Writing About Africa: Thoughts from the Field

This article is one of a series from my recent Pulitzer Center-funded trip to Madagascar. To find all of my reporting to date with photojournalist Rijasolo from our project, “Madagascar: When the Aid Dries Up,” click here.

Foreign journalists who write about Africa are often criticized for focusing on the bad news over the good, privileging the sensational over the everyday, even for casting the continent as a 21st century heart of darkness. It can be a valid criticism, and one that I and I think most of my colleagues take to heart. Whatever we might say about dutifully pursuing the most newsworthy stories, there is inevitably a strong degree of subjectivity, and ultimately course correction, that goes into deciding what, and what not, to cover. You find yourself thinking hard about what your readers will take away from your reporting—even if only because of their own misconceptions. And you wonder whether you’ve written too many negative stories of late and try to find some more positive ones to rectify the imbalance.

Overall, though, the bad news stories tend to win out. Violent outbreaks and kidnappings by religious extremists easily get more press than local entrepreneurship initiatives and less sensational stories, though that’s not unique to Africa; take a look at the local news in New York. Problems are more obvious than solutions. Editors play a role too. Portraits of everyday life in faraway lands draw fewer clicks than frightful tales of genocide and extreme poverty. When I first moved to West Africa to report, I made the rounds of editors in the States to gin up some interest ahead of time. I got more or less the same response from a few. “Good for you. Let us know if something blows up.” Positive stories about Africa, meanwhile, can be equally frustrating, such as the mindless bandying about of impressive GDP growth figures without heed to what those numbers mean on the ground.

To read more, click here.