A cancerous image
Is there a relationship
between the representation of sub Saharan Africa and its
Therefore, this article will attempt to provide some ideas for in-depth analysis, in particular concerning the approaches used to study the representation of the African continent (especially by the Western media – press, radio, television1) , the resulting image of Africa, the consequences of the spread (and enduring existence) of this image and the existing possibilities of reversing the trend to some degree. As will be seen, these possibilities are closely linked to the identification not only of assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices, but also of the specific players involved in this scenario, the procedures the latter adopt (more or less deliberately) and the barriers and opportunities they can be faced with.
The lines of study described hereinunder possess evident
features and will therefore be presented separately, even if in many cases
they are intertwined and overlapping and, as can be seen, many authors
have worked in several research fields.
Another study analyzes the image of Africa provided by the former USSR media over a longer time interval (1956 – 1993) than investigated in the previously mentioned US study (Quist - Adade, 2001). The former study revealed that the objectives of the existing interpretative prejudices and stereotypes differed from those reported by Hagos, but nonetheless tended to construct the same shallow and marginalized image as shown by other research on the same topic (Eribo, 2001). These stereotypes ranged from blaming the problems afflicting Africa on “imperialist scheming” to the representation of a continent unable to develop single-handed without outside help, in the case in point international aid that, in the author’s opinion, barely concealed its paternalistic attitude.
There has been a drastic drop in the news on developing countries (by up to 50% in the 1990s) (Philo 2001) and it emerged, for instance, that only 2.2% of a news sample broadcast by the US television networks ABC, NBC and CBS regarded Africa4 . Furthermore, it was seen that in the time interval October 10, 1999 to March 31, 2000 the main Italian TV news programs only dedicated 128 (0.6%) of the 21,500 news items to Africa, and that the vast majority of the news focused on catastrophes and violent episodes (Grandi, 2000). The vast imbalances are even more apparent bearing in mind that the four leading international press agencies (Reuters, Agence France-Press, United Press International and The Associated Press) belong to only three countries and that these four agencies release most of the news to the press rooms worldwide (van der Heyden, undated).
Classic studies have also been conducted on the “newsworthiness”, or – in the case in question – on what the media feel are the vital criteria required to make events occurring in Africa, or in another developing country, international and thus marketable to some degree. Way back in the mid 1960s Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge conduced a famous pioneer study to endeavor to identify these criteria, the combination of which increased the probability of “newsworthiness” (Galtung, Ruge, 1965). For example, events that take place over a period of time that fits in with the work schedule in the specific type of media (24 hours for a newspaper), those that occur on a large enough scale (the size of the headlines depends on how violent or devastating the events are), those that present minor uncertainty (and are thus more easy to interpret) and are closer, and have more significance, to the public’s culture. In other words, events that conform to the pre-existing mental image of Africa (discussed more in depth later on). Furthermore, according to Galtung and Ruge, to make the headlines events must be extraordinary, unforeseen and devastating, happen in important countries and involve important high ranking people and personal affairs.
There is a precise geography of “newsworthiness” as underlined by Herbert Gans’ past studies that revealed the existence of a specific “cognitive map” of the world in the hands of media owners and staff. For example, in that period the US media favored news items regarding allied countries, followed by news from communist countries or their allies (it was the period of the Cold War), and dedicated very little attention to the rest of the world. This state of affairs and also the rationale described by Galtung and Ruge indicated that US activity abroad, activities influencing US politics and citizens, activities of Communist countries, elections and other peaceful changes in the institutions, political conflicts, disasters and reigns of terror were considered newsworthiness events (Gans, 1979). Many of these conclusions were confirmed by later research (Wolf, 1985), and it is rather obvious that – with the exception of the fall of the Berlin Wall – they still hold to some extent especially for the media coverage of African countries.
Another more general type of approach aims at stressing
the ways of “social
There is no doubt that in this scenario the media play the
leading role (as described in depth later on), nevertheless some articles
in this issue of African Societies show they are not the only,
nor the first players. Although the present article mainly focuses on
the role of the media, it must be underlined that the media merely use
and handle pre-existing cultural material for their purposes.
Basically, there is an entire system of narrative sources on Africa (accessed not only by Westerners but also by Africans) providing a broad spectrum of information. It is made up of ethnographic museums, school books, novels, (e.g. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad)6 , travelogues, sermons, informative dossiers complied for investors, films (starting way back with Tarzan), cartoons, comics, music, photographs, posters, documentaries, theme parks, tour brochures, and obviously mass media communications. Yet, this data is often – as documented and described later on – incomplete, stereotyped, misleading and racist (Mengara, 2001). It has been deeply stratified in the cultures of the players involved – from long before from the age of colonization and slavery – and some authors feel that real and proper “decolonization of imagery” has to be achieved in the framework of pluralistic globalization of humanity (Pietrese, Parek, 1995).
As mentioned elsewhere social researchers have played a
particular role in this scenario (Davidson 1969; Mezzana, 2002 ), starting
from those working for colonial research institutes up to the present
day. In reality, the application of evolutionism together
with cultural anthropology (understood as the one social/human
science applicable to the African context according to a tacit but on-going
disguised colonial disciplinary subdivision of the world)
has produced a strong underrepresentation of the African social reality
and its real mechanisms and has attached negative labels to the whole
continent (with categories such as lack of history, animism, primitivism,
and so on). People like Cyril Obe reported the ethnocentrism of the current
debates on Africa and underlined a widespread practice in social
research, i.e. “allowing” local researchers merely
to record brute data that are then used by Western experts to be interpreted
by them as they deem fit (Obi 2001). This practice, along with other factors,
has obviously favored marginalization of African scientists and their
Hence, (and deferring a more detailed analysis to elsewhere
and other sources - some of them previously cited), it is clear that one
of the features of the media is its major role as an information
resource on realities not directly available to individuals,
and this is what the present dossier focuses on. As many studies show,
this peculiar feature of the media is particularly true in the case of
Africa. Even people who have never been to Africa know (or feel they know)
something about it thanks to access - by no means passive, but differentiated
and “negotiated” – to the above mentioned sources. And
according to authors like Beverly G. Hawk, specific cognitive
structures regarding the African continent can be identified.
It is a question of library stock, myths, symbols and structures (see
above) that have accumulated over time and play a part in building, or
at least consolidating, the perception or misperception of unintelligible
and/or little known situations. These structures determine specific
“cultural receptors” concerning the African reality
in the Western public that tend to be reflected on the same Africans (Hawk,
1992). As underlined by many persons, the commercial interests of the
owners of the media and, even more so, the representations on the presumed
expectations of the public are involved in building such structures (Beattie
et al., 1999). Besides, these expectations are usually assessed
by very questionable criteria and lead to false homogenization
of the audience that, in reality also in the case of news on
developing countries and Africa in particular, has very different expectations
It must be pointed out that many of the cited studies do not simply analyze the texts produced and disseminated, but they also examine the crucial factor of iconography (photographs, drawings, maps, prints, posters, food labels and the cinema) (Pieterse, 1992). Recently, in the field of photography alone, the knowledge of the social reality produced by photographers has attracted attention (Mitchell, 1994). It is by no means a neutral production (Bolton, 1992) and often, as in the case of Africa, as shown by the special “tematic analysis” proposed by the Glasgow Media Group (Philo, 1998), it tends to portray individuals or human groups as plain “bodies” – more often that not in need – totally removed from the historical, social and political context they live in. This approach adopted by photographers has been, and stillis, used to support aids campaigns, and often has devastating effects on the image of the continent and its peoples (discussed alter on). Not to mention the iconography linked to the African woman – special victim of the distortion of Africa’s image (Mengara, 2001; Presley, 2000) – and the predominantly folkloristic, rural and naturalistic iconography generally provided by the above mentioned sources that the same cooperation organizations promoting development find difficult to steer clear of. Thus, within the framework of “geopolitical aesthetics” (Jameson, 1992) there has been a longstanding debate on how to achieve a more accurate photographic representation of Africa. And Sebastião Salgado’s contemporary “documentary photograph” approach is gaining ground as many people feel it conveys more effectively the complex lives of the persons in the photograph.7
As mentioned, numerous specific stereotyped representations
and images of Africa
The standard stereotypes indubitably portray the Continent Africa as a place of major natural catastrophes (floods, volcanic eruptions, droughts, etc.) and brutal and violent social conflicts, but also as a breathtakingly beautiful wild habitat. In other words in westerners’ eyes Africa is rife with danger (Hawk 1992), yet at the same time it is an exotic continent, the land of adventure. The first reports given by the nineteenth century explorers described a continent where the people were “different” to us, their pigmentation was different, their anatomy was different (positively or negatively), their traditions were different. Nonetheless, they depicted the inhabitants as simple, hospitable, authentic and kind in line with the myth of the “good savage”. It is also an “allochronic” land (Corbey 1995) where time is believed to flow differently, if at all, to the diachrony experienced by the rest of humanity, or at least in the northern hemisphere. And this is enhanced by the alleged exclusively “rural” nature of the continent.8
Recurring stereotypes of African peoples’ cultural characteristics stress their “alterity” and inveterate diversity compared with Western models. The connotations behind the expression the “Black Continent” has to be extended to take in the supposed darkness, dullness, impenetrability and the occult side of the African world. As can be seen in Jean-Loup Amselle’s article in this issue, only some purely aesthetic elements (African art, the interrelationship between their life and the cosmos, African sexuality, Africans’ sense of community) are recuperated or apprecciated.
As for as mentality is concerned the classic and well known recurring stereotypes of Africans represent them as constantly and inevitably primitive, irrational, superstitious, lazy, as well as incapable to plan or care for themselves plans, if anything just managing to survive. When these characteristics are transferred to know how and professionalism, the result is a picture of individuals and groups possessing poor cognitive and operative capacity, ill suited to managerial positions9 and depending on outside aid for any emergency.
On a political level the current stereotype
is one of anarchic tribalism (an African specialty!) whereby the political
fights of the African populations are mainly thought to be driven by blind
and irrational forces (in other words “tribal” in the worst
sense possible) instead of nationalistic tensions, or any sort of values
ideological or implications (Maloba, 1992). Other frequently adopted categories
include depict despotism and corruption that, ascribed to this continent,
immediately become endemic possessing folkloristic features. The tacit
conclusion is that nothing can work in Africa and no form of government
is possible, let alone a democratic one.
How do the media produce and, if possible, re-elaborate
certain representations of the African continent, what procedures do they
follow? Some researchers (including Beattie et al., 1999; Biney,
1997; Hawk, 1992; Ardesi, 1992; Chavis, 1998) in the wake previous studies
on media operators’ professional practices and routines, have identified
some recurring mechanisms. These include:
Channneling emotions and the role
of international NGOs
The existence of a sort of “structural synergy”
between many of these organizations, the occurrence of catastrophes and
the action of the media in the various forms of so called “disaster
reporting” has been postulated (Ronning, 1998)11
. It must be pointed out that in order to avoid, and if possible, to
prevent such a risk some of the most attentive non governmental
organizations, such as Oxfam, Save the Children and EveryChild launched
reflections of the “ethical use” of images of African people
way back in the 1980s.12
The literature reported in this field has revealed barriers impeding better and more informative coverage on the African continent (Hawk, 1992; Moeller, 1998) over and above the previously mentioned ones, e.g. the imbalances in economic and political relations, in international flow of news, on the methods of social construction of the African reality.
It is evident that some of the barriers are material and operational, for example: the financial problems of Western newspapers that do not have the funds to open up local offices in the various African countries; the scarcity of resources (technical and/or financial) of the African media13 ; the inadequate telecommunication systems (the well known digital) and transport systems; the direct or indirect censorship that can be enforced by some African governments and the ensuing reluctance, (or fear), shown by many local sources to provide information.The cognitive barriers are no less important. They regard social representations,
In this context media reporting on Africa never shows the “achievements” of African societies, nor does it report the prevalent values or issues of “normality” (fashion, consumption, curiosities, sports – with the exception of the world soccer championship, etc.) that are generally transmitted by northern palimpsests and are reported on during news programs. Speaking of which, the recent debate between those (like the writer Wole Soyinka) who affirmed the a priori right of an African nation to host even a trivial event like the Miss World competition and those who were against this choice (long before any of the serious incidents that occurred in November 2002) in the name of ethico-political prejudices, rather than apprehension concerning public order or the handling of the relations between the religious groups, is emblematic.
The question of the African media (both the international media such as Panapress agency14 and the national and local media) actively involved in the difficult task (see later) of processing and proposing new representation modes of the continent is a totally different issue and should be tackled elsewhere including the use of the Internet. The network of networks as a special feature in this magazine attempts to show is a (pluralistic) source able to produce a real and proper “counterimage” of Africa. Via the Internet important information on the modern social, economic, political and cultural reality of the entire African continent can be retrieved and fill in the full, otherwise hazy, picture. Today the major impact of the Internet on the image of Africa is clear, and will probably increase in the coming years.
It will not be easy to eradicate the damaging chain effects created by the above mentioned cultural and social models, policies and organizational routines.
Also in this case these effects include cognitive based ones. The main one is the invisibility of Africa in the media (Hagos, 2000) and especially the non coverage of countries that “hit the headlines less “. Nonetheless there are other, deeper effects that need to be underlined. For example, by spreading the idea that the African crisis is “natural”, whereby the “good news” about the continent reported in this magazine is the exception to the rule, minor attention is paid to African societies and their potential nowadays. Today Africa’s dual representation catches the interest, i.e. its mythical image of a former garden of Eden now gone (or at best surviving in few natural or anthropological “parks”) opposed to the image of a near and pending Apocalypse. While on this topic the stereotyped representation of conflicts must be stressed as to consider them as mere expressions of atavistic ethnic conflicts, and what’s more socially created ones (see the case of Rwanda) (De Swaan, 2002; Biney, 1997; Allen, Seaton, 1999) only fires the underlying reasons for the conflicts, legitimizes them and creates a vicious circle.
The damaging chain of effects snakes on and can be seen in the misconception or delegitimization of the African political, economic and social actors. If all the leaders really were corrupt, if there were no middle class entrepreneurs, if civil society were a mere collection of edifying models of solidarity, then there would be really no hope for the continent. Luckily it is a different story, but the prevalent representations tend to conceal all this and fuel the so called of “Afropessimism” strain (Okigbo, 2002).
Down the line this system of representation of Africa hinders international cooperation interventions, and makes governments and enterprises very reluctant to invest in the continent. The latter is very negatively influenced by the stereotype of a “single” Africa, whereby problems related to operating in an area of conflict are projected over the whole continent to take in peaceful countries that have not experienced clashes since decolonization. Speaking on this point an observer revealed that the conflicts waging in Sierra Leone, the area of the Great Lakes and in the Horn of Africa were not the only wars on the planet, but that nobody would have dreamt of associating the concomitant violence in East Timor, South Lebanon, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and elsewhere to Asia as a whole15.
On an operational level the immediate effect of the bad image of Africa can be seen. It involves the upsurge of more or less evident proposals to recolonize the continent (hopefully an “enlightened recolonization”) and the almost forced spread of western development models, or even worse, of economic solutions that by-pass a cultural and social dimension that is considered hard to manage today.
If this is the state of affairs, is there a way
out? Several actors have tried to find one.
But what strategies and proposals have been formulated to find a way out? It is patent that it is useless to complain about the current state of affairs, or challenge the more or less explicit politico-economic conspiracies against the African continent. On the contrary, many feel it is opportune to identify areas where intervention is feasible, in other words “medium range” areas where significant changes can be promoted and achieved. Generally speaking it has been stressed that it is by no means enough to guarantee more informative coverage on the African continent, but that action must be wide reaching. The solutions identified over the recent years – identified in the sources consulted – include the following.
On what can be defined as a sociological and cultural level, it has been proposed that the stereotypes on Africa must be deconstructed using scientific and educational tools. Furthermore, the media’s approach towards Africa must be revised and their informative strategies realigned to consider the trends, contexts and positive events occurring in the continent.
Sensitization and education programs involving the Western public are required at various levels to promote the desire to have better in-depth and qualified information on the African reality.
Programs addressed to human resources in the media are crucial. It is advisable to select correspondents who have lived and worked in Africa, or those who intend staying there some time, and to train Western journalists (via training courses on history, African culture courses, methods for selecting and handing news) and African reporters (not only professional updating courses but also special courses to revive cultural identity and social responsibility).
Networking has been suggested. Involvement of “friends of Africa” no matter where they are and what field they operate in, as long as they commit themselves to spread a more exact image of the continent, even via horizontal exchange between civil society actors. Obviously a special role can the played by members of the African diaspora, contribution can be invaluable in the gap between cultures and societies.
In this scenario, the setting up of a real and proper international ombudsman able to represent a benchmark for analysis and accurate intervention on the image of Africa was proposed way back in the mid 1980s. But, no such figure was created (not even a network of actors) and at present there are no plans to identify it and make it operative.
Obviously there are programs aimed at sustaining the growth and the international presence of the African media providing financial aid and technological infrastructure. This framework includes programs whose goal is to triumph over the “digital divide” existing between African countries and the rest of the world. This ditch jeopardizes African politics, its economy and technology as well as the media image of the entire continent 16.
These are but a few examples of the operational programs
that have been, or can be, implemented. It is very important also in this
regard to be aware of how much the current image of Africa is
rooted in global imagery and how it derives from a collective
social production with various degrees of intentionality. This
in order to be able to reverse the previously mentioned processes that
put at risk the African presence of Africans on the global scene and the
development of the continent.
MORE ON STEREOTYPES
A critical reassessment of the images of Africa in Europe is crucial for a new cultural and economic approach between the two continents. On this background, Milan's Centre for African Studies (COSA) organised a Conference in April 2002 in Milan, the proceedings of which, edited by Baye Ndiaye and Marco Padula, have just been published (Images of Africa in Europe, EMI, Milan 2002). The conference was attended by diplomats, representatives of international organisations, human sciences scholars, journalists, religious representatives, and cultural operators from a number of countries.
The themes addressed include: Africa's presence in Italian and US media; common misunderstandings and stereotypes about Africa's cultural reality; contributions to Africa-Europe relations from intellectuals such as Leopold Senghor; Africa's role in the global communications era; globalisation as a way to enhance diversity; sustainable development and international co-operation in the prospect of African Union.
There are a number of contributions to the text. They
include a speech by the Ambassador of Senegal to Italy, Momar
Gueye, who highlighted the responsibilities of Western
media in spreading “one-way” information on African
countries, along with the Africans' responsibilities
in building and spreading negative images of the continent. As a further
example, there was a contribution from linguist Franco Crevatin,
from Trieste University, who stressed ways in which the African
identity is misunderstood and disparaged, i.e., by misusing the
word “dialects” when referring to African languages; applying
a stigmatising distinction between (African) “ethnic groups”
and (European) “peoples”; attributing an old-fashioned and
magic kind of religiousness (animistic, in a derogatory sense) to the
African continent - as if in Europe there were no magicians, astrologers,
fortune-tellers with a mass following; describing African thinking
as puerile and naïve compared to the Western ”scientific”
Tanslation: Rita Bandinelli
THE UPPSALA UNIVERSITY ON THE IMAGE OF THE
Abram de Swaan (1942) is Research
professor (Universiteitshoogleraar) at the University of Amsterdam and
held the chair of sociology from 1973 until 2001. He was co-founder and
dean of the Amsterdam School for Social Research (1987-1997) and is presently
Dr. Daniel M. Mengara is now Associate
Professor at the
Currently, Dr. Quist-Adade teaches
Sociology and Mass communication courses in University of Windsor in Ontario,
Canada. At Wayne State University, he teaches Sociological Theory and