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Selling Africa’s Good News Stories

Summary:
Low pay and precarious work conditions for most African journalists lead many to seek work with Western news outlets. But that leads to other problems, such as an over-emphasis on crises, strife, and other issues viewed as relevant to Western audiences. LAGOS – Anywhere in the world, freelance journalism is an extreme career choice. The job requires withstanding pitch rejections, ignored queries, stolen story ideas, and delayed payments. It means reconciling oneself with the economic precarity that comes with having little or no leverage in pay negotiations. But for African freelance journalists, covering the continent presents its own set of unique challenges. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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Low pay and precarious work conditions for most African journalists lead many to seek work with Western news outlets. But that leads to other problems, such as an over-emphasis on crises, strife, and other issues viewed as relevant to Western audiences.

LAGOS – Anywhere in the world, freelance journalism is an extreme career choice. The job requires withstanding pitch rejections, ignored queries, stolen story ideas, and delayed payments. It means reconciling oneself with the economic precarity that comes with having little or no leverage in pay negotiations. But for African freelance journalists, covering the continent presents its own set of unique challenges.

In Nigeria, for example, most media companies need diligent editors, seldom publish incisive features and analysis, and struggle to compensate their staff due to lack of funding. Kenyan media entrepreneur and former CNN anchor Zain Verjee recently bemoaned the reluctance of African billionaires and governments to fund and implement policies that support African media startups, even though they bridle at often jaundiced Western media coverage. And, where positive coverage can be bought and sold, and journalism is viewed as glorified public relations, African freelancers can only dream of proper remuneration.

Consider a recent 800-word article I wrote for one of the country’s largest newspapers; it ran barely edited and earned me a paltry 10,000 naira (about $30). And that was after I haggled with the editor to bump it up from 5,000 naira. A story of similar length would earn me $200 or more from a publication in the West. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that many Nigerian freelancers – including me – gravitate toward Western media.

But that leads to other problems, such as an over-emphasis on crises, strife, and other issues viewed as relevant to Western audiences. I’ve experienced this firsthand. I once pitched a story about a Nigerian Paralympian to a news website in the United States that frequently showcases African writers. The editor rejected it because it was too “optimistic.” On another occasion, a Western magazine tried to edit my initial draft to suggest that a refugee’s deceased parents were killed by armed militias when, in fact, her father’s death was undisclosed and her mother died from an illness.

As Karen Rothmyer pointed out eight years ago in the Columbia Journalism Review, foreign media outlets seem beholden to the idea that Africa is in perpetual chaos. Rothmyer, who lived in Kenya for several years, traced the endless stream of bad news to nongovernmental organizations’ use of data to justify their existence, which in turn shaped Western reporters’ “frames of reference” before they even arrived on the continent. Eight years later, those reference points have not really changed.

This penchant to accentuate the negative does more than reduce Africa to stereotypes; it also feeds the one-dimensional narrative of Africa as a war-torn,...

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