Yes, Nick, there is a white reporter’s burden in Africa

But it’s not being white on the Dark Continent.  It’s that there are so many other bad white reporters who came through before us.

By us, I mean a new generation of Americans reporting on Africa.  We are not Nick Kristof.  We don’t need a white protagonist, and those of us who have been here long enough are bored by them.  Because a story that makes the feature-journalism editorial cut about a white protagonist in Africa is usually the same story we’ve read a thousand times:  White person inspired by something he read or saw.  Do you know how horrible it is? Moved to something described as “action,” but is often movement, of the white person from American to Africa.  I mean, look around me, at how horrible it is! Then the journalist does, and shows the reader, in terms and with tropes that often make thinking people, not to mention Africans, queasy.  The story usually ends with a kicker quote from the African who is the object of the white man’s interest, something along the lines of, “I never imagined my life could be any different from the squalor the white man recognized but I did not.  Did you see the squalor, by the way?  I mean, jeez.”

That story is boring to the new generation of Americans reporting on Africa, for two reasons:  One, most of us think it misses the point.  But two, those white people are boring.  They all think they’ve just discovered something that no one has seen before.  But some of us stay in Africa long enough to develop friendships not only with Africans, but with interesting old white people who remember when no one thought Ghana would ever get its act together and Rwandans still lived in circular grass-thatched huts.  Those old white people remind us that the white people you often see in news stories are not newsworthy; they’re green.

I’m unfairly maligning a lot of white people doing good work in Africa, and for that I apologize.  But there may be a certain amount of cosmic justice in that — if journalism has for generations maligned Africa by puffing up the white people who drop themselves there, maybe it’s okay, at least in a blog post, to correct the imbalance by hyperbolizing about whites people and treating them collectively, as reporters have long treated Africans.  I thank those of you good natured enough to allow me the space, and I apologize to those of you whom it still pissses off. If it’s any solace, I’m also about to unfairly malign an entire generation of reporters. Not to mention all the people I just called old.

I appreciate Nick Kristof’s dilemma.  Anyone who writes about a foreign place has to bridge the foreignness of it all.  But if we don’t write about Americans in Berlin in order to interest readers in Germany, do we really “have” to write about white people in Africa in order to get readers “engaged”?

But is Nick Kristof is being as honest as TexasinAfrica gives him credit for?  From Kristof’s blog post:

Some years ago, Anderson Cooper went out to eastern Congo to report on the crisis there. It was expensive and risky for CNN — and his ratings for those shows fell. The lesson for any television executive producer is not to cover such crises, but to throw a Democrat and a Republican in a room together and have them yell at each other. It will be less expensive, more entertaining and will get ratings up.

So if we do want to get people to pay attention to these issues, if we want to preach beyond the choir, it’s a challenge — and it hugely helps to have appealing and charismatic characters who readers can immediately identify with.

First, who cares? So he got less viewers. The cost of being in the news business should be that for all the money you make throwing Democrats and Republicans in a room to squabble, you spend some of it in a place and on a story like Congo. Think of it as a kind of journalistic corporate social responsibility. (We used to just call it journalism, but times have changed.)

Second, who says the viewers who did watch weren’t engaged? And this is what bothers me: There’s a (possible) tacit omission here that Kristof’s strategy isn’t about engagement; it’s about the number of readers he gets. It’s a marketing ploy.

That’s overstating it. I try to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, in part because he generously engaged impertinent questions on this blog not long ago, in part because we share a trade, and in part because lambasting the New York Times for its Africa work is, in my opinion, a tired exercise, as easily parodied as the White Journalism of Africa I lanced above.

But this is too important. The kind of engagement Kristof says he wants isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about how many clicks he gets on his web page. (Let’s ignore that I don’t know how a journalist measures the engagement her article creates anyway.) Or at least, if we’re going for the ideal of action inspired by sympathy, it shouldn’t be. Engagement should be more than that. And as many people have pointed out in comments on all this, it maybe shouldn’t be the job of the reporter. (I remind readers here, as I sometimes do elsewhere, that Kristof is a columnist. It’s a distinction that matters.)

Kristof also responds to criticism about focusing on the negative in Africa by saying that the problem of DRC isn’t that its awfulness has been over-covered, it’s that it’s been undercovered. “No war has had so few column inches per million deaths,” he says. Which is a standard that journalists ever so slightly younger than me won’t even know how to apply soon: What the hell is a column inch? The Internet doesn’t have them.

Instead, we’re applying a different standard: We don’t measure our endeavour by the number of column inches or even the number of stories we see per million deaths. We measure what we do by the kinds of stories we see and whether they reflect the place that some of us have dedicated not only our professional but our personal lives to getting to know — a task that’s made all the more difficult for us by having grown up reading reporting by the bad white journalists who came before us.

Postscript I’ve been reading a lot of Howard French lately, and I think he’s worth thinking about in all this. He came to journalism from Africa, not the other way around. He was moved by particular stories he worked on, and that drove his work ethic but didn’t put an agenda in his coverage. Also, he’s black. I don’t know that these observations are causally related, but this all started by thinking about the color of the skin of the reporter and how it shapes a world view, and my interpretation of his memoir is that the relationship between identity and worldview is the same for French as it is for the rest of us, but maybe his made his journalism better than ours.

UPDATE: Here’s a post with the names, and some links to work, done by journalists I think do or have done the continent proud.  Would love additions.


  • Adam Hooper says:

    Vague tangent here: I’ve interviewed several Africans who *wanted* me to portray them as poor, voiceless, etc. Personally, I’m callous enough to shrug off most people who pretend to be one-dimensional as “not a story”. But I imagine some culture-shocked journalists get compelled to engage in activism instead of (as well as?) journalism.

    I blogged about that just yesterday:

  • Ian says:

    You touch on a number of important issues here: new media versus old, quality versus quantity. Who cares about the number of “column inches” if the content of the column inches are crap?

    This isn’t to say that some of the problem isn’t market based. There is a reason that news agencies throw Republicans and Democrats into a room, the public eats it up. Shame on all of us for that. There is, however, something to be said for creating a market. If you’re a producer and one type of story receives less ratings, but you think the story is important, do you give up? I would hope not. The same should be true for a newspaper columnist. There are plenty of engaging ways to tell a story. There are plenty of local ordinary Africans doing amazing things for their communities that one could write about that would resonate with the American public.

  • First of all, Jina, touche to you. This post is amazing and these things need to be said and said more often.

    But there’s another thing that’s missing here: the fact that Kristof et al assume that the American audiences won’t be able to connect with African protagonists. Not that I’m one to often defend the American public, but come on, let’s give ourselves some credit. If the opportunity for connection isn’t offered by insightful journalists working hard to make different parts of the world relevant, then of course the public won’t connect.

    I would actually argue that some people want more. Sure, some people want Kristof. But I get a dozen emails a week from people asking me to point them in the direction of some good reads. The people who like Kristof may not want more than he’s offering, but there are people out there who want something else.

  • lu says:

    i am not a journalist and do not have a lot to say about the second half of your (great) post here, but the first few paragraphs really struck a chord with me as a former resident of africa. i used to get so fed up with every recent uni grad who would rock up on the ‘dark continent’ looking to have their adventure and thinking they are the first to visit an informal settlement, the first to have a black african friend, the first to do ‘meaningful’ volunteer work. and i would occasionally feel them look down their self righteous noses at me for living in a middle class community and working for a living in a country without being ‘one with the people.’

    i came to call them the Dirty Backpackers and i have pissed off a lot of people by classifying them as such, but you hit the same nail on the head with your analysis of everyone thinking they are the first when the reality is that africa existed before they arrived and will continue long after they pack up for their lives and careers after having their experience they will always talk about as their ‘time in africa.’

    i don’t suppose that i have much more to add, but thanks for being much more eloquent in your description than i!

  • Brad says:

    Hi –

    I feel like there’s some piling-on taking place against Kristof. “If we don’t write about Americans in Berlin in order to interest readers in Germany, do we really “have” to write about white people in Africa in order to get readers “engaged”?” But American journalists do write about Americans in Berlin to make Berlin interesting. I read an article about young Americans at the Bolshoi ballet recently — nice article. We don’t always do that, of course — but nor does every Kristof column contain an American protagonist. It seems like a basic and forgivable trick of journalists that they use to help their readers identify with the issue. Kudos when a writer can make that unnecessary. But is it really so outrageous when it is? And does it really have anything to do with whiteness and with Africa?


    • Jina Moore says:

      Thanks, Brad. I agree that in general Kristof takes a serious, and tedious, beating. So does the Times’ coverage in Africa in general. That’s not a particularly enlightening game; witness, for example, how much it hasn’t changed. But he put this one on the table…

      The vast majority of our writing about Europe isn’t pegged to ‘white characters.’ I bet the Americans in the Bolshoi ballet was interesting, but I also bet that most of the articles run by the NYT this year about Russia are *not* pegged to Americans.

      I think the pilers-on tend to feel that Kristof doesn’t try to make it unnecessary, and that if he did, he’d find different kinds of stories than he reports. I think he uses it more often than is “necessary.” And alas, there’s too long a tradition of the white man in the Dark Continent for that trope *not* to have to do with whiteness and with Africa. I’m all for counter-criticism, and I get a little bored of the neo-colonial media critique, but I think they’re right about this one. And if they weren’t, I would think Kristof would be the first person to point out that it doesn’t have to do with whiteness or with Africa, but with something else. Alas, that doesn’t come up.

      To be sure, it’s a trope that’s problematic elsewhere; a lot of research showed the same white-hero story after the tsunami. But the literary tradition that comes out of Africa is particularly prone to this problem, in large part because white people brought written documentation with them to SSA and were the first to do it, in their own image—and with themselves as the heroes of their adventure stories, whatever discipline you want to put those in.

      That said, I would say — and I don’t think a lot of the pilers-on would agree with this, necessarily — that there are ways to use white characters well. That tends not to be newspaper journalism, which isn’t very good at going deep with people. Gourevitch’s use of the then-unknown Romeo Dallaire story to connect readers to Rwanda was not unlike the Kristof technique, but it was applied in a wholly different and more comprehensive fashion; and of course, there were also Rwandan main characters in his book, too. Ryszard Kapuscinski (whatever you have to say about the conveniently posthumous criticism) is another example, though he treats himself more as a device than a character.

      The fundamental question is, does the white character do something critical *and* unique that advances or illustrates the story? And is that the right story, or one that’s just easier because the main guy is white?

      Apologies to @viewfromthecave for the use of “characters.” But I believe in the use of the word in nonfiction, and one day I’ll write about why…

      • Brad says:

        Hi Jina –

        Thanks for your really thoughtful response!

        It seems that some of the discussion about this (or just the way I think about it?) swings between poles of sameness and difference. The ‘sameness’ argument goes something like: if we felt that the subjects of our journalism and activism were our equals then we would see and depict their agency; we would be featuring them as the protagonists in these stories, not as cameos in the lives of outsiders who, because they are like us, have an identity that we are quicker to recognize. The ‘difference’ argument goes something like this: because of the historical legacy of the culture and the profession of journalists and activists, there is a need to rebalance the relationship by making an extra effort to depict individuals with agency.

        But both have inherent contradictions. The ‘sameness’ argument has to account for the fact that even with peers we use lots of tricks of distinguishing others in order to do whatever we’re trying to do. And the ‘difference’ argument has to account for the fact that this sort of re-balancing ends up reinforcing the difference it’s meant to overcome.

        I don’t have any answer to that, of course, but I do like your nuanced take. You have a tough job, sorting this out!

        Thanks for your reply!


        • Jina Moore says:

          B, you are lots of fun. I think you’re right about these contradictions, but I think it’s more complicated than the two theses you offer. For me, the difference argument isn’t only — or even primarily — about redressing the balances of one’s respective professions’ past mistakes. It’s about the fact that, for me, Africa simply doesn’t look like what it looks like in the MSF brochures or the sad maternal health features (a la Time magazine’s recent odd production). Parts of it do — in this case, many health centers. But there’s an Africa that doesn’t get seen, and I think that often happens because journalists are too busy, for lots of reasons that include the ones you describe, writing about white people.

          I also don’t think that the “difference argument” has to reinforce differences. I’m generally uncomfortable with the idea that there’s a pedagogy here — and I think this is more true of aid than journalism. I think one of the amazing things about the world is it’s not all the same. I like differences; they’re interesting. How we talk about them can be good or bad — we can be racist, we can exoticize, or we can be overly sentimental, we can be naive, etc. etc. — but I run around Africa because I like to try and understand something of a place I don’t know. Sometimes what’s there is sad and depressing, and sometimes it’s not. The trouble with advocacy, and with Kristof, and with lots of journalism, is that it doesn’t, and in advocacy’s case probably can’t, recognize the simultaneity of those things. I like journalism that does, and that’s what I try to do.

  • Dan says:

    A take on the question of whether Kristoff is too popular to be a good reporter is at my site

    • Jina Moore says:

      Thanks, Dan! Great take. I also love that you give those of us who aren’t famous an out. “Sure, I could be as popular as Nick Kristof, but I’m too worried about being a good reporter.” 🙂

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