The Africa Narrative is a global initiative aiming to engage the world in new stories of Africa by showcasing its arts, media and entertainment, business, education and philanthropy. Based at the University of Southern California Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center and created in partnership with international communications consultancy CrissCrossGlobal, it launched in late February with Africa in the Media, an inaugural research project focusing on US media depictions of the continent and their impact on US attitudes and engagement with the region.
By Carolina Are
Media Depictions of Africa
African innovation, business, music, fashion and art are increasingly making their mark on the world stage. A 2015 Pew survey showed that Africans were among the world’s most optimistic about their economic prospects. Yet many argue that Western news and entertainment still mainly portray disease, poverty, corruption, famine, armed conflict and stories about Westerners who appear as saviors in connection with the continent.
USC Annenberg’s Findings
With support from the Ford Foundation, researchers from Media Impact Project conducted a content analysis paying particular attention to when Africa was mentioned, as well as the content and tone of media associated with Africa. The researchers examined 700,000 hours of television news and entertainment, finding that in all those hours of broadcasting, there were only 25 major scripted storylines about Africa on television.
The project also analysed 1.6 million Twitter posts over the month of March 2018. Research partners from global opinion mining company BrandsEye analysed the tweets’ sentiment, confirming the argument that Africa is mostly ignored and widely stereotyped in the media when it does appear.
Findings in the Africa in the Media report mainly suggest that Africa is barely mentioned on US television, with stories about the continent appearing once in every five hours of TV programming – and that a big junk of Africa mentions (20%) were on the game show Jeopardy. The report argued that viewers were seven times more likely to see references to Europe.
Worryingly, the same treatment is applied to African people: only 13% of entertainment storylines that mentioned Africa included an African character, and 80% of the roles were small. When African characters did appear, 46% spoke 10 words or less. Only 31% of African characters were women.
US television and social media tend to misunderstand Africa altogether, almost portraying it as the continent itself was a country (despite Africa having 54 countries). In scripted entertainment, 44% of TV shows only mention “Africa,” with no reference to a particular country, while on social media “Africa” received 27% of mentions — more than any individual country.
The report showed US media more often than not portrays negative images of Africa, stating that at the time of research, viewers were more than twice as likely to see negative depictions of Africa than positive ones. For instance, of 32 African topics tracked across all TV programming ranging from animals and culture to travel and immigration, only three had more positive than negative mentions. These were history, music and sports.
News-wise, politics (32%) and crime (16%) garnered the most mentions, while business and the economy accounted for just 8% of news coverage about Africa. In scripted entertainment, too, over one-third (35%) of African mentions were about crime. Many of these stories were told on America’s most popular shows such as Law & Order: SVU and the NCIS franchise.
On a more positive note, the topic of poverty in Africa had the highest volume of positive tweets, which were centred on successful efforts to address African poverty and were often sent by nonprofits and NGOs working in the region.
Recommendations for Future Media Depictions of Africa
The authors of the report shared five recommendations for content creators wishing to talk about Africa, showing US media still has a long way to go to accurately portray the continent on its screens and social media:
- Increase the number of stories that mine the rich and diverse cultures and histories of Africa — including in children’s programming — and develop more scripted content that doesn’t focus on crime.
- Include more African characters in stories and give them larger speaking parts.
- Make one half of African characters female.
- Expand the focus from Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Congo and Nigeria to the continent’s other 49 countries.
- Collaborate with content creators from Africa and its diaspora.
Read the summary of findings here.