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Africa: "New News"
Oct 11, 2006 (061011)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"I am constantly confounded as to why American media don't find
Africa an exciting place to report from and about. I think there's
a perception that audience interest is limited. That's certainly
not been true in my experience. ... I don't have a problem with
reporting death, disease, disaster and despair, because all of the
above exist. But that is not all there is to Africa." - Charlayne
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from an interview with
Charlayne Hunter-Gault by AllAfrica.com, reflecting on her new book
"New News from Africa." The full interview is available at
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
'New News' from Africa - Looking Beyond Death, Disease, Disaster
Interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault
[Excerpts: full interview available at
http://allafrica.com/stories/200610060824.html Reposted with
permission from allAfrica.com]
October 6, 2006
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the best-known and most
award-winning journalists in the United States, has focused her
recent career on covering Africa. After nearly two decades as a
correspondent for the Newshour on public television, she moved to
Johannesburg, South Africa, working successively as Africa
correspondent for National Public Radio and CNN bureau chief,
before leaving CNN last year to pursue independent projects. This
month, her interview with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
appears in Essence magazine. She talked with AllAfrica about her
latest book, New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa's
AA: Your interest in Africa dates from childhood?
Hunter-Gault: My initial interest in the continent goes back to my
childhood in the segregated [U.S.] south where, on weekends, the
big activity was to go to what we called "the show." It was the
little segregated movie theater in my town of Covington, Georgia,
and it was always either "westerns" or Tarzan movies which somehow
captured my imagination. At that time, there wasn't a lot of
discussion about Africa, either in my household or in the
community. I was so struck by the adventures of Tarzan that I used
to play in my backyard, where there were lots of trees and vines
hanging, and I called myself "Nyoka, Queen of the Jungle."
So something in my primal memory must have been stirred by all of
that - although in retrospect those Tarzan movies were so racist.
They make me sad, because the victim was always some hapless
African or the villain was some African terrible guy, and the white
Tarzan was always the hero. But that didn't really register much.
In later years, I encountered the poem, "What is Africa to me,
scarlet sky or copper sea?" [by Countee Cullen] It is a beautiful
poem. But when I was in college, I began to see Africa as more than
a poem, as more than a Tarzan movie, more than adventure. Robert F.
Kennedy came to my university at a time when the south was
resisting the law of the land requiring desegregation. I think that
he and his brother, President John Kennedy, were concerned about
the black vote [in the United States] and also viewed Africa as a
potential bulwark against communism.
Speaking at the University of Georgia, Robert Kennedy said that the
graduation of Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes would be a major
milestone in the fight against communism. I was shocked. There I
was sitting in a room of hostile white people, and they said, "What
was that he said?" But it was indicative that Africa was emerging
on the international scene and making its making its way ever more
deeply into the consciousness of African Americans like myself.
AA: Why do you think that coverage of Africa in major U.S. media is
Hunter-Gault: I am constantly confounded as to why American media
don't find Africa an exciting place to report from and about. I
think there's a perception that audience interest is limited.
That's certainly not been true in my experience. I lecture on
college campuses, before businesses and corporations and other
venues around the country. And I always find receptivity to the
'new news' that I bring from Africa. Interest - and ignorance to be
sure - because people aren't getting the information they need to
Reporting is dominated by the four 'd's I talk about in the book -
death, disease, disaster and despair.
AA: Has coverage changed during the three decades you've been
paying attention to Africa and working as a professional
Hunter-Gault: I don't think so! There are moments when journalists
descend on the continent - when Mozambique floods and a baby is
born in the tree, etc. I don't have a problem with that. I don't
have a problem with reporting death, disease, disaster and despair,
because all of the above exist.
But that is not all there is to Africa. And when you have crises to
which the international community should respond, increasingly
there is a reluctance to do so because, after all of this negative
reporting, there is a feeling: What's the point? If all you hear
about year after year is hunger, drought, disease and conflict,
people conclude that Africa's problems are intractable and that
nothing in Africa ever changes.
The "new news" that needs to be shared includes the fact that in
1998 there were 14 wars being fought on the continent. Today there
are three, because Burundi's last guerilla movement has now signed
on to the peace process. And in Congo, the first contested election
in 40 years was held in relative peace. That's "new news," even
though many people still focus on the unrest that continues in some
parts of the country.
AA: You've reported from Africa for both NPR and CNN. Were you
frustrated by what you were able to do?
Hunter-Gault: The whole time I was at NPR, and subsequently at CNN,
I got the stories on the air that I went after and thought were
important to do, sometimes to the frustration of editors. My
stories were often longer than they wanted them to be, and I kept
pushing the envelope. But I walked away from CNN quite proud about
what I had been able to do.
I think a lot of journalists self-censor, because they don't think
there is going to be receptivity to their Africa reporting. That
self-censorship becomes a self-defeating and self-fulfilling
prophecy. Journalists who are invested in trying to get news of the
continent out just have to keep slogging, keep on fighting for
space. They have to be creative in the way they propose and sell
As I say in the book, they have to go there to know there. Let them
go there and spend a little time there, as opposed to parachuting
in for a specific thing and leaving. If you go to Niger to cover
the famine, go next door or go somewhere else in the country where
there is no famine. Or if you go to Darfur, go to southern Sudan
and see how they're rebuilding after decades of war. See what is
the sprit of the people.
We have to understand that the audience is not tuning out on
Africa. It's the media decision makers who decide that Americans
aren't interested. After I left the NewsHour, many people in the
United States thought that I had died! They so rarely saw anything
I did on CNN domestic, or only episodically or occasionally, and
those people who watched the NewsHour didn't watch CNN domestic.
Not a lot got on CNN domestic, and yet all over the continents of
Africa and Europe - and everywhere else that people get CNN
International - people were watching. But a decision had been made,
or was made on a regular basis by the domestic side, that there
wasn't sufficient [audience] interest [in Africa].
Now, I have to say, that's changing a little bit. I have friends
who still work at CNN and who've been doing great work, people like
Jeff Koinange. He's getting more things on CNN, and Anderson Cooper
is becoming more and more interested in the continent.
Some of that has to do with, again, the death, disease, disaster,
and despair, but the point is: let them get interested.
I've been working with a group called My Sister's Keeper. In fact,
I reported on them from southern Sudan in December. I went over
there to follow them because they were going to see if it was
feasible to build a girls' school. It was an amazing eye-opener.
Here was a part of the country that was put back into the Stone Age
by war; there's nothing there, not even anything to make bricks. So
the task of these women is going to be daunting.
I agreed to have them come over to Martha's Vineyard this summer
and talk to people about the school, and see if there'd be people
willing to contribute. They sent out emails to people whose names
I gave them and others who are working with this project, and the
response has been amazing. People want to contribute - and they
don't know anything. So when you give them a little bit of "new
news," the response is invariably positive.
AA: In your reporting, you strive to make the people you are
covering come to life for your audience. So do you think it's not
just a question of finding the stories that are beyond death and
destruction, war and famine, but it's also what you do when you're
reporting on those crisis situations?
Hunter-Gault: Yes, it's how you look at things. For a five-part
series on poverty in Africa for NPR, I went to look at the
conditions, but in each instance to the extent that it existed, I
wanted to also see if anybody was doing anything about it.
In Tanzania, for example, where the face of poverty is a woman, you
go to the rural areas and she's the one who's out there tilling
what little land is left in the face of drought. She is the one who
is trying to provide for the family because often the men are off
in the mines or doing some other migrant work, somewhere way away.
She's the bread-winner and the one who keeps the family together.
But she's also the one who gets infected with HIV, when the husband
comes back from months and months away in the mines and has
contracted HIV from sex workers. She's having a rough time, and so
that's the story you tell.
But you also tell the story of the women who are meeting under the
tree and have availed themselves of one of the Care International
programs called Village Savings and Loans. These are providing
loans for women, and some men, but they're mostly women, where
there are no banks, and where credit just wouldn't be possible. And
yet the small amounts of money that they've been able to pull
together and put into a common pot have generated businesses and
One of these women has a vegetable stand. She's selling vegetables
and dried fish and dead worms and all kinds of things, and she told
me that her business has expanded five-fold in two years. Now she
can buy clothes for her children. She can send them to school, she
can feed them, and she can reinvest the profits to further expand
That kind of thing gives the impetus, perhaps, to the international
community to want to contribute, because in the midst of dire
poverty all around, here's this little mound of hope and the
prospect that these women, who are involved in this thing, won't be
forever poor. ...
AA: What do you recommend to people in newsrooms who want to bring
more "new news" about Africa into the coverage?
Hunter-Gault: They just have to go there. They have to be willing to go there.
This is not always glamorous. Everyone wants to come to South
Africa, because they can stay in nice hotels and run out to the
townships and get a little bit dirty and then come back and take a
nice shower in the five-star hotel.
But you have to go beyond that. You have to be willing to do it
again and again, willing to take chances and be uncomfortable, and
you also have to be willing to be unpopular.
It's not the job that gets you the anchor position on the news. You
have to be realistic about it. You have to realize what you're up
against and be prepared to give it your all to get it there.
It's not unlike the 1960s here [in the United States], when we
tried to get more people of color into the major media. And when
cities erupted in flames, everybody in newsrooms was surprised.
Finally, they realized that the reason they were surprised is
because nobody who knew those places were there in those newsrooms.
That's when people of color began to be recruited, to come in and
cover - first of all - where they lived.
After a while, they wanted to do other things too! They wanted to
do foreign affairs. They wanted to write editorials. They wanted to
cover energy, and the environment and politics. They've advanced.
I challenged the National Association of Black Journalists meeting
a few years ago. I said: you changed the face of American
journalism. Now you need to concentrate your efforts on the
international side. Who better to do it?
AA: In the book, you talked about 'coming in right.'
Hunter-Gault: That's part of good coverage anywhere you go. I went
to Harlem in the early '70s, when the [Black] Panthers were
reinventing themselves, or at least trying to. They were presenting
a breakfast program for children, and when I showed them my
credentials, my New York Times press card, this Panther said, "No
you can't come in." I said, "Why is that?" And he said, "Because
you work for 'the Man,' and the Man is not going to allow you to
tell the truth." The New York Times in those days was referred to
as the Grey Lady, but I knew what he meant.
I said, "Ok, let's make a deal. You let me come in here and cover
this one, and if what is in the paper tomorrow is not an accurate
reflection of what has actually taken place then don't let me come
the next time." And he said, "Alright, on one condition, that you
come in right." He didn't have to spell that out for me. I knew
what he meant. Don't come in here with a lot of preconceived
notions about who we are and what we are. Come in and see what's
happening and let the story dictate.
The next time I saw him, he said, "Right on sister," and I said,
"Power to the people." We got past that.
It's not a bad way of preparing to cover anything, but especially
those places, and people, and things that have been so
Sometimes you have to press and press and press and press, but I
think a lot of times, reporters have formed their opinions about
something. No amount of facts or explanations is going change that,
especially if they've been conditioned over the years, maybe by
wrong information, to see things in a certain way.
Which is why I tried to be very sensitive as I went into Africa,
even though I came out of an environment where I became sensitized
very early on to how you can get misrepresented, because I was the
subject of news myself. [Charlayne Hunter and fellow student
Hamilton Holmes integrated the University of Georgia in 1961, amid
violent protests against their admission.] I was able, at
19-years-old, to separate the good ones from the not good ones.
I understood that, but still, even with my own background and
perspective, I was a product of Western education, where there was
very little information. And it still is the case that there's very
little information about Africa that is truly informative.
So you go with your bags packed with pages and pages of background
research and material, but it's all from a particular perspective
- unless it's allAfrica.com! (I'm not just saying that
gratuitously. I'm saying it because it's true.) ...
But, there's always something to be learned, especially on a
continent with 54 countries and over 800 million people:
multifarious, multifaceted, multi-varied, multiethnic. So you have
to always be open to new things. You just have to be a good
AA: What about quoting African sources - not just outside experts
- and getting to know local journalists?
Hunter: Gault: I think it's very important to liaise with African journalists. For
all of the difficulties that African journalists have faced - not
the least being oppression by many governments and countries where
most of the media has been state-controlled - many have shown great
courage and determination to try to tell the truth.
As I said in the book, local journalists tell you where to get the
best coffee, and on the way, they give you the run down. As a
journalist, you check out your sources. But those are the people
who live there. They find ways of helping you get things you
wouldn't see, just popping in and popping out.
Having said that, they will be the first to say they need more
resources and more training, because they haven't had access to a
lot of it. They talk about needing more courses in economics, so
that they can figure out where Africa is within a new global and
globalizing economy. Many of them don't even have computers, but
they utilize Internet cafes. They work with minimal resources,
against great odds, and yet they're out there. And they're getting
better and better at what they do. ...
Journalists want to help build their democracies, and they are
seeing that constructive, critical reporting is as important to the
building of democracy as writing stories about how wonderful
everything is. They understand that part of their responsibility is
to keep the feet to the fire of governments who have made promises
to the people.
In Ghana, for example, in the last two elections, journalists
fanned out across the country and saw to it that the ballots that
were being counted were being counted properly and accurately. They
made it impossible to cheat, because they were calling the results
in, and it was being announced on the radio.
I recently went to Ethiopia, as a board member of the Committee to
Protect Journalists, to talk to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi about
those dozen or so journalists who are in prison, charged with
treason and facing death. I went, hoping to get some of them
released. We weren't successful in that, but we had a very good
exchange with the prime minister, and it's clear that there needs
to be more communication between the government and the media. Not
so that the media do good stories or so that the government gives
them scoops, but just so you improve the communication.
Those journalists were accused of working for the opposition,
because most of what was contained in their news reports were the
words and positions of the opposition. But what they told us from
their prison cells, as well as others who weren't in prison and
came to visit us surreptitiously, was that the government wouldn't
talk to them, so they only had one side to report. We told this to
the prime minister, who acknowledged that his government needed to
do a better job at communicating with the media.
It's also important, not just in Ethiopia, for both sides to be
responsible. Given the woeful lack of compensation to journalists,
it's not too surprising that there might be lapses in ethics or
practice. There has to be a consciousness on the part of
journalists, as well as on the part of governments, that everybody
has to assume responsibility for the quality of their work, and the
quality of their communication, and the quality of the information
that they convey or purvey. ...
I happen to think, and this has long been a tenant of my own
journalism, that I don't have to be an advocate. I happen to
believe that most people are capable - if they have good
information - of making good decisions. Even if, in my
heart-of-hearts, I have a position, I try to present both sides
fairly. I don't think people need me to tell them what to think. I
think they're capable of making up their own minds. Just give them
facts, as you see them.
The public is very sophisticated. I think that it's unfortunate, in
America, that there is this perception that you have to dumb down
information in order for people to understand it. That's a wrong
I think that, increasingly, people who want good quality news are
turning away from these talk shows on TV and these shouting
matches. I don't know how many people have asked me, since I've
been on this book tour, "Where can I get good information about the
continent?" It happens all the time.
AA: Fortunately you know what to tell them.
Hunter-Gault: I know what to tell them.
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