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Crisis news and the environmental question in western media reporting on Afrlca, 1982-87 : a case study of the Ethiopian famine

By Kofi Boafo Adu Ansah


Coverage of the Third World by the media in the developed Western nations has been a subject of intense debate among scholars since the 1970s. Some of the outspoken media critics have pointed to certain imbalances in Western media reporting on some parts of the world, including African countries. Such imbalances range from inadequate coverage to emphasis on crisis news events. Other critics argue, however, that Western news reporting on African countries, for example, is crisis-oriented because that is the kind of news those countries offer to the media given the recurrence of various forms of crises there. The 1984-85 Ethiopian famine was one such crisis that received extensive coverage in the Western media. Criticisms of this coverage served to fuel a growing concern among African and other intellectuals, particularly about one aspect of Western media reporting: the failure of those media to put into adequate context African events on which they report. Some critics have pointed out, for example, that although environmental decline is a major underlying cause of famine in Africa, it does not receive attention in Western media coverage of this recurring crisis. This is in spite of the pioneering role of the latter in the promotion of environmental issues in the West as a major social and political concern. From a much broader perspective, however, it appears that the case of imbalanced reporting on Africa in the Western media is not an isolated one. A number of studies on news reporting suggests that the criticism of imbalances in Western news reporting may have more to do with the nature of Western news values than with a wilful attempt on the part of the Western media to report on particular countries in those terms. Thus reporting on African countries by the Western media could be one typical example in which standard Western news practices come into full play. Against this background, the present study sought to investigate Western media coverage of Africa as viewed in terms of the application of Western news values. First, using qualitative analyses of relevant literature, the study undertook a contextualisation of crisis events in African countries, with special reference to famines, by identifying environmental degradation as a crucial factor in the unfolding of such crises. This included explanations for the apparent neglect of African environmental issues by Western media. Discussion on the environment was set in a wider context of a global environmental crisis. The qualitative analyses also examined the issue of imbalances, such as the focus on crisis and the lack of context, in Western media coverage of Africa. This was explored within a theoretical framework that encapsulates aspects of the political economy of the mass media, political ideological differences, and culture as some of the theoretical propositions used by some media researchers to explain imbalances in international news flow. Second, the study used the quantitative research technique of content analysis to carry out a longitudinal investigation of reporting on African countries in general during 1982-87 as well as a case study of the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine by three Western dailies: The Times of London, the New York Times, and the Sydney Morning Herald. An IAMCR (International Association for Mass Communication Research) coding scheme was adopted for this purpose. With regard to the qualitative analyses, the study found that even though environmental decline is a major underlying cause of many of Africa's ongoing and recurring crises such as famines, it may not receive attention in Western media reporting on those crises. This appears to be because the nature of Africa's environmental problems does not meet Western news value criteria. As regards the content analyses, the study found, in both the longitudinal and case studies, a dearth of reporting in all three dailies on African environmental issues and an orientation towards reporting events as discrete events, with little or no attention to underlying or contextual information. Crisis and non-crisis events in Africa were found to be, however, equally reported in most of the sample years studied in two of the three dailies. The focus of reporting on the Ethiopian famine was found to be on Western relief activities and on the bizarre or sensational side of the disaster - aspects of reporting that fit into standard Western news practices

Topics: news reporting, Africa, Ethiopia, famine, environmental issues, western media
Year: 1995
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