Ooga-Booga Journalism: The problem with Western media’s portrayal of Africa

Sophie-Jo Gavin

The media is the lens through which we view the world, endowed with the power to curate our perceptions of other regions and influence political decision-making. This is particularly evidenced by the case of Africa, whose portrayal in Western media frequently lacks the depth of coverage of other regions, rendering its image restricted or distorted. Many studies have highlighted the role of media representation in government policy, meaning this short-sighted depiction can have real and damaging effects.

The public perception of Africa in the West is morphed by the subject matter of its media coverage, of which a large proportion fixates upon periods of struggle and humanitarian distress; a 1994 study of American newspapers found that crisis and disaster stories constituted 42% of all articles regarding Africa. The external conceptualisation established by this selective airtime is one of a war-torn ‘dark continent‘, plagued by disease and corruption. This is ingrained in and often actively perpetuated by Western media outlets; in his memoir of his time as New York Times correspondent in Nairobi, Jeffrey Gettleman details being instructed to travel 190 miles to document a church being burnt by a mob embroiled in post-election riots, with the reasoning “it sounds like something out of Rwanda.” This predisposition to feed morbid western fascination with an erroneous and short-sighted portrayal of an under-developed continent serves only to intensify this perception. This effect is further exacerbated by depictions of the continent as culturally and ideologically homogenous, as the media often fails to adorn Africa with a narrative that adequately distinguishes between its multitude of countries in the same way as it does other continents; for example, despite only affecting four regions in West Africa, the Ebola crisis of 2013-2016 was often treated by media outlets as a continent-wide issue, as exemplified by the NBC headline ‘US Sends Team to Fight African Ebola Outbreak’. Such generalisation reduces the continent to a single narrative and fails to recognise any form of diversity, further distorting its image.

Furthermore, depictions of Africa in Western media frequently exemplify othering, the rendering of one people alien to another, generally hegemonic group; this form of “Ooga-Booga” journalism, as termed by Howard French, manifests itself by way of a disassociating vocabulary including words such as ‘tribal’, ‘anarchy’, and ‘slaughter’ which dehumanise and distance its subjects from its western audience. Othering not only leads to the propagation of negative Western stereotypes, but also denies its subject the same victim framework granted to those considered to belong to the in-group; the language of media has a significant impact on the public’s reaction to, and perceptions of, that which it reports, and the employment of a language of alienation engenders less sympathy than one of vulnerability. This is exemplified by the coverage of the Rwandan genocide, in much of which citizens were effectively denied victimhood through the use of othering; descriptions such as ‘a madness beyond any logic and comprehension’ and ‘we are not dealing with a nation but a slaughterhouse’ created the image of a senselessly aggressive populace, placing them conclusively outside a framework of empathy and vulnerability. So, while the subject matter of the West’s media coverage of Africa would paint the picture of a continent perpetually in turmoil, this often fails to transfer any victimhood onto its people.

Western media habitually presents Africa through a self-glorifying lens depicting it as something to be rescued, the resolution of its conflicts and crises fathomable only through Western intervention. This paternalistic attitude is both patronising and pernicious, as it dismisses the ability of the African people to help themselves, reducing them to passivity and stripping them of their agency. In March 2015, journalist Howard French wrote an open letter of complaint to the CBS News programme 60 Minutes in reaction to a segment detailing the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, in which he states:

“Africans were reduced to the role of silent victims. They constituted what might be called a scenery of misery: people whose thoughts, experiences, and actions were treated as if totally without interest.”

French goes on to criticise the segment’s disregard for the Liberian doctors, nurses, and caregivers, with not a single Liberian quoted throughout, rather ‘the only people heard from on air were white foreigners who had come to Liberia to contribute to the fight against the disease.’ This report exemplifies common themes of Western media coverage of Africa: the reduction of natives to their plight with no approbation for their proficiency and contributions, and a self-serving interest in Africa affairs which lend themselves to the West’s sanctimonious desire to play the hero in an ongoing narrative of power structures dating back to colonial times.

Indeed, western philanthropy often leaves the realm of altruism and enters that of self-indulgence, with a greater focus placed on the Western aid worker than those they purport to help. The patronising lens of Western concern for Africa was epitomised by the humanitarian group Band Aid and their song questioning whether the African population, 40% of whom are Christian, were aware that it was Christmas; while the desire to help those we perceive to be in need is not inherently insidious, add to this the facet of blind pity and the result is an over-simplified and detrimental perception of an Africa where ‘the greatest gift they’ll get this year is life’. Zine Magubane of Boston College describes this as ‘taking something that is a very good human impulse, doing good in the world, but […] not establishing a relationship between two people as humans, but rather as a saviour and a victim’. These condescending outlooks on problems from which many Western nations suffer themselves perpetuates the colonial narrative of a superior West supporting and cultivating those it considered intellectually and culturally inferior, something which has real implications on international relations; when asked if France could provide a Marshall Plan for Africa in 2018, Emmanuel Macron responded that, in contrast to Europe in 1945, Africa’s problems are “civilisational”. The undertones of Macron’s words are, if not inherently neo-colonial, at the very least steeped in insensitivity, as the colonising programme upon which the French Empire was founded was named ‘la mission civilisatrice’. While the Marshall Plan was considered viable between the United States and Western Europe, the same trust is not accorded to Africa, whose humanitarian relationships with the West seem to be based more on philanthropic benefaction than fraternity.

The impacts of the Western media’s parochial narrative in Africa are manifold; the distorted perception of Africa created by a biased media impacts not only the continent itself but also, as argues Remi Adekoya, people of African descent living elsewhere who must contend with the prejudice engendered by the negative stereotypes propagated by Western media. While it stands true that bad news sells and journalistic media globally has a propensity for focussing on the negative, the overall presentation of Africa in the West differs so starkly from other regions as to create an erroneous and detrimental single narrative around a continent of over 50 countries and 1500 languages. Western nations face many of the same conflicts and humanitarian crises, these do not define our conceptualisations of them; the media’s tendency to select subject matter conducive to the satiation of the West’s sadistic appetite for tragedy contribute to an ultimately damaging narrative, perpetuating colonial power structures and short-sighted perceptions of Africa.

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