06/15/2012 03:31 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

How Not to Write About Writing About Africa‏

There have been a number of articles and media attention recently about how badly Africa is covered in the Western media. This has included an edition of the BBC World Service's BBC Africa Debate, multiple responses to Kony 2012 and a number of articles lamenting the lack of coverage of recent events in Mali. Most recently, Binyavanga Wainaina has updated his famous Granta article How to Write About Africa in the Guardian.

The central narrative in almost all of this commentary begins with a series of broad claims about how Western news coverage of Africa is stereotypical, 'negative,' sporadic, marginalized, inaccurate and/or lacking in context and analysis. These sweeping statements are then seemingly supported with an anecdote or example -- usually drawing on the very worst recent examples of coverage. The argument then quickly moves on to offering explanations for this 'negative' coverage. Reference is usually made to geopolitical interests and journalistic routines and practices. The narrative ends with an appeal for future coverage to better reflect the 'true' face of Africa.

This narrative has changed little over the years. Indeed, in his most recent article, Wainaina continues to attribute the framing of news coverage of Africa to the end of the Cold War, claiming that, for the West, "big history died with the Berlin wall, there is only little history left to report on Africa."

What is almost entirely missing from this narrative, and from academic research into this issue, is robust empirical evidence upon which to base such claims. Precisely how much coverage does Africa receive? How does this vary over time, between different media outlets and between different regions and countries within Africa? What measure is being used to judge the quantity of coverage? Is the apparent use of stereotypes to cover Africa peculiar to this continent or are they not simply a feature of news coverage of all parts of the world -- or indeed, news coverage in general. In other words, is there something about coverage of Africa that is emphatically 'worse' than anywhere else? If so, in what particular contexts does this appear? Where do counter-discourses appear?

I first made this point in an article in 2008 which concluded, based on the results of a quantitative analysis of UK newspaper coverage of Africa, that, rather surprisingly, coverage was "not as marginalised, negative or trivial as it is often accused of being." The results of this research have subsequently been characterized as supporting a 'liberal perspective' on the representation of Africa in the Western media -- in contrast to 'the dominant perspective,' which claims that "Western media coverage is bias and crisis oriented."

I contend that understanding how the Western media covers Africa is not a question of adopting either a 'liberal' or 'dominant' perspective. Rather, it is an entirely empirical question. And this question continues to remain unanswered.