be, if not adopted, then certainly considered by journalists too. Academics sometimes hope to influence policy with the research, articles and theses they produce and provide policy suggestions, but often it is the media that wields this influence. Not all Western coverage of African affairs is crude or reductive, much is nuanced, balanced and informative, but some unquestionably is. The simplicity of some media coverage means that current affairs dilemmas can be digested by officials and decision-makers with relative ease, but journalists should be aware of this and their power over the way narratives take hold. Before they label conflict as ‘ethnic violence’ (often the manifestation of violence but not always, incidentally, the cause), or talk about ‘tribes’ or ‘clans’ haphazardly and without a real grasp of what the terms mean, journalists need to remember the effect generalisations and simplifications have. And maybe they would conclude that, after all, it is actually quite complicated.

By Katy Edwards

Tags: , , , ,

Categories: Africa

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