‘The worst of journalism’ was the title of an open letter written and signed by 200 writers and academics from across the USA and beyond led by Howard French, associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The letter opened bare the debate on the portrayal of Africa, its people and diaspora in the American mainstream media.
The letter was directed towards ‘60 minutes,’ a show aired on CBS and claimed‘to render people of black African ancestry voiceless and all but invisible.’ The three segments of the 60 minutes show most highlighted in the letter were regards to the portrayal of African wildlife and the recent Ebola crisis, whereby it was felt that the show was portraying that the defenders of lions and people on the African continent were being led by and taken care of not by African themselves but by outsiders as if feeding into the psyche of super America as a superhero both saving the day and Africa herself.
The letter stated strong criticism of the reportage on Liberia;‘Liberians not only died from Ebola, but many of them contributed bravely to the fight against the disease, including doctors, nurses and other caregivers, some of whom gave their lives in this effort. Despite this, the only people heard from on the air were white foreigners who had come to Liberia to contribute to the fight against the disease.<g data-gr-id="78">’</g>
Perhaps the aired reports were perpetuating history, showing amnesia or on the other side of the debate highlighting levels of corruption or apathy that might be being displayed by Africans themselves or perhaps CBS felt it was presenting the news in a palatable way to its viewers. CBS may have felt the criticism to be harsh or their programs misunderstood, and that they were simply presenting their perspective to their viewers and possibly in defence believed other American channels provide their viewers with little exposure to the stories about Africa. The letter went on to state ‘Africans themselves are typically limited to the role of passive victims or occasionally brutal or corrupt villains and incompetents; they are not otherwise shown to have any agency or even the normal range of human thoughts and emotions. Such a skewed perspective not only <g data-gr-id="61">dis-serves</g> Africa, it also badly <g data-gr-id="62">dis-serves</g> the news viewing and news reading public.<g data-gr-id="83">’</g>
Mockingly the writers and academics in the letter state, ‘to be clear, this means that Africa only warrants the public’s attention when there is disaster or human tragedy on an immense scale, when westerners can be elevated to the role of central characters, or when it is a matter of that perennial favourite, wildlife.’‘The great diversity of African experience, the challenges and triumphs of African peoples, and above all, the voices and thoughts of Africans themselves are chronically and woefully underrepresented and they further go on to state ‘we would like to see 60 Minutes rethink its approach to Africa.’ Perhaps the writers and academics themselves felt marginalised regards contemporary opinion on Africa.
A spokesman for CBS replied ’60 Minutes is proud of its coverage of Africa and has received considerable recognition for it. We have reached out to Mr French to invite him to discuss this further and we look forward to meeting with him.<g data-gr-id="77">’</g>
Towards the end of the letter it stated‘over the coming decades, Africa will become the backdrop of some of the most significant developments on the planet, from unprecedented population growth, urbanisation and economic change to, potentially, the wholesale reconfiguration of states.’ The dynamic changes in Africa will undoubtedly raise the interest of the world media and present choices to the African people including its writers, artists and academics to whom these changes will affect as to the direction they want to seeAfrica move towards and be portrayed to the world and Africa herself.
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