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August 07, 2007

Shooting the Messenger

When it comes to Africa, the media, as always, is a convenient scapegoat.

It’s awfully easy to blame Africa’s struggle to attract foreign investment on the steady stream of bad news coming out of the African continent. Undeniably, Western opinion of Africa as a risky place to do business is powerfully shaped by magazine images of flies on faces, newspaper stories about 4,000 percent inflation, and Hollywood films about Africa’s darkest times (Last King of Scotland, Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond, etc.) But the issue is more complicated than that. 

Everyone knows these stories do the continent a grave disservice. And many of our deep dive participants have lamented this so-called “CNN Effect,” or the image problem that 24-hour news channels create for Africa. “The brand of Africa is not a good brand,” said Patrick Muthui, the CEO of Virtual Services at RMB Private Bank in South Africa, at our Lisbon deep dive. “But in it are great stories of success.”

Mr. Muthui’s point is valid. There are many success stories coming out of Africa today, some of which we have experienced first hand throughout the GIO process. But the majority of the world cannot go to Africa to see these successes for themselves. And so they get their information from the media, which, despite all the talk of its demise, remains a powerfully influential force.

Combating the CNN effect is not easy. The stories they report on are real. And they are worthy of reporting. Corruption, genocide, and economic strife are stories of both human interest and global economic consequence. To not report on them would be considered morally irresponsible journalism.

The trick is how you can begin to inject some of the more positive stories into the tightly-packed 24-hour news cycle, or squeeze a few business success stories onto the prized real estate of the Wall Street Journal.

Hubert Danso, vice chairman of the African Investment Advisory Group at NEPAD, spent years shopping positive business stories around to the international media types. He got nothing but lip service. So he finally decided that if he wanted the stories of Africa’s burgeoning economic prowess and entrepreneurial spirit to reach the world, he was going to have to tell those stories himself. Danso is now the managing editor of Africa Investor magazine. It’s as slick as anything you’d pick up on a New York newsstand, has top-notch research, and relentlessly covers business issues in and around the continent. If you want to get the other side of the business climate story in Africa, it’s a must-read.

Other deep dive participants have broached the idea of a news portal that focuses exclusively on positive stories coming out of Africa. While the journalist in me bristles at the notion of such an explicitly agenda-driven news outlet, a closer look at the reasoning behind such a portal allays my concerns.

When you look at why international media focus on the disaster and disarray in Africa, it comes down to a few things. One, it is sensational stuff, no question. But also, it’s readily available. There are mouthpieces that are willing to offer up headline-grabbing quotes. Non-governmental organizations, by their very nature, need to sell the media stories of doom-and-gloom, as part of their fund-raising efforts and justification for their very existence. So the lazy journalist will follow this path of least resistance and tell the stories of starvation and civil strife.

But if there were an easy place to find compelling stories of business success, personal triumph, and economic progress, wouldn’t that also make for interesting journalism? So we’re talking about a media center, staffed with communications professionals, relentlessly scouring the continent for human interest stories, case studies, and trend stories that could be packaged up with quotable experts and fed to international news outlets at a moment’s notice. It’s called public relations, and it works for major corporations. So why not Africa?

August 7, 2007 in Africa | Permalink

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Comments

that was a thought provoking piece article and i could aggree with you more.
i think it is time africans do thier own PR instead of relying on the foreign media

Posted by: sammuel | Aug 7, 2007 9:15:51 AM

Sammuel:

I agree. Fortunately, this is already beginning to happen and Africa's bloggers are at the forefront.

Posted by: Benin Mwangi | Aug 7, 2007 9:01:56 PM

Sammuel:

I agree. Fortunately, this is already beginning to happen and Africa's bloggers are at the forefront.

Posted by: Benin Mwangi | Aug 7, 2007 9:02:52 PM

It is apparent that the writer is not aware of the activities of several African and Afrophile bloggers who have taken it upon themselves to step up to the plate; the mainstream media (MSM) dropped the ball a long time ago...and if they hope to pick it up and be back in the game again, a trip to the blogosphere may not be a bad idea.

BTW, this last June several African bloggers, academics, entrepreneurs and policy makers converged in Arusha - Tanzania for the TEDGlobal conference to tell a story of Africa no one has ever heard before...the MSM somewhat missed the event!

Here the link to see some of the talk on TED

http://www.ted.com/themes/view/id/45

Posted by: imnakoya | Aug 8, 2007 4:12:57 PM

First of all Dan, it is great to see such an important and influential technology company like IBM start a project like the GIO and to launch this blog as a means to communicate with people around the world. I had never heard of the IBM Deep Dive conferences or the Global Innovation Outlook initiative until seeing a post about it today over at Benin Mwangi's blog. What is important about that statement is that I have tracked, read, and archived 100's of news articles and press releases about development programs and entrepreneurial assistance programs for Africa sponsored by leading technology companies (Carly Fiorina's work at HP, SUN Microsystems, Microsoft, Intel, etc.) and Big Blue (IBM) has been practically invisible. Hopefully this blog and a stronger effort to get the word out at IBM will help to correct that problem.

In regards to Africa's image in the international news media (press, TV, radio) it is a subject that is often discussed and hotly debated within the blogosphere and within the professional news media circles. Individual and group efforts from some of the world's bloggers along with select new media companies and projects (i.e. Reuters Africa & Global Voices) are helping to slowly turn this situation around. There is still a long way to go and it will be interesting to see how it evolves for African media audiences and for people interested in news and information about Africa worldwide.

If you need any help in researching and reviewing various new media efforts focused on Africa, just contact any of us in the Africa sector of "the Sphere", we'll be glad to help you out in this area. You might want to start at Melissa's blog Africa Media (see my blogroll) which focuses almost exclusively on global news media and Africa. This negative Africa image thing is not only a problem that can be attributed to news networks like CNN, it is an even greater problem with biased news media networks and press here in Europe and points further East all the way to Beijing and Tokyo.

CNN and TIME magazine and other TIME/Warner media properties actually are doing a much better job of balanced coverage of Africa than much of their competition. Does Germany's ARD and ZDF networks have a program like CNN's Inside Africa or Inside the Middle East? Is there a TV network like the U.S.-based Africa Channel operating in the U.K. or in Spain or China? The answer is NO and there is nothing like these channels and programs on the horizon in these countries because the financial support and mass market interest is simply not there. Punkt!

Fortune magazine (CNNMoney.com) has just published a great article by Vivienne Walt about the growing business boom in Khartoum, Sudan. The New York Times West Africa bureau chief, Lydia Polgreen, has just published a very interesting artice about a budding cultural revival taking place in the historic Malian city of Timbuktu. That's just two examples from the last three days. Do you need more?

Posted by: BRE | Aug 9, 2007 3:54:36 AM

It's good to see companies entertaining the idea of developing alternate African news channels. But in developing these media channels, I think attention needs to be paid to the analytical nature of the content. Simply putting together a channel of success stories, unfortunately, will not sell, since consumers have grown accustomed to the famine/war/disease news of Africa. And as you mentioned journalists tend to follow the path of least resistance. Fortunately, many mainstream media channels are already successfully adopting new ways of doing business - USAToday.com is a good example.

As was mentioned in previous comments, there are many of us in the African blogosphere who are already independently creating content which successfully reports and analyses African news. Companies looking to develop new African news channels need only tap into this vast network to create a viable product.

Posted by: G. Kofi Annan | Aug 9, 2007 8:58:01 AM

A further note to Lisbon..

It has been great to see all the blogging that is being done on what's going on in Africa. There is a lot of positive news now available to interested parties. But the bottom line is that in terms of the western media, blogs are still not mainstream (with perhaps a few exceptions), and the mainstream media is still responsible for most of the average layman's information, and indeed attitudes.

I am still smarting from a conversation in Miami last winter with an African American MBA who was aggressively justifying the U.S. presence in Iraq in terms of protecting the U.S. against additional 9/11 "terrorists" and Islam. It was like listening to Fox/Murdoch un-filtered. And this from a supposedly well educated young man. Scary.

I think Africa needs at least one media center along the lines of what is in Dubai, and it would be good to see a country take such an initiative. Not a propaganda center, but a place where like minded professionals can exercise their crafts and professions in optimum conditions. A place for cross-fertilization of ideas and best practice. Foreign investment subsidies often do not include media services under their umbrella.

I believe that the natural output of these professionals would go a long way towards correcting distorted images of the continent, particularly of sub-Saharan Africa. Marshall McCluhan was perhaps right...

Posted by: bill carney | Aug 12, 2007 2:50:00 AM

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