In journalism, there is such a thing as agenda-setting – how the mass media — newspapers, radio, and TV, and the plurality of online channels — prioritize the news for publication.
The idea that some news stories would take precedence over others gained credence with thought leaders, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, during the 1968 US Presidential election. The salience of stories and their placement on the front pages is the standard by which today’s professional media people decide how a story grabs our attention, making them relevant, while others are shoved to the back burner.
When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic or Covid-19 the question of how Western news outlets have prioritized their journalistic reporting out of the African continent needs some scrutiny. The issue in dispute is about how media, in the United States especially, still downplay African achievements while hyping Its failures. As you may, or may not be aware, against the odds, the continent remains standing in the face of Covid-19, despite predictions to the contrary.
The number of cases throughout the continent remains relatively low compared to the rest of the world. Many governments in Africa, including South Africa and Kenya, were the first to reopen their borders to visitors from other parts of the world or to reopen schools again, following a period of lockdowns.
For several months I’ve managed to track some of the Covid-19 reporting or lack thereof on the 54-nation continent by US newspapers and other online publications. I scanned through dozens of publications in the US and around the world to see what is being said about the continent vis-à-vis the pandemic. It is fascinating to see the nature of the attention on how the continent has fared thus far. Meanwhile, in America, the story has almost entirely been about the Trump administration’s abysmal failure to contain the spread of the disease.
While there is plenty of information on the virus and its socio-economic impact on Africa, what I found came mostly from academic institutions, government, and non-governmental organizations, including the so-called Think Tanks. Even while the continent weathered the virus much better than the so-called wealthy and industrialized nations, the reporting focused not on how African governments performed, but instead on the secondary issues stemming from the pandemic, such as the sex trade and prostitution business.
In the cases where there was original reporting, it often reinforced the same sub-text of Africa stereotypes that we often condemn and reject outright, such as Africans walking barefoot in the streets or citizens crowded in slums without running water or electricity.
With a few exceptions of in-depth analysis such as the Voice of America (VOA), US News, The Hill, The Guardian, The Associated Press (AP), NBC News, The Financial Times, CNN, and The Washington Post, the vast majority of media in the US either simply recycled stories from the AP, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse, or ignored the Africa governmental response to the virus entirely.
For a few of the outlets with original reporting on Covid-19, some, such as The Hill and the VOA had not just a single story but multiple stories published over a span of several months. For others such as CNN, even while they published multiple stories on the subject, the reporting was done using people with a better understanding of the continent — Africans themselves who happen to work at the news organization. That was the good news.
On the other hand, when contrasted with US media reporting of the 2014 Ebola epidemic, one thing remained clear: the agendas of some media organizations still remain highly conflicted with their profit agendas, an approach that does not serve the public good.
How the reporting of the Ebola crisis was prioritized, benefited local media in America that made the issue their top story each day. This was done at the expense of African nations that saw a huge decline in their tourism revenues. Also, Americans, many of whom had never heard about Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone, never even bothered to find on the map where these nations were located. Their only knowledge was that the disease came from Africa, and anyone who said they were from Africa became suspected of harboring Ebola.
Isn’t it time for news managers to think differently?
Some 57 years ago, in 1963, it was Bernard Cohen, a famous mass communications researcher preceding McCombs and Shaw, who suggested that the media’s coverage of an issue accords it a direct attribute of importance when the public attention shifts to the subject under the media’s focus. Highly debated among scholars at the time, the agenda-setting theory, posed a simple question: whether or not and to what extent the “media agenda,” the preference for one story over another, affected the “public agenda.” The results showed a correction between the two, meaning whatever stories the media highlighted, those stories gained the public’s attention.
Because the Ebola epidemic drove much of the media agenda in 2014, many Americans were overly concerned about the disease in far-away places which they had little chance of contracting.
But unlike Ebola, Covid-19 in Africa in 2020 and its overall low impact on the continent itself, is not driving US media attention to the continent. But at what expense, one might ask?
The extent of the damage that this kind of unfair and biased reporting causes to the continent is so great to the extent that 31 scholars came together in 1992, and again in 2017, to decry what they consider injustice to an entire continent. In a forward to a book they published, Africa’s Media Image in the 21st Century: From the “Heart of Darkness” to “Africa Rising, Beverly Hawk, the editor, states that “poor news coverage is not a victimless crime.”
The victim here is the African continent.