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The Africa Channel – Destroying Stereotypes of the Continent


Wednesday, December 10, 2008
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LOS ANGELES — Ask Africans what their chief criticism of U.S. mass media is and you’ll get an almost unanimous answer: Coverage of the continent focuses too much on stories that portray Africa as a backward place full of great suffering.

Mostly, Africans have sat back and helplessly watched as the image of their continent continues to be assaulted. But that may change if The Africa Channel – a new, ambitious cable television station dedicated to original news and entertainment programs from Africa – succeeds.

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Recently I traveled to southern California for a celebration of a deal that put The Africa Channel on Time Warner Cable Channel 176 in the greater Los Angeles area. For this video report, I spoke with Congolese-born NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, who was among the first major investors in the idea of broadcasting African programming across America, and Zimbabwean-born, James Makawa, the company’s CEO.

Makawa, a long-time NBC correspondent, acknowledges that much of what is reported in the mainstream media about the African continent – HIV/AIDS, armed conflicts, hunger, corruption – is accurate. But he says that that is not all that goes on in Africa, and that’s the point The Africa Channel is trying to make.

Such stories often come from foreign journalists, whose only source of knowledge of the continent is what journalism schools and newsrooms call “parachute memos” – quick facts about a subject, printed out and read on the way to the scene of the “breaking news.” Many of these journalists also come from news organizations that have fewer bureaus in Africa than they did 20 years ago.

Even the news organizations that have bureaus in Africa assign their correspondent extensive regions to cover. Look in the Africa section of these publications and you might see, for instance, a story about the Democratic Republic of Congo written from Nairobi or Johannesburg.

And even when stories about Africa are positive, there are usually elements of stereotypes embedded in them. A few months ago I was attracted to a headline in a major American daily, asking whether Nairobi was going to be a hub of technology like Palo Alto in Silicon Valley. The story – one of the best I have seen highlighting the intellect of Africans – was about a young man in Nairobi who had written an application for the iPhone, though he had never held one in his hand. To my dismay, the image that accompanied the story was of a run-down mobile phone retail shack with a Maasai in full traditional attire walking in front of the kiosk. The editor must have feared that a photo of a retail store in downtown Nairobi looked too much like Palo Alto.

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About Edwin O. Okong'o

Edwin Okong'o is an associate editor with the New America Media.Okong'o holds a master's degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied newspaper, magazine and radio journalism. He has written for several U.S. publications.In 2006, the Human Rights Center at Berkeley awarded him a summer fellowship to research and write about the plight of Kenya's disabled citizens. He was the winner of the 2007 Clay Felker Award, given to Berkeley graduate students who have shown excellence in long-form narrative writing for magazines.Okong'o did his undergraduate studies in Mass Communication at California State University, Hayward, where he held various editorial positions including editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Pioneer.

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