June 27, 2019

When the International Fact-Checking Network decided to host Global Fact 6 in South Africa this year, the idea was to counter the Western-centric tendency of conferences past, which have consistently overrepresented Europe and North America. The IFCN believes part of this goal was reached: Among more than 250 participants, the fact-checking annual summit welcomed six fact-checking organizations from Africa, three of which were new to the event.

Historically speaking, however, the debate over Africa in the media is much broader and more complex than just participation at a conference, and calls for more in-depth discussion. For many years, scholars have criticized Western media for distorting the continent in three ways: talking about “Africa” as an amorphous unit; portraying the region as backward, corrupt and poverty-stricken; and relying more on foreign sources for information than on Africans themselves.

But to simply state that all of Western media misrepresents all of Africa can also perpetuate a generalized and unhealthy way of thinking about the issue. Recent scholarship by Martin Scott argues that, at least since the 1990s, these classic tropes aren’t as prevalent in Western media as people would assume. Scott analyzed American and European publications about Africa and came to the conclusion that the widespread beliefs about Western stereotypes are a myth.

But another scholar who’s from South Africa, Catherine Mathers, warns against this empirical style research.

“These (questions) cannot be reduced to a language of tribe and primitive,” she told IFCN. “People are well aware since the ‘90s of not using [that terminology], but a more subtle reading can show these tropes come out in other ways and forms and discourses.”

Mathers said that in much of her work, she tries to argue that “the imaginings of Africa are so powerful and consistent” that no matter how thoughtful and nuanced a journalists’ writing, audiences will continue to frame Africa stereotypically in their heads.

The amorphous ‘Africa’ 

A recent report from the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center demonstrates just how sinister “the imaginings of Africa” can be. The report looked at 1.6 million tweets in the United States about Africa and found that “(the term) ‘Africa’ by far received the most mentions (27%) — more than any individual country — with South Africa as a distant second (10%).”

The report also sifted through almost 700,000 hours of U.S. television during the month of March 2018 and found that, while a handful of countries were frequently mentioned in news and entertainment programming, several others were “virtually invisible,” with barely any mentions. In scripted entertainment, the report found that “44% of TV shows and movies only mention ‘Africa,’ with no reference to a particular country.”

This data shows how, at least in the United States, conversations about Africa are often not nearly as nuanced as they should be. Otter added that “South Africa gets a disproportionate amount of the coverage, but South Africa doesn’t represent Africa, just as Tunisia and Morocco don’t represent or resemble the rest of Africa.”

“Much of the coverage of Africa focuses on a single homogenous idea of what the continent and its people are like. Applying that view onto media reporting … obscures the finer details, differences and nuances of the different countries of Africa.”

Again, this is a complex issue. Mathers pointed out that “there is power for people in Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya to evoke a communal or regional voice, as in some ways politically it is powerful to speak as an ‘African.’”

An example of this is Africa Check, the region’s first and largest fact-checking organization, which boasts the name of the continent though it only operates in four countries. This has allowed it to expand and unite forces across borders, allowing journalists the resources, tools and support they might need starting out.

Alphonce Shiundu, a Kenya editor from Africa Check, told IFCN over email that “Africa Check has also done fact-checking training and made presentations about fact-checking in many other countries including Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, The Gambia, Mauritius, and more recently Tunisia, to mention just a few. That’s why it’s considered the leading independent fact-checking organization in the continent.”

Other than Africa Check, which has offices in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, there are five fact-checking organizations in the region that have all sprouted in recent years. These include CongoCheck in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dubawa in Nigeria, MozCheck in Mozambique, and ZimFact in Zimbabwe.

Only reporting on Africa’s bad news

Otter added that “most of the coverage of Africa by Western media focuses on political failures or conflicts, and rarely on growing trade and business across the continent.”

In February, scholar Kate Wright noted that more journalism in Africa is being carried by NGO’s than ever since the decline of Western media in the country. In her research, she found that this had often resulted in informed and nuanced debates over the politics of voice in Africa between journalists and contributing NGOs.

“NGOs didn’t usually place material in news outlets which perpetuated demeaning, decontextualized and stereotypical images of “Africa,” she explained. “In fact, few news items containing NGO content mentioned Africa at all, and some of the most negative news stories had important, progressive effects.”

Nonetheless, the Norman Lear Center’s report shows that the tendency to portray African countries in negative light continues to exist in the United States to a problematic degree. The report found that most tweets about Africa were negative and related to crime: drone strikes and slave trade in Libya, terrorism in Nigeria, and rumors of genocide in South Africa. In both national and local news channels, crime in Africa was reported on twice as often as business, technology or economy were.

“Typically the stereotypes focus on tribalism, or corrupt leadership,” Otter said. “While obviously these issues do occur in various countries across the continent at various times, it can’t be applied to every single country in Africa. Unfortunately, Western media tends to focus on the negative with the result that the prevailing narrative is that Africa is riddled with corruption and violence and tribalism.”

Who’s at the table

The Center’s report also pointed out that “most tweets about Africa shared or voiced reactions to published news media stories. The volume and topics of tweets closely aligned with the tenor of news coverage of Africa.”

If news cycles can affect how and whether social media users discuss Africa, then journalists have the ability to influence and alter their conversations. Unfortunately, Mathers believes that despite the rise of Twitter and other widely accessible social media platforms, “writers living and working in Africa are definitely not at the forefront of knowledge production about the continent.”

Her advice? Be more vigilant about the deep histories of inequality and structural lack of privilege that exist between the North and Africa.

Global Fact 6 may have been in Cape Town, with 11 speakers from Africa presenting on African elections, WhatsApp and more. But as Mathers said, “You can be present and the hierarchy still shows in terms of who speaks loudest.”

Shiundu of Africa Check said he was happy with how Africa had been represented and discussed throughout the conference. “There was reasonable diversity with the presentations, with men and women in the panels… I can’t complain.”

Otter said he hoped that his colleagues had gotten to see that “there is excellent work being done in fact-checking and investigations across the continent, and not just in South Africa, even if many of the people doing the work rarely get recognition outside of their own countries.”

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