As part of the first ever Africa Week, experts gathered Tuesday to discuss the media’s failure to show the culture and everyday life of African people through its news coverage.
The panel, organized by Daniel Atwater, president of the USC branch of the Sierra Leone Educational Enrichment Project, was one of five events held this week as part of Africa Week. The week’s events, which include film screenings and discussion, focus on different countries within the continent and on positive exposure and development in the continent.
Atwater said he, among others, coordinated and marketed Africa Week, which he said will be scheduled every April in the future. By collaborating with other student organizations like Invisible Children, a group dedicated to raising awareness about children in Uganda, and reaching out to Adam Clayton Powell, vice provost for globalization, he was able to put together the string of events that started Saturday and will end today.
Invisible Children had hoped to launch Africa Week last year, but it did not come together.
“So I said, ‘You know what, Invisible Children, I’ll make sure it finally happens,’” Atwater said.
Tuesday’s panel, which was the highlight of Africa Week, included Michael Parks, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and former Pulitzer Prize winner who has worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa; Chris Mendez, technology director of the Tiziano Project; Bob Reid, executive vice president and general manager of the Africa Channel; and Carola Weil, associate dean for planning and strategic initiatives at Annenberg. About 50 students, faculty staff and outside visitors attended the event.
All of the panelists agreed there is a lack of positive coverage of Africa in the media but spoke of different ways to approach the issue.
Parks said it is important for the media to help the public understand aspects of life in Africa aside from its problems.
“It it might be an answer to solving our understanding Africa, which is thin … undernourished and needs a complete re-orientation,” Parks said. “If there’s no conflict, there’s no story. And that’s not sufficient.”
Reid looked back on his life as a child growing up in the segregated South. He was constantly bombarded with negative images of Africa, for example, through the popular film Tarzan, which he said depicts the only smart character as the white man. Reid mentioned he didn’t think stereotyping of the continent has changed much since that day.
“The point is the lack of knowledge breeds not only contempt but ignorance,” Reid said.
Reid mentioned that conflict journalism leads to a lack of interest in investing in Africa and a fear of traveling there.
“There are these great stories out of Africa that are on T.V. in Africa, and all over Africa, but these are not stories that are seen in the U.S.,” Reid said.
Reid mentioned that the Africa Channel exists because there are a great number of stories to be told and mentioned a new program the Africa Channel is working on that will allow first time visitors to Africa share their experiences.
Weil said there are many questions to be thinking about and plenty of market forces to consider when discussing why Africa hasn’t gotten more positive coverage.
“There are market forces that drive the stories that make it to the front covers and the headlines,” she said. “It’s not just about bad news telling, it’s about who sits in the decision-making positions — who are the editors?”
Mendez is the director of technology for the Tiziano Project, a multimedia website founded by USC alumni and students that aims to help people in conflict zones like Northern Iraq. He said technology has opened up new doors for storytelling in African countries.
“[There are] 350 million people on Facebook, hundreds of millions of videos being uploaded on YouTube every single hour,” he said.
Parks noted that better and more varied press coverage, though helpful, is not the answer to all of Africa’s problems.
“We need a different type of journalism if we’re going to understand Africa,” Parks said. “[But] we’re not going to solve the problems of Africa, Africans need to do that. But our understanding of Africa needs a tremendous improvement.”