Towards better journalism in Africa

The Forum for African Investigative Reporters welcomes the efforts by Unesco and Rhodes University to start the debate to break through this sad state of affairs and define an ‘African way forward’ for journalism education and practice in Africa. Some challenges to address here, concretely in a new manual called ‘Reporting Africa’ have been identified by Professor Fackson Banda in his recent colloquium speech ‘Towards an African agenda for journalism education’.

Below, I would like to comment on two of these challenges.

1) The dichotomy between journalism education and journalism practice.

Journalism education, often brought to us by western educators and trainers and through western books, is based on the western context, which is vastly different: a context that applies to an industrialized, wealthy, urbanized part of the world. This education doesn’t teach enough practical skills and approaches to overcome the challenges a journalist faces in the African environment. Journalists who are educated in this way will of course know a few basics: how to interview politicians, how to interview opponents of these politicians for balance; how to develop a good narrative, how to splash incriminating documents on front pages, etcetera.

However, they are often found to be out of depth when it comes to observation of the reality around them (for instance, in the poor area where they themselves grew up); independently questioning of that reality;  and developing a narrative from there.

Even when the issue is an issue that is relevant to Africa (for instance corruption, or HIV/Aids) it is often taught through a prism that is separated from African reality. I take the liberty of giving two examples.

Firstly, many NGO-type training institutions educate journalists on how they, in turn, can ‘educate’ the public on how to prevent, for instance, HIV infection. Reports in our possession show that most African audiences are by now very well aware how HIV infection is prevented. However, many vulnerable people live in conditions (lack of condoms, transport, power, money) that simply do not allow them to put that knowledge into practice. Shouldn’t African journalists report on, and question, that reality, instead of churning out the umpteenth Aids awareness report?  Yet, they are taught to do precisely that.

A second example: on development-related issues, we must scrutinise our governments, say the trainers in our workshops, because these governments are corrupt and squander money. We must certainly write about that; the advice and skills taught in this regard are often very valuable. But, in the context of development reporting, this is often the only kind of story we are taught to do. How can this be, when we live in developing countries, where development is taking place all around us? In its current Transnational Investigation, FAIR is looking at development-in progress energized by prostitutes, pirates, and local businesspeople. Ethical and noble these ‘drivers’ may not, or not always, be, but they are surely driving development -perhaps precisely because they move outside difficult legal, structural and bureaucratic constraints. They are building entire cities and communities. Yet, even within FAIR, we needed a debate, a mission statement and much, much resolve before we even saw that this was so. Even we were conditioned to see development as a project whereby the mission comes from the west and the implementation has to be carried out by African governments (which invariably fail). A very narrow prism indeed.

Another element, in  current African journalism education, also referred to by Prof Banda is the emphasis on narrative and other technical-type skills, again to the detriment of understanding and analysing context. One is taught how to accurately report someone’s speech; not to ask what the speech is about and whether -when one compares the speech with the reality/context- whether there is something missing or untrue about it. Again, the observation and questioning of reality, which comes naturally to most citizens, especially the youth, and which should be nurtured and cherished in young journalists, is often not a feature of journalism education. What is journalism without this feature, other than mere stenography?

In the words of Namibian editor Gwen Lister: ‘Often an idealistic youngster with a heart for justice does a better job of journalism than a guy with three degrees behind his name’*.  FAIR has developed the African Investigative Journalism Manuals, with many, real-life African investigative story case studies, in an attempt to bring African reality into African journalistic practice. The IJ Manuals may be a welcome source and reference  for the researchers who will be tasked to work on the Africa Reporting Manual.

2. It is very important that The Africa Reporting Manual is to look at the media industry in Africa today. FAIR is in total agreement with the premise that even the best education is of little use if mechanisms in the industry are unconducive to putting those high ethics and standards into practice.

This is maybe where FAIR can play a role. FAIR’s mission is not to service journalists, but to increase quantity and quality of investigative journalism output in Africa, in the interest of African audiences/citizens. FAIR incentivizes aspiring and working journalists to ‘dig deeper and aim higher’. If schools could use the message that there is a professional body, that can elevate the journalist to great heights (international conferences, transnational team investigations, internationally published and grant-funded investigative works, etc), if only they stick to best practice and perform well, this could counter the still-existing trend to see journalism as a mere stepping stone to a management or PR position.

FAIR has just started a chapter for African media houses and editors, where we invite editors and publishers who are interested in supporting quality output to liaise with us -a kind of ‘find a good journalist’ and ‘find a good media house’ dating service. This discussion and networking initiative could also be used to address challenges in the African media industry.

Lastly, FAIR also networks with foreign correspondents in Africa, many of whom have expressed interest in being informed regularly of good work being done by African investigative reporters. This is a new initiagtive, which may in the long run start to change ‘western’ perceptions of African reality and tilt the balance in favour of African journalists’ independent observations of, investigations into, and reports on Africa.

FAIR would like to cooperate fully with the wonderful initiative of Reporting Africa and are available for any further dialogue. Maybe the initiators would be interested in including one of FAIR’s academic members on the relevant research teams and panels? Or we will just cyber-network!

Evelyn Groenink
Director, FAIR, 2008

*Nyamnjoh wrote his article “Journalism in Africa: modernity, Africanity” in Rhodes Journalism Review.
** Gwen Lister was quoted in the report ‘Patriots or Puppets’, that led to the foundation of FAIR.

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