Why Do Western Media Get Africa Wrong?

20141102127498734_20 2Yesterday I witnessed yet another twitter storm erupt over Western coverage of an African situation. AGuardian correspondent offered an analysis of the on-going crisis in South Sudan that, judging from the comments on the website, was well received outside South Sudan.

Yet, the reaction from the South Sudanese online community was the opposite. Relatively well-known twitterati roundly criticised the article as a complete misread of the situation on the ground. As someone who has both criticised Western media for their coverage of Africa, but has also relied on Western media for information about places that I have never been to, I found it fascinating. Who should you believe in a situation like this? And why do Western media keep getting coverage of African issues wrong?

My inclination is to believe that the South Sudanese bloggers, if for no other reason than they are relatively immune to the vagaries of the news cycle, remember the same journalist was touted as “the first Western journalist on the scene” – a descriptor that the South Sudanese community rejected. Does it matter if he’s a Western journalist? What does that say about the premium that Western news outlets place on information given by Western (read white) reporters versus non-Western reporters?

This casual descriptor inadvertently disregarded the lived experiences of the thousands of literate, experienced South Sudanese writers, journalists and informants, and created a hierarchy of knowledge that appears to be largely based on race. So, given the choice between a person whose truth seems conditioned by race, and another whose truth is based on experience on the ground, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

Indeed, Western media continue – and will continue – to get coverage of African issues wrong because of their inability to confront this unspoken hierarchy of knowledge and the barriers it generates. Firstly, in this scheme, The Rest is necessarily set up in opposition to The West in resulting coverage, and issues or situations are rarely, if ever, analysed for their intrinsic impact or worth. Events or situations are therefore analysed as what the West is not, and so articles are a process of either reifying or undermining pre-existing assumptions that are either set up in history books or in other literature about Africa in general or the phenomenon at hand. So the coverage of the crisis in South Sudan is either used to reiterate or undermine beliefs about ethnicity and its role in conflicts in Africa: where “ethnicity” is a trope that can easily distinguish “Africa” from The West but is now a shorthand so overused and misused that it’s lost its explanatory value.

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