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Foreign correspondents in Africa still struggle to tell the whole story

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Themba Hadebe/AP

(Read caption) Ghanaian soccer star Anthony Annan speaks to journalists in Nelspruit, South Africa, in February.

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A version of this post first appeared on the author's blog, A View From the Cave. The views expressed are the author's own.

Western journalists were rightly criticized for the overall level of coverage surrounding the Kenyan elections.

However, it is a case that is a part of what seems to be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to how Western reporters will tell stories from the African continent. (Read about how Kenyans reacted to foreign coverage of their election with the Twitter hashtag #tweetlikeaforeignjournalist)

The image of a western journalist interviewing a "traditional African" may seem like a trope of the past, but look no further than this linked image from a PBS MediaShift report.

Cornell University English professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi makes the case in on the blog Africa is a Country that Western journalists in Africa continue to fail to “tell the whole story of humanity at work.”

He says that American reporting on tragedies that took place in the United States, for instance, show dignity of the victims and tell stories of heroism and triumph during tragedy.

A three paragraph article in Reuters offered the choice terms “tribal blood-letting” to reference the 2007 post-electoral violence, and “loyalists from rival tribes” to talk about the hard-earned right to cast a vote. Virtually all the longer pieces from Reuters on the elections used the concept of tribal blood-letting. CNN also ran a story in February of this year that showed five or so men somewhere in a Kenyan jungle playing war games with homemade guns, a handful of bullets and rusty machetes – war paint and all.

Such stories do not make it into the coverage of tragedies from Africa. However, Mr. Ngugi neglects to recognize the constraints on foreign correspondents or journalists who report on Africa. Page space for stories about Africa is few and far between these days.

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This is not to excuse poor reporting. Rather I point it out to say that it is far more challenging than domestic news. Major tragedies in the United States feel like they are over covered as the press corps descends upon the location of the event and tries to pump out every story possible. 

Conversely, a similar tragedy in Sierra Leone may only get one or two articles in a paper like The New York Times. The one reporter who is likely not based in the country, but has to cover it, is going to try to get as much information in as possible. The unfortunate outcome is that the gruesomeness of the violence is often played up for the lack of ability to add in any real stories. As Ngugi writes,

But when it comes to writing about Africa, journalists suddenly have to make a choice between the extraordinary violence and ordinary life. It should not be a question of either the extreme violence or quiet happy times, but rather a question of telling the whole story within an event, even when tragedy is folded within tragedy. There are activist organizations in the Congo standing against rampant war and against rape as a weapon. The tide of the post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2007 turned because there were ordinary people in the slums and villages organizing against it.

There are different rules applied to reporting stories from Africa than from the United States. It is problematic.

However, addressing these problems also requires the admission that the two are not even on the same playing field. Domestic reporters have the length of a soccer field to completely develop a report. Meanwhile, reporters in Africa are stuck on the penalty line trying to score on a hockey goal with a soccer ball.

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