May 1 2007

Sidebar: Charity Cases

[Note: This piece is a sidebar to Bono, I Presume?]

Even when it’s not an entertainment celebrity that brings the cameras to Africa, nearly as many TV news Africa stories are about Americans or other Westerners “making a difference” in Africa. Whether it’s a high-profile figure like Bill Gates fighting malaria (ABC, 10/31/05), a 12-year-old American boy raising money for AIDS orphans in Africa (NBC, 12/8/06) or the wife and daughter of an NFL football coach missing his big day in the Super Bowl to volunteer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ABC, 2/3/06), these segments tell the story of Africa as a story about Westerners—and almost exclusively white Westerners, at that.

ABC’s World News specializes in this American narcissism, with 21 of its 73 Africa stories in 2005-06 highlighting a Westerner’s work in or for Africa. In the study period, NBC featured four such stories, while CBS broadcast two.

While such stories often do transmit some substantive information about the African countries or regions they purport to be about, the real focus is the Westerners and their work, which is typically some sort of charity rather than self-empowering, system-changing work. This kind of focus contributes to the stereotyping of Africa as a continent in need of Western charity, and Africans as a helpless people in need of rescue.

In the same two-year time period, the number of newscasts featuring the positive work of Africans was pitifully slim: NBC featured three, ABC two, CBS none.—J.H.