I have been absorbing the news here as much as I can over the last few weeks, and it has been swathed in the old style of reporting on Kenya and Africa. With lots of references to tribal chaos and senseless brutality, many of the stories presented a la the old mode of ‘those Africans and their fighting’.
Just today I read a headline that seemed to link some b-school students with bringing hope to Kenya’s chaos, and I just wondered when this media lumping of stories will end. Their project in Kenya happened to be timed in Kenya at the same time as the elections, and their venture with rural sustainable enterprise would probably have made it to this blog otherwise. It starts: “They went for the beads. They left for their lives.” Go see the rest of the article that barely mentions the cause of the conflict, nor mentions why such a provocative title as ‘tribal chaos’ just happens to contrast with a report on a U.S. student- led project.
The media is provocative. We understand the fourth estate has its mandate. I want to try and understand why there is such a negative view of Africa and Africans, from the earliest media accounts of what happened in the first days of colonialism to present. The Society of Professional Journalists reports that journalism schools, the few of which are accredited ( 100 out of 450) woefully meet diversity standards for women and people of color. With a culture of graduating mostly white males into the profession, the ranks of journalists at top jobs are filled with the same demographic of journalist, who we commonly reference as ‘the Man’. I digress, however.
As far as reporting of the international stories goes, the cadre of reporters going into African conflict suffers the lack of historical context needed to enter another country, especially when telling local tales. Many of them enter the country in question with a prepared list of the people that they ought to interview, who they duly interview, as well as trade information with other international journalists. The story then goes over the net to the editors and we wonder when many of these stories started sounding so similar. No doubt many are true, factually reported, and timely. I query the references to Africa and its people hidden in the tag lines with bombastic catch phrases.
While this is not the case for all international reporters, it generally holds over a large cross-section of the staffing. In the United States, the schools are not known for their wide offering of courses in world history to youngsters. When the journalists reach their training schools, they are often immersed into rubrics of reporting often before basic economics, political science and other building blocks of a world view. Often the training from the first day of school hinders widespread learning, of the variety we used to call ‘general knowledge’ more than people care to imagine.
I cannot even venture into the importance of building cultural competence. One could define cultural competence as the ability to interact in a culture that is not your own in a way that allows you to appreciate the language, culture and sensitivities of the people. A big way to do this is through foreign language competence, which the American Council on Education states that the U.S. is lagging in. The Council estimates that only six fluent Arabic speakers work in the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. Let us not get into whether there are fluent speakers of Swahili, a major language in East and Central Africa, nor whether there are any who speak Somali, Amharic or any other local language. And come to think of it, are there any Luo or Kikuyu speakers, for example. Methinks not, but I will gladly take correction.Without such a basic foundational language, and few writers and journalists taking specialized courses in specific African area studies, there is little to suggest that the cultural competence of the reporters is increasing.
As many of the headlines and tasteless display of our maimed and dead, there still exists compelling evidence that suggests that Africa in the eyes of many foreign journalists: seems to have no history beyond the present, Africans can be evil savages with a thirst for blood or a disarrayed people in need of redemption, and, that Africans are inherently different. Do these assumptions justify treating images of Africans at their weakest as voyeuristic novelty cards for front pages. Many good stories exist, however, the best stories came from people with a genuine desire to connect the world with a comprehensive view of the post-elections violence.
So as long as there is a media culture presented by one demographic to a diverse audience, and as long as there remains that aloofness of foreigners to African issues, good luck trying to find stories that go beyond the surface of African conflict. And the association of other events that happened amid the violence with the loss of Kenyans will undermine efforts to take resolution of the conflict to a higher level. So reporters, get it right or find someone who will.