By BENJAMIN EDOKPAYI
BENIN CITY, NIGERIA – I wondered aloud “Here we go again into a season of headlines that inflame and do not correspond with the body of the story” as I read a recent Reuters article titled: “Nigeria election tensions raise spectre of break-up.”
The piece, by Tim Cocks, seemed like a patchwork of political views and analysis from around the country indicating tension and frictions as most political seasons anywhere always do. But I think the writer or his copy-desk staff derailed by insinuating a “break-up” of Nigeria in their headline.
From what I, based here in Benin City, have seen the Nigerian people are indeed anxious for a change in what the story correctly described as the most “divisive and closely fought election since the end of military rule in 1999.” But the country is not “waiting to explode” as a sub-heading in the Reuters story further implies.
In fact, minus the Boko Haram scourge in the northeast, I think the parties have coped with the contentious issues very well. In my humble opinion, the Reuters piece was inflammatory journalism at its best or worst, depending on what side of the argument you are on.
As a matter of fact, the issue of covering Africa in the right manner has been a long-running one, and probably deserves a UN-sponsored study.
Covering the continent indeed presents some real challenges which there are no easy answers for. The first thing the western media has to realize is it is a continent with 54 countries that are uniquely different, and regional nuances that cannot be replicated from country to country, as may exist in Europe.
“When a foreign journalist enters a space in which he speaks the formal but only understands the informal, a great deal will necessarily be lost in translation. I believe that it is in this space that most of the mistakes occur when writing about Africa,” Nyabola wrote in a piece that was sparked by the slanted coverage by the west of a recent crisis in Western Sudan.
Nyabola offered another interesting perspective to the challenge of reporting correctly on Africa when she wrote, “Sending people who speak only English or even Swahili to find people who also speak English or Swahili is always going to create a selection bias, and necessitates a process of translation within which the nuance of coded, non-verbal communication will be lost.”
As a matter of fact, I have been engaged for more than a week now in a passionate debate with some of my colleagues in America on how to correctly report on Africa based on how Boko Haram is being covered by both the Nigerian and the western media.
The debate was sparked by one of our colleagues in the U.S.-based National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), All Digitocracy founder Tracie Powell, who informed us after Boko Haram attacks early in January that “there is a real hunger for information about what is happening in Nigeria right now, but what little we’re getting in the U.S. is confusing.”
Our obviously concerned colleague in the U.S. was insistent on Nigerian journalists taking the lead on this story. But what she might not be aware of are the unique challenges local journalists faced, which Eyobong Ita, president of the U.S.-based National Association of African Journalists (NAAJ) tried to convey in one of the exchanges.
Ita is currently in Nigeria covering the country’s presidential election.
“It is even more difficult to cover events in the northern part of the country because of the landscape, language and culture. Among the tools needed to do a good job trying to cover anything in most part of northern Nigeria is an indigenous Hausa language translator and a lot of cash to take care of accommodation, transportation and food. Remember, some of these affected communities may not have hotels and lodging could be miles away,” wrote Ita in one of the exchanges.
From my conclusions while we are quick to accuse the western media for not covering Africa right, the local media in Nigeria should also shoulder some blame too for allowing ethical and other logistical issues affect the way they report on pressing matters impacting the continent.
So what to do?
For the media in Nigeria (I can’t speak for other African countries) we need to be more daring and resourceful in the way we cover and report issues.
I remember with pride the era of investigative journalism that the late Dele Giwa and founding editors at Newswatch turned into an art form. We braved everything including the weather and danger to get exclusive stories. Covering the Lake Nyos disaster in Cameroon is a good example for me; where I braved the elements (as well as getting lost in the forest) to get an exclusive report that was used by the foreign media, including the Voice of America’s Sonja Pace. The former managing editor of VOA confessed to me (after stopping halfway in our trek through the tropical rain forest) that that type of assignment was “not in her job description.” The inspiration that kept me and Conrad Akwu, my photographer who traveled with me, was Giwa’s challenge that “if anybody can get this story for us, Ben will.”
And for the western media? I look again to some instructive advise from my learned friend at Harvard who advises that “There is an easy way to resolve this of course: Ask Africans what they think and have them tell their own stories, instead of co-opting them to undermine or reinforce existing narratives among the Western audience. But given the aforementioned racial hierarchy of knowledge in the Western public sphere, I doubt this will happen and we should all prepare ourselves for another bout of misunderstanding.”
With more than one billion people and the huge potentials that exist here, I think it’s about time for the western media to stop portraying almost every story that originates from Africa in a negative manner. At the same time, it is past time for Nigerians, and Africans as a whole, to start doing a better job telling our own stories.