CBS’s 60 Minutes has an “African problem.” After being lambasted three weeks ago in a public letter to the organization, penned by Columbia School of Journalism professor and former New York Times reporter Howard French and signed by over 150 other journalists and professors, CBS is struggling to defend its coverage of the Ebola outbreak.
The letter criticizes 60 Minutes Correspondent Lara Logan’s report saying, “In that broadcast, Africans were reduced to the role of silent victims.”
The basis of the complaint is Logan’s piece. In reporting on Liberian Ebola victims, she never actually interviews them or their national counterparts in the health field. The only interviews were with white foreigners who had come to help.
This, according to French, is just one symptom of a larger problem with how the media reports on and thus affects perceptions about Africa. News coverage of the continent tends to fall into one of three categories: Disaster (of the natural or political), White Protagonist, and Exotic Wildlife. In both the Ebola coverage, and a previous report on lions, filed a few months earlier, 60 Minutes hit all three.
French’s open letter is not the first criticism of the 60 Minutes Ebola coverage. The Al Jazeera mobile App AJ+ mocked the coverage in a short video back in November 2014.
But does Africa really get more than its fair share of bad news? Or this is a symptom of a larger international media trend?
According to the recent Africa Growth Report 2015, published by the media research institute Media Tenor, the answer is both yes, and no.
Analyzing over 158,000 news reports from 2011-14 by Western and International Media from 35 sources (not domestic African news), the report ultimately concludes that while African news coverage is mostly negative, other continents are also feeling the effects of the bad news cycle. The hardest hit, the Middle East, gets the most attention for political turmoil.
For Africa, however, nine of the top ten reported topics were negative, and six pertain to political conflict and violence. Compare that to Europe and North America where sports news (most often positive) ranks in the top of covered topics. This is even during a period where South Africa hosted the World Cup.
While Africa is the only continent to achieve positive media appraisal for economic development and growth, it does not even come close to outweighing the negative reports. A simple lack of negative news, does not a positive perception make.
According to the report, stable countries such as Namibia and Mauritius “have positive stories to profile, yet require the context and investment to tell these. Media Tenor’s analysis indicates that the international media’s negligence of such countries strengthens the negative perceptions of the continent.”
The core issue here is the lack of investment in real African reporting. However, as many media outlets shrink, the BBC is expanding its reach in Africa. And while CBS deals with the backlash against its Ebola coverage, the fact that there is backlash at all is in itself encouraging. As the letter claims, “Such a skewed perspective not only disserves Africa, it also badly disserves the news viewing and news reading public.” And the news viewing and reading public have had enough of one-dimensional stories about the continent.
While CBS maintains it is “proud of” its coverage, they have invited to French to meet with them. We can only hope such criticism would promote a constructive change in African media coverage. However, it will take more than one open letter.
Even if news reflects the reality on the ground, because around the world there is a lot of turmoil to cover, the viewers have a right to the well-researched background, context, and local voices. The pressure is now on the media to provide quality coverage of the continent.
We will be watching, and reading.