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A Place on the Edge: Textual Analysis of Online News About Africa

Omolola Anne Famuyiwa*

Ohio University, Athens

*Corresponding Author:
Omolola Anne Famuyiwa
Ohio University, Athens
Email: annecares@hotmail.com

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Abstract

This paper examines the coverage of Africa on websites of news stations in the United States. CBS, ABC, NBC and PBS are four major sources of news in the United States and their websites are created to enable more people have access to the world. This paper will report on a textual analysis of online news about Africa especially in relation to “children”, “health” and “education” looking at both headlines and stories. Stories that mention celebrities, politicians or politics is excluded.

Rationale

Recently, I visited a school in the Athens area to talk about my home country – Nigeria - and to my shock the children and even teachers knew very little about my country which has come to be known by the world as the giant of Africa. As I tried to comprehend this discovery I asked “What do you know about Africa?” and what I heard made me realize how far removed they are from the true situation in Africa. This led me to find out how much information was available in the local and national newspapers. I found out from reading The Athens Messenger, The Post, The Athens News, New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post and Washington Times that in summary stories about Africa show that Africans are weak and depend on the West for help. Then I decided to check online for what Africans are writing about themselves and how they are trying to re-orientate the young ones (even if it is almost impossible to change the mind set of adults). A quick search of the websites of 10 most accessed African online newspapers (Online Newspapers.com, 2006) published in English – The Guardian (Nigeria), This Day (Nigeria), The Punch (Nigeria), Vanguard (Nigeria), The Sun (Nigeria), The Daily Nation (Kenya), Champion News (Nigeria), Nigerian Tribune (Nigeria), Daily Independent (Nigeria), East African Standard (Kenya) - made me see that very minimal reference is made to “children”, “youth”, “young people” or the likes and only one of the African online newspaper websites had a link to a children’s webpage. With this I came to the conclusion that it is necessary to understand more clearly the stories for and about children in African online newspapers. This turned out to be a Herculean task as the data was not readily available online and the editors were not forthcoming with regard to response to my mails. While I believe research on African online newspapers is important, I realized that to understand U.S. children’s beliefs about Africa it was important to look at what is written in United States online news report about Africa. Since young people are more likely to look to the web for their news (Globescan, 2005), I decided to do a textual analysis of four major news websites to enable me see how Africa is represented in news stories in the United States.

Research Questions

Based on my experience with children in Athens Schools, I formulated the following questions:

RQ1: What geographic areas of Africa are represented in news stories?

RQ2: What are the themes of the stories?

RQ1: What image of Africa do the stories portray?

Literature Review

A number of studies have been carried out on children in relation to health and education. Also a number of subjects are available on the representation of Africa in news but here I’ll focus on that which has to do with online news.

According to Mahamat Saleh Haroun the Director of the hit African film Abouna (Our Father) “...it is down to Africans to shake off stereotypes by telling their own stories” (Starwars, 2003). Lyombe Eko an associate professor in communication and journalism and an award-winning documentary film maker is of the opinion that following the concept of if it bleeds it leads has led Americans to “see only the disease and pestilence. Good things happen but they don’t make the news. American viewers have a selective and jaundiced picture of most of the world”. He goes on to say “You must bypass the media images to get a realistic picture of what the world is like. Go visit. If you can’t do that, seek out realistic documentaries that don’t feed the usual developing world stereotypes of famine and earthquakes” (Eko, 2003). Emeka Okafor a consultant in sustainable technologies noted that “when main stream media frames Africa, three topics come up again and again: AIDS, AIDS, and AIDS. The relentless focus on AIDS plays into the framework of helplessness associated with the continent (Eko, 2003).

To Carol Pineau, a journalist with more than 10 years experience in reporting for Africa and the producer of the film “Africa: Open for Business”, it would be criminal not to cover or report on the genocide going on in Sudan yet she insists this must not become the only focus. While citing the Columbine school shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing and other US tragedies she asked reporters, “how would you feel as an American if all anyone ever talked about was the disasters of America?” (McLaughlin 2005). “The image of Africa in the western media is awful” said Mel Foote, founder of constituency for Africa “the thing we have to do is to improve the image of Africa” (Russell, 2002). The Zambian Ambassador to the US, Dr. Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika added “The image we have of Africa is the bad, ugly and the gruesome… Anything good, beautiful or progressive, no one (in media) will cover that” To Angelique Shofar, host of Africa Meets Africa on WPFW 89.3 in Washington DC “It’s about getting them (media) to step into our world and educating them” (Russell 2002). Niamh O’Sullivan a First Class Honors Graduate of the University of Ulster said: I traced the portrayal of black Africans from when cameras first entered the continent through to the 20th century. “Despite the developments in the African world over the last few hundred years, the first pictures of starving, black children that emerged are still the legacy that remain in modern society.” (News Release, 2003). It is also worth noting that when evidence emerges of Belgian ‘peacekeepers' roasting a Somali child, and of Canadians and Italians raping and torturing Somalis, and various other examples of Western brutality, their actions are not seen as a reflection of the values of their societies (Smith, 1997). Rod Chavis (1998) during his presentation at the African Studies Consortium Workshop put it succinctly when he said:

What do negative media images, conveyed by the Western Media about Africa communicate? What darkness prevails in the mind of the producer(s)? What gains for whom derive from journalistic bombast and unmitigated stereotype of a whole continent? Nouns and adjectives like hut, dark, tribe, King Kong, tribalism, primitive, nomad, animism, jungle, cannibal, savage, underdeveloped, third world, developing, etc., are yet pervasive when Africa is the story. Reports have maintained a negative reportage policy when the subject is Africa. Balance is rarely evidenced; why? Images of Africa in the Western Media, many times, are deeply troubling psychologically and emotionally, especially to those claiming her as primordial heritage, lineage, and descendency. They portray a no there stand: no culture, no history, no tradition, and no people, an abyss and negative void. (Chavis, 1998)

According to William Easterly (2006) a professor of Economics, “One hope that in 2006, it will finally be understood that Africa’s true saviors are the people of Africa and that those who must help them in their task must also be accountable to them.”

All of these reports reflect a continent in turmoil and despair. By neglecting to report on positive developments in Africa, the Western media perpetuates the stereotype of Africa as a continent whose people are unable to advance themselves. Africa is projected as a continent that still has to rely on its European colonizers for assistance.

Methodology

This study is grounded in both textual and content analysis. I gathered and analyzed the content of text on four websites - CBS, ABC, NBC and PBS - using 3 search themes – Africa and Children, Africa and Health, Africa and Education. Using the themes I found out that there were between 68 and 6856 stories on each and these stories would usually be repetitions or fall completely outside my scope (see table 1). To narrow down my search I used the selected themes to search out 10 relevant stories from the first 50 stories of each online news report. The data was coded for recurring themes or representation. Using the headline and first five paragraphs of the first 10 stories under the categories “children”, “health” and “education”, I focused on what is included and what is excluded from the news reports. My plan was to look for the common representations and to see if the sites reflect what I know about Africa today.

Analysis

The analysis was conducted in three stages.

First, I began by carefully looking through each story. Second, after going through each story a number of times I focused on the first five paragraphs to determine how it relates to any of the themes and I began to put together similar stories and to interpret the headline and content of the stories. While analyzing I realized that based on the search themes stories were mixed, for instance, the search for “Africa and Children” brought out stories that had to do wit health as well as stories that related to education. Finally, I checked with students (American Citizens) to see if the interpretation I gave is similar to what comes across from the story. My protocol was based on content and headlines written about the stories.

Process of coding

I created codes and definitions by looking at the site and the printed stories from the site over and over again. I went beyond what is apparent to see the connotative meaning of the stories and headlines (see Appendix II).

Description

The first thing that greets you on doing a quick glance at the sites is the level of urgency that trails the stories. Though these networks are seen as windows on the world or mirror on the African society submissions can hardly be substantiated from direct understanding of the culture and people. I looked at the first 10 stories that matched the themes “Africa and Children”, “Africa and Health” and “Africa and Education” from CBS News, ABC News, PBS News, and NBC News. Most of the stories under children, health and education overlap e.g. a story on health could be related to children and possibly talk about educating young people or mothers about health practices and a story on education could focus on educating children about HIV/AIDS. Also I noticed that a number of the stories were generated in developed countries (US, UK, UN) and were requesting for some form of change instead of looking at the positive high points in developing societies (Table 2: CBS 2, 8, Table 4: PBS 4, NBC 3). Most of the stories were by Reuters and Associated Press, though the stations had some direct reports they often work in collaboration with these two agencies. Most stories on ‘Africa and Children’ are devoted to Middle East and North Africa (MENA); these were excluded from my data as it is outside my selection criteria.

ABC News is mainly on celebrities while PBS News which is outlined as an interview or essay is geared towards politics. Majority of the stories on Africa were on South Africa with over 10% having headlines with the words “South Africa (Table 3: CBS 2, 8, PBS 4, NBC 3, 6). Other stories were on Nigeria (multiple issues), Botswana (HIV/AIDS), Sudan (war) and Congo and Niger (famine). Most of the stories had a poverty background and focused on AIDS, Bird Flu and Famine. With the discovery of Bird Flu reports on AIDS now compete with reports on Bird Flu. Though stories were chosen initially based on my selection criteria but the stories fell into different categories based on content of the first five paragraphs. I noticed that positive stories about milestones and achievements in relation to Africa were not documented even in the archives.

Results

Based on what most U.S. children have seen via the media, it becomes difficult for them to appreciate Africans or to yearn to visit. Africa to them is a country that is inhabited by uncivilized people who live with animals as such they must be kept at bay. A black man with tribal marks could only have been scratched by a tiger and a woman with black skin is receiving punishment for being born in a poor zone. If children in Appalachia have not flown in a plane then flying to America can only be an African imagination. Do you have four wheelers? Definitely not! These were some of the comments I got from my pupils. After weeks of teaching the cultural studies class I began to see that the impact of misrepresentation can be erased especially from the minds of children if we painstakingly work at it. How? By giving them a real image of Africa and helping them to understand the culture. In talking to my class about tribal marks for instance I told the short fictional story using places that they can relate with. If there is war between Columbus and Athens and soldiers in Athens do not want to harm Athenians as such they came up with a plan B, Athens children must learn difficult conversational codes or get a striking facial mark within 7-days, which would they choose; the children preferred the facial marks. As part of the class we got the color-pencil facial marks after which I asked how they would love to be treated to which one of them said “I guess we’ll be treated fine because we all have the mark”. Good discovery! “But how would you love to be treated when you visit Washington DC?”, “Well, I’m human another one said; after all, I only got this mark to save my life”.

Children who are curious and passionate about learning about current events and other worlds would often turn to seemingly credible sources to get their information. After social studies or cultural studies classes children are likely to search for more information via the web unfortunately, these ‘credible sources’ cannot be said to give a balanced representation and these comes to bear negatively on how Africans are appreciated for their unique culture.

These children are never aware of the absence in the stories; issues like the success of immunization programs, local initiatives, stories on positive change, impact of media and non governmental organizations in the lives of children, sustainable developments, milestones in sports etc are shut from their critical eyes. No African culture, tribe, group received outright commendation for effective programs or policies. Initiatives for Africa by Africans are painted as a test case that is likely to fail. Most of the stories depicted Africa as a continent that is totally reliant and dependent on the West for survival and advancement. There is a lot of emphasis on the support role of the West in the gloomy situation painted of Africa. Since Africa is unable to help herself the West is painted as the “big brother” who is ever ready to take care of Africa’s mess through the giving of relief, aid and debt cancellation. The focus is usually on the intervention of the international agencies instead of on the community or how the community has solved their own problem. The Avian Bird Flu was first discovered in Asia but news about Bird Flu in Africa far outweighs what we read now about Asia. Mass destruction of birds take place in Nigeria now without intensive testing and the stories are a good source of moral panic. Recently I read two news report; the one from This Day online reports that the type of bird flu discovered in Nigeria as ‘highly pathogenic’, the report is based on a Paris-based health organization’s verdict. The second story by News 24.com says Nigeria has no bird flu as ‘results from the initial tests on chickens that mysteriously died in Northern Nigeria showed no sign of bird flu’. Africans are beginning to wonder if the bird flu issue is not another ploy by the West to push Africa to a point where birds or chickens become the next major item on the import list. Most of the stories on children addressed them as victims which supports previous findings (Raundalen, Steen 2004). Keeping girls out of school or boys dropping out of school (not minding if the children are enrolled in skill training due to poverty e.g. unaffordable school fees) is seen as the cause of extreme poverty, child mortality and AIDS.

People need to learn about the apparent diversity and differences based on location as well as the similarities in humans regardless of color, location, culture, beliefs, religion etc. People are yearning to read about the bright side of things which leads to hope and peaceful coexistence. Americans need to learn about the positive things that would make them yearn to visit Africa instead of giving reasons not to dare the expedition.

Conclusions/Recommendations

Until I came to the United States I never imagined that a poor region existed in the United States neither did I come across news stories on Appalachia. Generally people like to show the positive aspects of their communities (e.g. Columbus as the home of Aviation, Athens as an active player in the abrogation of slave trade through the underground railroads) but pictures and texts on Africa have tilted more to the negative view point. Based on the study I can conclude that the textual representation of Africa cannot be said to be balanced; it leaves little to be imagined in the line of hope.
I couldn’t find enough material on what Africans have written about Africans and Africa so American online news are doing the best to suit their own purpose. A Japanese man once made sense of the interpretations by saying that the idea is to show what is different.

Africa is a beautiful continent where migration to urban area is gradually depleting the rural world yet most scripts, texts and pictures show the rural poverty stricken world as a representation of Africa. This make Africa appear as a country that is reflecting no positive change despite financial aid from the developed world. No doubt this will have some effects on the way people on this side of the divide see and appreciate Africans. Unfortunately, as long as bad news sells, and it most certainly will for a long time to come, we should not hold our breath waiting for the Western media to realize that their images are not an accurate portrayal of Africa's reality. As Africans, we need to stop seeing ourselves through the eyes of the Western media and find a way to make them see us as we see ourselves (Heyden, 2005). Rwandan President Paul Kagame while speaking to the press said, “I urge you to play your role, not merely as watchdogs and whistle-blowers but as advocates and educators in our joint venture to make Africa … a better place”. How can the situation be improved? The Prime Minister of Uganda (a former journalist), Kintu Musoke, has this answer: "Much as we could beseech the international media to give balanced reporting on Africa, we are all convinced the lasting solution will come from within Africans and African governments themselves (Heyden, 2005)."

In line with Ghana's Minister of Communications suggestions on how Africa (and issues relating to children) can be given more balanced and accurate coverage in the world's media I propose the following: 1. There is need for Africans to have a positive image of Africa and disseminate this to the rest of the world through the leaders, government, public and private establishments and citizens. Journalists who serve in international fields as cultural attaches or reporters and producers who package programs for the international market should be trained to handle positive information dissemination.

2. More funds should be disbursed to take care of the communications sector and countries should embark on international relations campaigns and projects.

3. Journalists from other continents deployed to serve in African countries should be willing to learn the language and culture to enable them understand the people and their needs. By doing this they will be in a better position to give a more balanced picture and interpretation of events and happenings in African countries (Spio-Garbrah, 1998)

4. International African Students should act as consultants to elementary and high schools to discuss the true picture with students so that their consciousness about diversity can be increased and they can grow with an appreciation of the African people and culture.

End Note:

1. Starting from a very narrow point to the stage I am now has proved to be a challenge. Copying and printing of news stories was initially based on the headlines but most of this turned out to be dead data as the search will include stories that were not included in my selection criteria.

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