Africa in the Western Media: A sidebar

The issue of Western media's coverage of Africa and its people has drawn quite a number of researchers the last four decades. One of the relatively recent works that came out of these investigations is Hardened Images: The Western Media and the Marginalization of Africa, by Asgede Hagos.

The book looks into the relationship between the media gatekeepers' practice of relegating Africa and Africans to near invisibility and the Western governments' policies of neglect of the continent. The findings show the latter drive the former. Western governments and institutions determine the level of attention the Western media give to Africa and the African people.

Drawing on his experience as a journalist and journalism educator, the author examines the nature of the interplay between the U.S. elite press and the U.S. government on Africa, with a special focus on its armed struggles waged to complete the decolonization process.

The book is centered on three case studies: the national liberation movements of South Africa, Eritrea, and Western Sahara, which seemed to represent the last and probably the most complex and difficult stage in the decolonization of Africa. The author also takes a close look at the implications of this double-edged sword of neglect and distortion for Africa's visibility and acceptability in the world.










Erecting a Wall of Pessimism:
The Western Media and Africa’s Economy

Asgede Hagos, Ph.D.

The unrelenting negative Western media coverage of Africa has erected a wall of pessimism for Western investment in the continent.  The level of negativity about Africa and its people, especially over the last two centuries, has been unprecedented. No major region of the world has been subjected to this kind and to this level of pessimism in history, and this has created in the minds of many including investors, donors an image of a continent “that is beyond consideration,” a continent where nothing works right.  All indications are that the pattern of images from the persistent negative coverage of Africa has left the perception that this is not a place to do business.  One of the oracles of Afro-pessimism says, “There is little reason to wonder why globalized financial actors have avoided the region [Africa] and have chosen to direct their investments, arrange their financial transactions, and feature their loans to more politically sensible and economically stable corners of the global marketplace” (Schwab 2005, p.122).

True, there are other factors that discourage external investment in Africa. Those who focus on and monitor direct foreign investment attribute African’s meager direct foreign investment to a wide-range of internal factors, including poor infrastructure, conflicts, and weak regulatory atmosphere. In fact, surveys conducted to gauge the investment climate in Africa seem to focus almost entirely on internal factors.  For example, a series of World Bank investment climate surveys between 2001 and 2004 in Sub-Sahara Africa was designed to determine the extent of “investment barriers faced by enterprises” (Broadman, 2007, p. 54), and the focus was entirely on internal factors. It failed to consider the impact of the Western media which creates and circulates perceptions of Africa that reinforce unacceptable risk for investors, a key factor that seems to infect all the other investment-deterrent factors. 

There is now a growing consensus that these perceptions have had a damaging impact on Africa’s economy.  Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa, in its final report says, “Many barriers to investment in Africa are exaggerated due to ‘Afro-pessimism.’ Africa often appears to be seen as one large risky country, with little understanding of its diversity—driven by negative media coverage and a lack of country-specific knowledge among investors. But, the perceived investment climate is as important as the actual one.” As a result, the commission recommended that “addressing negative perceptions is an important of encouraging investment” (Commission for Africa, 2005, p. 231).
The report highlights two key barriers to investment in Africa: the magnification of the risk and the lack of knowledge among investors. These two problems—neglect and distortion--have come to characterize the relationship between the West and Africa.  The absence of adequate knowledge is an outcome of years of neglect of this most central region of the world by Western institutions. Africa has been the most ignored—and most sensationalized--region in the Western media. The negative perceptions are also rooted in centuries of Western portrayal of the continent and its people, not only by the media, but also by the foreign policy establishment of their respective countries, with virtually nothing to counter it or correct it from the African side.

However, with regards to the magnification or exaggeration of the risk, there are two key missing elements in the Commission for Africa report. First, the media that have been perpetuating the negative perceptions of Africa are not any media; they are the Western media, and, as stated before, there is a long history behind it.   Second, the Western media have not been doing this alone. In covering foreign news, the media work in tandem with the institutions of the state because external media coverage is generally driven by national interest.  For example, let us look at how the Western press covers Africa when U.S. presidents visit the continent. One of the interesting outcomes of the Bush and Clinton visits to the continent was that the Western media—generally speaking—could find good news in Africa when that served US national interest.  For example, to justify President Bush’s visit to the continent, the U.S. media tried to go out of their way to find “Africa’s bright spots’. The same thing happened when Bill Clinton visited the continent during the previous decade. The media buzzword at the time was Africa’s Renaissance,’ referring to a group of young African leaders who had come to power through armed struggle at the end of the Cold War.

These occasional and sudden outbursts of optimism about the continent and its people reflected in the Western media actually were initiated by the policymakers—revealing an important dimension in the relationship between the government and the media. So, the bottom-line is that when the U.S. government decides to be positive about the region or governments in the continent, the media follow suit.  This is also one way of marketing the news of the day; however, the standard marketing formula for African news in the West has been to stress the odd, the backward, and raise subtle and not-so-subtle questions about the humanity of the African--reliable elements in framing the African image.  For example, according to the London Times, these are the characteristics of the formula American journalists followed in the 1960s in covering Africa:

 Emphasize the bizarre, translate African situations into terms that Americans  are expected to understand; fill out with snippets of African history (taken in the main from out-of-date sources); include sketches of leading African politicians—distinguishing sharply between the “good guys” and ‘bad-guys” and throw in evocative remarks about the landscape, wisecracks about African politics, habits, and customs, large generalizations about African politics, and light relief about the hardship of the trip  (London Times, 1961, p. 626))

Today, though the formula is less blatantly racist in its choice of words and symbols, very little has changed in the way the Western media distort the African reality and spreads pessimism about the continent and its people.  Thus, one of the main barriers to the West-driven globalization in Africa is history itself—a history steeped in pessimism about the continent, its people and its future. The level of negativity about Africa and its people in the Western media over the last two centuries is unprecedented.

According to Cultivation Theory, the media are very effective in shaping our perceptions of reality.  The media are effective not only in creating a certain image, but also in circulating that image. Baran and Davis say that “the media frame issues for us and cultivate our perceptions of the social world so that we are more likely to make sense of things in some ways rather than others,” and this especially true of television which “blurs, blends, and bends reality” (2003, p. 330).

Fortunately, there is an emerging silver lining from this grim reality.  Generally speaking, the negativity oozing from the Western media does not affect the growing investment in Africa from non-Western regions and nations: Asia, the Middle East, and the rest of the southern hemisphere in general.  Though it is difficult to show a correlation based on the data available, it is possible to infer that the unrelenting assault on the image of the continent is not one of the factors that drive Asian investment in and trade with Africa.  We can see this in the trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) numbers. In the area of trade, the Asian powers are filling a void in Africa whose traditional trade partners have been reluctant to invest in the continent.  Europe’s share of African exports was cut by half between 2000 and 2005.  On the other hand, Africa’s export to China has doubled since 2000.  Asia’s exports to Africa are growing rapidly---about 18% a year.   We see the same trend in foreign direct investment (FDI) activities. Africa accounts for only 1.8% of global FDI inflows. Generally speaking, the trend is very encouraging (Broadman, 2007).

In the growing competition between the West and the rising Asian powers for Africa’s resources and markets, the latter have at least one clear advantage: they are not entering the field with the baggage of debilitating Afro-pessimism created, developed, and nurtured by the West’s channels of communication and other institutions over the last 500 years. 

The reasons that drive non-Western investment in Africa are not very different from those that draw Westerners to the continent: gold and glory.  But, it is also true Chinese investors, for example, are not bombarded with messages that Africa is an unacceptable risk for investment.   The Asian powers, which still see themselves as Third World nations, so far seem to look at Africa as an important opportunity for resources and markets and a partner in development.  The response from the African nations seems to be positive.  At the moment, many African nations see especially the entry of China as a welcome alternative to the West’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude in its dealings with the continent and its nations.

But, is this likely to change as the new, growing Asian powers get more and more involved in Africa?  Broadman argues that “over the last 15 years, Asia has already been Africa’s fastest-growing export market and is much more open to trade than are Europe and America.  And there is no evidence to suggest that this trend will not continue” (2007, 350).  The question is whether Africa or the African nations can take advantage of these new and growing opportunities to transform their economies.  Almost all African nations have been trying to improve the investment climate individually and collectively. Almost all of these nations have institutions charged with this task.

China’s infusion of capital into the economies of many of the nations of Africa is expected to force Westerners to revise their perceptions of the continent which they had never seen as an important investment opportunity.  Michel says, “The story of China’s quick and spectacular conquest of Africa has captured the imagination of Europeans and Americans who long ago considered the continent more of charity case than an investment opportunity” (Michel 2008, p. 38).

What is new about globalization is that it is no longer driven solely by Euro-centric forces and ideas. Today, the rising powers in the southern hemisphere have a say in setting the rules that govern the process and that this has created some room even for the poor regions like Africa to try to redefine their own roles in the process.  Friedman says, the 21st phase of globalization, which he calls Globalization 3.0 ”differs from the previous eras not only in how it is shrinking and flattening the world and in how it is empowering individuals.  It is also different in that Globalization 1.0 and 2.0 [from 1492 to 1800 and from 1800 to 2000 respectively] were driven primarily by Europeans and American individuals and businesses” (2006, 11).

Many see this new south-south relationship as part of a broader global shift taking place towards Asia. There seems to be a growing consensus that there is a steady shift “of the center of global gravity” away from the West (Mahbubani 2008; Zakaria 2008) and this has already begun to change or at least greatly influence the rules that drive globalization. The rise of Asia, especially of China and India, and their growing presence in Africa has began to profoundly change the way other countries and regions participate in the globalization process in the continent. This growing new reality in Africa is expected to force the West to reexamine its negative perceptions of the continent and its people.

But, finally, it is important to note that at the center of this problem is not that the West and Western media distort the image of Africa and its people.  The West and the Western media will always look at the continent and its people from the perspectives of their respective interests, which may not be the same as those of Africa and Africans.  The real question therefore should be: Why is Africa letting itself be defined by others for so long? When is Africa going to find its voice and define itself?  There are some awareness in Africa today about the need for communication channels powerful enough to compete with the CNNs, the BBC’s of the world, an African version of al-Jazeera or teleSur--the pan-American television network launched in 2005 to prevent the distortion of the Latin-American reality.  There can be no balance—in terms of quantity and quality—in the coverage of the continent without competing sources of information, and that competition can only come from the inside.  This calls for a new continental leadership with a thorough understanding of the strategic role of media in international relations. This will also require a meaningful investment in global media resources that can frame Africa’s true image and effectively “circulate” it to counter and root out the deeply seated perception Western institutions have been spreading about the continent and its people.  This has serious implications for Africa’s acceptability at all levels and in all sectors of the global system.


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Asgede Hagos is professor at Delaware State University