Reports lack balance out of Africa

The scholars and journalists who met at Penn Nov. 20 to discuss "African News Coverage in the U.S. Mass Media" all emphasized the need for reporters to dispel misconceptions by getting to know the countries and peoples of Africa on a personal level. But there was some difference of opinion on whether Africa's image would improve as a result.

One of the main complaints voiced at the workshop, organized by Penn's African Studies Center, is that African correspondents often function like soldiers - they parachute into a country with little advance preparation, spend little time with the native population, and fly back out the moment their tour of duty is over.

African journalists Eric Shimoli and Phylicia Oppelt were among the journalists and professors who critiqued U.S. media coverage of Africa at the Nov. 20 workshop.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Phylicia Oppelt, a reporter for the Sunday Times of South Africa, chided reporters who rely on stereotypes. "If I said that American black men are criminals or that American girls are the most promiscuous in the world, I'd be considered rude," she said, "but that's how we cover Africa."

Eric Shimoli, a reporter for Kenya's Daily Nation, said that Americans acting on similar stereotypes often asked him "stupid questions, such as whether I had ever boarded an airplane." To counter this, reporters should take their educational role seriously: "To create a whole person, you must cover the whole of the world," he said.

But he also suggested that the emphasis on chaos in African reporting stems from universal journalistic values. "When I read about the U.S. and Europe in the African media, all I see are sex scandals and homicides. Why should we complain about the treatment we receive in the U.S. media when we do the same thing?" he said.

Shimoli and Oppelt spent this year at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post respectively under a fellowship program for working journalists from African news outlets.

At an afternoon panel of scholars, Tim Burke of Swarthmore College echoed the reporters' criticisms while also suggesting that academics themselves share some blame for the undifferentiated view of the continent. "It's not just the media," he said. "The way we organize our academic studies reinforces it."

And while many of the afternoon panelists criticized recent books that were highly critical of Africa, such as Keith Richburg's "Out of America" and Alice Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy," Burke also cautioned that "a fair coverage of Africa may not be a positive coverage of Africa."

Instead of worrying about positives and negatives, he said, more detail is needed - "the compelling human-interest stories, the politics in between the wars and crises," he said, citing as examples the rivalry between South Africa's Nelson Mandela and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and the effect Mugabe's recent remarriage has had on his regime.

And T. Obinkaram Echeba of West Chester University encouraged Africans in America to speak up if they don't like what they see in the press: "Reporters do not take an oath to represent Africa fairly or honestly," he said, "but if enough Africans wrote to correct errors, they might change."

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Originally published on December 3, 1998