Global allies needed in improving Africa’s narrative

Two vital meetings are taking place in Kigali this week; Transform Africa Summit (TAS), and the African Public Relations Association (APRA) conference. One conversation seeks to find ways of boosting Africa’s digital economy while the other, to change how the continent is perceived.

What is clear is that a lot of important conversations are ongoing in Africa yet most of them are not getting the visibility they require in regional and international press. Most of the time, the continent is in the news more for naughty reasons than for positive developments.

Changing the media narrative on Africa therefore, as its communication strategists wish, calls for engaging the world beyond the continent to highlight positive developments such as the Smart Africa initiative. The challenge for everyone is to walk the talk at many of these meetings.

It is also important to assess the present situation to inform actions to shape the continent’s future. This calls for research, an area that has chronically struggled to find financing from African governments and corporations; the attitude towards research financing has to change.

Fortunately, the agenda to influence positive change on the continent is not a lone effort; countries such as USA, whose perception of the continent we seek to change, appears to already be supporting its own domestic efforts to engage more with Africa and the rest the world.

One such effort is one by Michelle Van Gilder; ‘The Africa Narrative’ a global initiative harnessing the power of arts, media, entertainment, business, education, and philanthropy to engage the world in new stories of Africa aimed at changing the way Americans perceive Africa.

Supported by the University of South California’s Annenberg Lear Center’s Media Impact Project, the initiative seeks to broaden awareness on Africa and its 54 nations through research, communication campaigns, and collaborations with partners from Africa and the US. 

To get started, the initiative commissioned a survey to determine how Africa is portrayed in American media; the team analyzed over 700,000 hours of television news and entertainment and 1.6 million Twitter posts over a month’s period.

The content analysis monitored three key words; Africa, African and names of any of the continent’s 54 nations; the findings only provided evidence of what we have always known.

Commenting on the survey’s findings, project lead Michelle Van Gilder said; “there is an emerging movement — often led by African diaspora entertainment figures — to bring authentic African storytelling to American and global audiences. But clearly, there is opportunity for a much broader contribution in expanding African narratives.”

In its headline findings, it was noted that out of almost 700,000 hours of programming, there were only 25 major scripted storylines about Africa. ‘stories about Africa rarely appeared on U.S. television: a mention appeared once in every five hours of TV programming and viewers were seven times more likely to see references to Europe.

The survey further found that, only 13 percent of entertainment storylines that mentioned Africa included an African character but 80 percent of the roles were minor and when African characters did appear, 46 percent spoke 10 words or less.  Only 31 percent of African characters were women.

Overall, the survey found that ‘viewers were more than twice as likely to see negative depictions of Africa than positive ones in major storylines about Africa.When references to Africa were not neutral, they were more likely to be negative than positive in both Twitter conversations and entertainment programming.’

The researchers also found that 43 percent of mentions of Africa appeared on national or local news dominated by politics (32percent), followed by crime (16 percent) while business and the economy accounted for just 8 percent of news coverage.

Of the 5 topics tracked by the survey, on twitter, (animals, corruption, crime/terrorism, Diaspora and Poverty), crime/terrorism had the most mentions with South Africa and Nigeria the countries most associated with the topic.

It was also found that of the continent’s 54 countries, five nations grab the bulk of attention in American press. These are— Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Seychelles and Congo— accounting for almost half (49 percent) of all mentions of any African nation, although there is variation by type of content.

Encouragingly, the research uncovered some rich sources of storytelling andidentified African characters that have emerged in recent years in Hollywood scripted entertainment that counter stereotypes historically associated with Africans. One of them is the erudite Nigerian moral philosopher Chidi on NBC’s ‘The Good Place.’

Others include Dayana Mampasi, a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer turned CIA agent played by South African Pearl Thusi in Quantico, an ABC series that ran from 2015-2018.

Through her initiative, Michelle Gilder wants to see more of such productions, portraying Africa in a more positive light, breaking with the decade’s long narrative that highlighted negative stereotypes while ignoring the more progressive part of the continent.

“We want to encourage a number of stories that mine the rich and diverse cultures and histories of Africa — including in children’s programming — and develop more scripted content that doesn’t focus on crime and negativity on the continent,” said Gilder.

As Africa’s communication strategists meet in Kigali this week to discuss ways of improving the global media narrative on Africa, initiatives like Gilder’s can be counted on as an ally.

The views expressed in this article  are of the author.