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Afro-pessimism

Afro-pessimism
© University of East Anglia

Poverty, pandemics, famines, civil wars, corruption and coup d’états. These are some of the main topics that have characterised ‘western’ media representations of Africa. Afro-pessimism is a term that media scholars have coined to capture this trend.

It refers largely to the overwhelmingly ‘negative’ stories that dominate media coverage of Africa. Schraeder and Endless (1998), for instance, analysed how The New York Times covered Africa between 1955 and 1995 and found that “73% of all articles provided negative images of African politics and society”. At the same time, ‘positive’ stories relating to culture and arts, domestic politics, rural affairs, or local civil society initiatives are underreported.

Secondly, Afro-pessimism refers to the way that complex events taking place in Africa, such as violent conflicts, are often simplified or sensationalised. As a result, audiences lack the necessary information to make sense of the news stories and images. For example, a study of UK TV news coverage of the 1994 Rwandan genocide found that Rwanda is routinely portrayed as “as a place of ‘tribal conflict’, ‘tribal enemies’, ‘ethnic war’, ‘insanity’, ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’”, where “violence happens…because it is Africa” (Beattie et al. 1999: 254).

This leads to a third key characteristic of Afro-pessimism: the tendency to paint a homogenous image of the continent. Western media, scholars argues, often fail to capture the incredibly diverse histories and the profoundly uneven social, economic and political developments within and between African countries. This homogenisation is reinforced by the way that many African countries are invisible in the media. One study found that countries like Benin, Chad, Djibouti, Mauritania or Gabon were almost never mentioned by five major U.S. television networks during a 30-year period (Kalyango & Onyebadi, 2012).

Ultimately, Afro-pessimism brings our attention to the way the media portray Africa as unable to govern itself and, as a result, in need of assistance from the West that is (falsely) portrayed as more ‘developed’. Here it is important to acknowledge historical roots of Afro-pessimism. Its origins lie in colonial narratives about Africa as the ‘dark’ continent and racist stereotypes of Africans as ‘savage’, ‘primitive’, ‘uncivilised’, ‘exotic’, and ‘child-like’. While the language and imagery used by journalists to depict Africa have obviously changed since the 19th century, the question remains: can we identify traces of these colonial notions in contemporary media representations?

In a seminal book Africa’s Media Image (1992), Beverly Hawk writes:

‘Western beliefs about Africa have constructed an image of Africa as the repository of our greatest fears. The colonial image has become the media image…Media set out the categories (primitive/modern) and define the concepts recognizable to readers and viewers…These paradigms were not chosen because they are an accurate summary of African reality and experience. They do not originate in Africa at all. They were chosen because they correspond to notions about Africa already existing in the minds of Westerners. The ‘news’ is not new, nor challenging to colonial notions about Africa. The news is not a flow of information from the South to the North at all but a flow of information from the North to the North. Indeed, some would go so far as to claim that we do not really get any news from Africa.’

Yet, we also need to be cautious about making any sweeping generalisations. Much of what we know about ‘western’ media representations of Africa is based on studies that focus on print media in just a handful of countries, mainly the UK and the United States. Furthermore, there is some evidence that routine coverage of Africa in the UK press, for example, might not be as “marginalized, negative or trivial” as the notion of Afro-pessimism suggests (Scott, 2009).

So has Afro-pessimism become less prominent in the 21st century? Follow the next step to find out more.

But first watch this iconic BBC news report by Michael Buerk about the 1984 famine in Ethiopia and share your thoughts below:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

  • Why do you think this has become such an iconic report?
  • Why might this portrayal of the famine be problematic?
  • How does this report differ from the kinds of coverage you see today?

References

Beattie, L., Miller, D., Miller, E. and Philo, G. (1999). The media and Africa: Images of disaster and rebellion in G. Philo (ed.) Message Received: Glasgow Media Group Research 1993-1998. Harlow: Longman.

Hawk, B.G. (1992). Africa’s Media Image. London: Praeger.

Kalyango, Y. & Onyebadi, U. (2012). Thirty Years of Broadcasting Africa on U.S. Network Television News, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(4), 669-687.

Schraeder, P. & Endless, B. (1998). The Media and Africa: The Portrayal of Africa in the New York Times (1955–1995). Issue: A Journal of Opinion, 26(2), 29-35.

Scott, M. (2009). Marginalized, negative or trivial? Coverage of Africa in the UK press. Media, Culture & Society, 31(4), 533–557.

© University of East Anglia
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