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U.S. media fall short in covering African summit

George White | 8/14/2014, 6 a.m.
Coverage of President Obama’s summit with African heads of state was largely absent in the U.S. news media.
Mr. Robert Crowe, Partner at Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough, His Excellency Navichandra Ramgoolam, Prime Minister of Mauritius, Mr Charles Stith, Director African Presidential Center at Boston University, Mrs Salma Kikwete, Wife of the President of Tanzania and His Excellency Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania.

For decades, the mainstream American media has painted Africa as a tortured continent beset by disease, famine and poverty. That image hasn’t changed despite dramatic changes sweeping the region — rapid economic growth, cutting-edge innovation and shifting perceptions of Africa in the rest of the world.

For the Obama Administration and the African Union, a coalition of 54 states on the continent, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. last week was an opportunity to help expand the narrative beyond the story of American aid, to reflect the current opportunities of investment and trade.

Journalists from around the world assembled in the nation’s capital to hear the opportunity stories. Among the American-based news media, it was those either managed by nonprofits or owned by African Americans or African immigrants that proved the best at providing context as well as coverage.

Consider this excerpt from a report on Aug. 4, the first day of the week-long summit, in Mshale, a Minneapolis-based news outlet founded by a Kenyan immigrant.

“White House officials say the American interests in Africa are immense. The continent is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies and a rapidly expanding middle class. The U.S. is also competing for those consumers with China, which surpassed the United States in 2009 as Africa’s largest trading partner.”

However, the Mshale report also noted that it would be difficult for the mainstream American media to establish a new narrative on Africa, as long as global headlines are dominated by news from other regions.

“Even as Obama immerses himself in talks on regional security, democracy building and business investment in Africa, the world’s attention — and much of his own — will be on an extraordinary array of urgent overseas crises. Among them: Gaza clashes, Russia’s provocation in Ukraine and mounting extremism in Iraq, to name just a few.”

That point was observed by Uchenna Ekwo, a Nigerian journalist working in the U.S. for a non-profit organization. In a column, he concluded that a more expansive Africa narrative “is not important to Western media” after witnessing President Obama and reporters at a press conference that was designed to highlight the achievements of the summit. During the question and answer session, Obama called on reporters from the Associated Press, ABC News, Bloomberg, NBC News and the Nairobi-based The Standard.

“In the end,” Ekwo noted, “only one question by Nairobi’s Standard newspaper specifically referenced Africa and the Summit that necessitated the press conference in the first place... Nothing exemplifies the ignominy of Africa in international policy agenda than for the president of the United States to hold a press conference to discuss the outcome of a three day summit that literally uprooted Africa to Washington, D.C., only for reporters to divert the attention of the president to other issues.”

Meanwhile, African-American media focused on trade and investment opportunities on the continent. The Washington Informer, for example, produced an article that quoted U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a stalwart supporter of trade policies that promote African development. Newsone produced a video roundtable dubbed, “What you missed from the U.S.-Africa Summit.” Black Enterprise magazine had two reporters at the summit and produced several reports.