As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfolded and as the scale of the horror emerged, so too did an unsettling form of its coverage for many western media organisations. The coverage was framed differently to other wars.
It was this different approach that came under the spotlight during a Twitter Space hosted by fraycollege on Thursday, 3 March 2022. The discussion followed a scathing statement by the Foreign Press Association, Africa (FPA Africa), about the framing of the coverage of Ukraine.
“The idea that war is a thing that happens in lands outside of the West, is beyond myopic. It is a gross misrepresentation of the entirety of human history. People who are not white are not more innately prone and habituated to violence and suffering. People who are not white are no less civil or incapable of solving conflict,” said the FPA Africa statement.
Facilitated by fraycollege CEO Paula Fray, speakers included FPA Africa Chairperson Kennedy Wandera, Africa Affairs Editor at the China Global Television Network Douglas Okwatch, Executive Director of Africa No Filter Moky Makura, Migration Editor-At-Large at The New Humanitarian Eric Reidy, Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) Africa editor Beauregard Tromp and Editor-In-Chief of The Continent Simon Allison.
‘Let’s call it by its name’
Fray opened the discussion by sharing her thoughts on the war and its coverage, saying the underlying subjects of sympathy and conflict in a so-called “civilised” city really uncovered deep-seated socialisation and the impact it had on journalists — including those in Africa.
“To be clear, the horrors inflicted on the Ukrainian people are newsworthy and must be condemned. But the double standards? No. In fact, let’s call it by its name. Let’s say the racism in media coverage must also be challenged,” Fray said.
She said it was important to discuss what the nature of such reporting means for Africa and what needs to be done to challenge – and change – it.
In its statement, FPA Africa noted that people who are not white are not more innately preyed, prone and habituated to violence, and suffering people who are not white are no less severe or incapable of solving conflict.
“Journalism is a tool that can break the yoke of racism,” the FPA said.
Wandera, reflecting on the organisation’s statement and the state of media coverage on Ukraine, said that to some extent, one would be able to realise that these were not the lives that came from the disconnect of journalism but rather the words that came from the long held biases of racism that have been there – and it’s not done anything.
He said the media must be fair when reporting on issues.
“Let’s look at the dignity of the people we are reporting on,” he said, adding that we as Africans put too much blame on Western media for biased and prejudiced reporting on Africa but asked, “who is writing those stories?” he asked.
The western media and Africa
From an African perspective, Okwatch said there is also balance of power, where the western media are the ones enjoying a monopoly in that arrangement.
“The world is seen largely through the lens of the western media and western journalists and it’s not something new. We have witnessed, as journalists, how the western Media covers Africa,” he said, adding that western media have no problem showing blood and dead bodies when they cover Africa. He says that in journalism, from an African perspective, there’s also a balance of power.”
Africa No Filter’s Makura said the organisation had reviewed how Africa is covered by the global media.
“We did research into how nations started to look at the continent historically and we kind of, overtime, identified there have been five frames through which the world looks at Africa; the first is through the frame of poverty, the second is through the frame of corruption, the third is through the frame of poor leadership, the fourth is disease and the fifth, which is under the spotlight now with the Ukraine invasion, is the way the world sees through the lens of conflict – because the printers and all the articles of things that we’ve seen seem to invite that conflict lives in Africa,” Makura said.
She said that kind of view of Africa has been perpetuated over time.
How should we cover such wars?
“At the core of our ethos is the idea that there should not be a hierarchy of crises based on geography, race or religion. And we’re really bringing that to bear and to help focus and direct our coverage of Ukraine. Because there has so much interest and attention on Ukraine. But unfortunately, the flip side of that is neglect or disregard for crises in other parts of the world,” Reidy said.
At the end of the day, journalists and members of the media are reporting and passing on information for the benefit of people in our societies.
“I just want to reemphasise that if we are not going to be the players in our own narrative, we have to tell our story well, we have to tell it better than most. And when we do it for international broadcasters there, then we must ensure we’ve knocked that out the park. We have to consider what we are representing and the humans, the real people behind the stories that we are reporting and the impact that our stories have. So, if we are true to our profession and to ourselves, then then we’ll get it right,” Wandera said.
Allison said: “We just need to keep doing what we’re doing. There are lot of people on this particular court who are fighting the good fight. I think the statement released by FPA Africa was a really fantastic way of putting the voice of African journalists on the global stage. What we’re hearing is journalists working for international organisations, talking about how they are on the winning side to change the narrative. And if we can complement that by building up African broadcasters and African publications to tell our own stories better, then I think we have gone a long way towards solving the problem.”
“I think the starting point as a Western journalist is just to be aware our inheritance and not in sort of a positive sense of the word inheritance, but in terms of the brutal totality and truth of what that inheritance is in terms of the narratives of white and western supremacy that exist and continue to be existed and continue to exist. And so going forward, in a lot of ways, these biases and the perpetuation of the problem comes through the stories that have been told in the past that have created these hierarchies that people have bought into,” Reidy said.
He added that Western journalists have a tremendous responsibility to do better in terms of dismantling those narratives.
‘Trust your judgement’
Allison says editors need to listen to the journalists they send into the field, adding that editors should also trust journalists’ judgement – because they are the ones close to the story.
“They’re the ones filing back to you and you need to trust their news judgement because they are there, they are close to the story and they have a far better sense of what is and isn’t important,” Allison said.
Tromp says the media must consider the real people behind the stories they tell while Wandera says members of the African media shouldn’t shy away from pointing out racist or demeaning coverage.
At the same time, Makura says narratives inform beliefs when it comes to reporting, and beliefs inform behaviour.
She says the way the global media depicts Africa has not changed and as Africans, we need to tell our own stories.