Whether you are an African expatriate hoping to stay in touch with what is going on in your home country, a potential tourist hoping to do research on the best place to visit, a political student striving to understand the development in Africa, or simply well-wisher dedicated to unload of few bucks to chip in the aid for Africa, translating the information you read into valuable knowledge is an important task
Like any other continent, Africa offers a set of complex realities that can offer conflicting outcome for the party interested; moreover, accessing the information you need is not always evident between the information you look for, and the information you find.
Below is a short description of criteria to consider when reading or researching news on Africa. While the list is not exclusive, and can certainly be extended, I believe this initial guidepost may help. Feel free to add or consider additional helpful points.
1. Consider the source of the information
Africa is a very complex place, that combines many world and realities, the gap between the rich and the poor creates in many places two different societies whose world rarely collide. For that reason, news sources are often tailored to one group or the other.
Understanding the source of the information will help you assess the legitimacy of the information you have. For example, is it a local or foreign news source? Foreign sources often have greater access to political circles because the government is more concerned about the way it is portrayed to the outside world; however, foreign sources rarely give you the real pulse of the nation. If the source is local, consider the accreditation that is reflected by interviews or first hand accounts. In Africa, Official news is often given unofficially, while official news is a front. That means that those sources that have close access to the government are more likely to give credible news, compare to unaccredited sources to whom is given generic news. (More on it further down)
2. Try to capture the perspective of the information
In Africa, the freedom of the press is not a sacred duty, and as mentioned above, free and transparent news are not evident. As a result, news often reflects the perspective of the source. The information you will get is based on the perception of the source. In the West, Africa is widely primarily viewed as a continent ravaged by war and diseases, where impoverished people and government are struggling very hard to survive, and thus their lives and activities are geared toward Help and how the global community can help them. As a result, most African news coming from the West will treat topics such as aid, sanction, peace and war, and oil discovery. Human rights, rigged election and corruption are other subjects often treated; in other words, Western media tend to chronicle Africa’s efforts to “join” or emulate them.
When it comes to local media and news sources, the dilemma is different. Elite and well positioned news sources depicts the political life of the country, meaning that their news are mostly geared toward accounts of big political activities, such as Presidential travels and visits, opposition complaints, foreign investment, dignitaries visits, Diaspora news and international events in which the government participate. In short, those news sources attempts to present information from the perception of Africa to the rest of the world.
Finally, local media perception is often directed at the local population, therefore offers information on issue that matters to locals; energy and gas issues, employment, government promises kept or not, education, political freedom, cultural and social safeguard, etc…
3. Acknowledge the Biases
In the U.S, it is often assumed that CNN is Pro-democrats, and Fox News is a Republican arm, regardless if true or not, that perception is very present in Africa as well; not in form of Republican or democrats of course, but they still play a short role.
From the day of colonization, Western Nations had strategic interests in Africa, and Political propaganda has insured that many Westerners view some African countries internal policies as beneficial or threatening to their way of life.
If your African news information is from a Western source, always consider the position of your country with the African country you are researching. Popular opinion is critical and very few Western media will say nice things about the Zimbabwe government for example. Western media will offer news based on the national interest of their home country. You will rarely read negative report about the Egyptian Government that has good relations with Washington, although it is not a beacon of Democracy, yet Zimbabwe, which has been a torn in their side, is demonized. This is not an attempt to justify the evil of some people, but it is worth considering that Western media will report information according to the way they wish a certain country to be viewed.
If you wish to avoid the biases of Western news outlet, you are better off searching for African news by African news outlets. There again, there is an often bias between Pro and anti government. Some news sources are government sponsored, while other are dedicated to discredit the government regardless of good deeds or not. In Africa the contrast is usually very strong, as you can read full articles of “official” news feed that praises the government unashamedly, while others are almost littered with insults. Very rarely will you find news source that are impartial, and it is usually very evident to distinguish the sources political leanings.
Given the polarity of African societies, and the actuality of International Relations, one must not look at news Biases with pure disgust, but as a component and vital actor of global politics; filling between diverse biases can actually help uncover valuable information. But in case it doesn’t help, always consider independent news and…
4. Identify the agendas
If for some reasons you are unable to filter official and supposedly professional news sources, do make use of independent news sources such as NGO’s and Think Tank. Because they are usually unaffiliated with any government, and their work is mainly based on empirical data and research, NGO and Think Tank do paint an educated and comprehensive picture of what is going on in Africa. Most of their works are expanded toward a wide range of subjects that reflects a non-partial view of government activities, social realities and international implications.
If you obtain your news via NGOs or Think Tanks, you are most likely to have access to strong data, depending on the Think Tank, and hard core evidence of what is going on in the country you research.
The only problem presented by NGOs and Think Tanks is that they do have an agenda. The nature of their strong work is usually motivated by the mission to influence or advice a government to act toward an issue they view as important. Because of that agenda, those organizations often accentuate an issue to the point where it overshadows others, making it look like an exaggeration.
For example if an NGO has for agenda to reduce arm trafficking in Africa, their information may offer solid leads on the pulse of a country, with credible evidence; however, their extensive research on the impact of arm trafficking may minimize other positive information, to the point of giving the impression that you can buy Ak47 at a candy store. This of course is not with the intent to deceive or dramatize, but with the objective of using the data to convince world powers to act on arms trafficking.
If you know how to extract your information from those sources, they are an excellent balance to local and international news.
5. Check the blogs
Africa sends millions of its bright Sons and Daughters abroad to study in higher education, and loses other millions professionals in search of a better living. While the damages of this brain drain are considerable, the attachment all those Africans retain for their homeland represents a glimpse of hope.
Since they cannot directly be involve in official affairs in their home countries because of the distance or political threats, many member of the African Diaspora voice their opinions in blogs or personal websites.
The advantage of reading those opinionated blogs is that it offers a personal touch and reaction to all the other news you may have read.
Many are very knowledgeable in what they are writing, and approach it in a very professional way. They are not constrained by editorial control, so are free to give their honest, educated opinion on what they read, heard or experienced in and out of Africa.
If they are not that knowledgeable on African affairs anymore, many still have families abroad who can give them first account to report on what is happening.
Because they are so many blogs related to Africa, you can not only compare information and news, but also engage the writers and have a better feel on how and where they get to say what they are saying.
For most people, this is a valuable source, because on top of general political views, they can offer a personal one, as well as giving an insight on how and where people live their everyday, not to mention, where the hotspots are.
The disadvantage of Blogs is that it is after all just personal opinions, and personal opinions can be motivated or inspired by perception, Bias, and /or agenda. It is not uncommon for exile politicians to mount an opposition from abroad, something blogs tend to make easier, so caution is advised for that reason.
6. Search for supportive news
Every news agency is in search of a scoop, and none wants to be left out of considerable information.
Whenever you stumble on interesting information for your research, after identifying the source, always make sure to search if that information is reprised by other news outlets.
When it comes to Africa, it is very common for news to be generalizing, but if you feel you came across useful information, always double check if you can locate it in other Western sources (if those where your primary sources), and then in local African sources. Check in Blogs and social sites if it is being discussed, or better create a new discussion.
The fact of the matter is that if you are looking for information on Africa, the complexity of its state does not favor taking any information at face value, but insuring that it is shared, discussed and not hostage to any perception and bias will help you have good grip on what is going on.
7. Use common sense
In Politics like in everything, things happen for a reason, from a coup d’Etat, to a social uprising, and political instability to international sanction.
Africa is not another planet we know nothing about, and it did not appear without a past or history.
In everything you read or learn about Africa, consider the context and remember history. Famine and poverty did not come suddenly; wars all have a spark plug, poor countries should not be able to buy weapons they do not manufacture.
The context and the historical reality that today links nearly all countries on Earth presents the fertile ground on how you will receive the news you receive, they way you receive it.
Knowledge is a light to which is drawn a bug called interest, and common sense should help you navigate the waves of misinformation toward the land of comprehension of the subject you research.
As mentioned, this is a list that can be extended and perfected, but for all who have at one point or another, read African news or wanted to understand what is going in Africa, I hope that little list will be helpful the next time it happens.
Over-reliance on popular media is like over relying in anything, it cripples one’s ability, and dilutes the quality of the need sought.
Stay thirsty for knowledge; you might very well quench your thirst yourself.