If you look at my coverage of Africa, I’ve spent far more time in Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Niger — some of the most forlorn countries on the continent — than in bustling dynamos like Botswana or Ghana. The upshot is that I fear we sometimes create a public perception of Africa as a basket case, in a way that discourages tourism and business investment. If that’s the case, then our efforts to help Africa only hurt it.
On the other hand, it seems to me that the basic problem with eastern Congo is that it’s undercovered rather than overcovered: this is the most lethal conflict since World War II and has had far fewer column inches than any other major conflict. Likewise, the 1 million kids a year who die of pneumonia, overwhelmingly in Africa, deserve more coverage, not less. Same with maternal mortality, malaria, fistula, hunger and so on.
I’m proud that my coverage on some African challenges feels as if it has helped spotlight the challenges and led to lives saved. So what do we do to call attention to problems without exaggerating them in the public mind?
I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this conundrum…
I’m not sure of some of his specific points—anecdotally from the media, business investment does not exactly seem to be a problem for Africa (most of the investment seems to be in commodity extraction, which is not exactly winning the future but probably preferable to some of the alternatives)—but the overall point is sound: listening to the media tell it (rarely and loudly), Africa is in terrible shape. Yet when viewed from the statistical perspective, Africa looks to be in much better shape than ever before.
Charles Kenny makes the point at length here, but in general signs look good—life expectancy up, child mortality down, GDP per capita. If it weren’t for the AIDS crisis, Africa would be in better shape still. Obviously there’s a long distance between where Africa is and where we’d like it to be, but life is still much better than before and we haven’t quite heard that enough.
This is part of the psychology of the media. Quiet successes, occurring over the course of decades, are hard for journalists to pick up upon and explain. It’s difficult for historians to explain, even long after the fact, so it’s hard to be too harsh on journalists. The problem comes when we allow our partial regard of reality to become the entire thing.