Global Development Institute Blog

Dr Tanja Müller, Global Development Institute

In a contribution for a book on Africa’s media image in the 21st century, Michela Wrong provides a strong defence of Western journalists writing about Africa. One of her expertly made arguments concerns the different roles academics and journalists may have – one concerned with all possible nuances, the other to sum up those complexities in a shorthand headline or story that readers without that nuanced knowledge can understand. Some complexity might get lost in the latter, but that does not necessarily mean a simplistic picture (certainly not when the journalist is skilled in his or her profession).

Yes, there is also the commercial pressure to see stories of suffering and horror in particular out of Africa published, but journalists like Michela and, it should be emphasised, many of the local journalists on the African continent, at least if they live in countries with a lively media scene, do an excellent job in combining what I will call ‘good-enough nuance and detail’.

When reading Michela’s piece, something else crossed my mind – and as a former journalist turned academic (albeit of feature stories and working with a freedom then that would let me starve today), this is something I feel I am in a unique position to comment on: Often, when taking a ‘journalistic approach’ to academic inquiry, at least in the social sciences, one gets it right. This may start with uncovering a story or a theme by accident, and as an academic one might in this day and age write a preliminary blog on it. The next step might then be to conduct more in-depth research, maybe apply for a research grant big or small, depending on what the issue in question may be. Three years or so later, a nuanced piece of research might have emerged that not only comprehensively engages with all that was written before, but provides new empirical evidence and/or theoretical insights . A number of articles will be published in so-called high impact academic journals usually behind a pay-wall – unless ‘gold-access’ can be paid for with said research grant, and new blogs will be written in order to advertise those and communicate at least some of main findings to the wider world (not least to those without access to academic journals).

It would be an interesting exercise to investigate how different the arguments in the post-research blog are from those that got one interested in the first place. Yes, there is now more thoroughness behind one’s claims that replaces the initial anecdote, but so what? Wait a minute, the academic might say, we need thoroughness, proper methodology, clear theoretical underpinnings to explain the world to those who do not have the luxury to spend their days thinking about how the world works – and yes, I would fully agree, up to a point. But at the same time it would benefit us all to recognise that methodological rigour is often treated too easily as of value in itself, and often does not provide deeper explanations or helps to make the world a better place.

Thus I could end here, agreeing with Michela that to attack Western media as one-dimensional and lacking nuance and depth when coming to ‘Africa’ has become an almost obligatory and rather unhelpful trope. It might also be a way to justify a rather plush academic existence.

But then I was reminded of the other side of the coin, at en event of the initiative of the German Business sector to integrate refugees into Germany. At the event, a number of representatives of various companies spoke frankly about their efforts, the successes but also the failures – and Germany did indeed do remarkably well as a whole in its efforts to integrate the around 1.3 million refugees who arrived in the country in 2015/16.

In one part of the programme the question was raised if that was the end of the contemporary movement of refugees and migrants in such large numbers, or if we were simply witnessing a pause in a movement that would gather pace again. One of the people to whom this question was addressed was the Africa-correspondent of a major German business newspaper, who joined from his duty station in Cape Town.

I could not quite believe what I was hearing when this correspondent described how dramatic the situation in ‘Africa’ was (Africa is a continent, remember?), characterised by ‘pure poverty’ that would drive Africans to ‘stream in hordes across the Mediterranean’ in the years to come, and a German chancellor stupid enough to take selfies with refugees, not understanding that ‘the African needs a figure of authority’ (‘Führer’ was the original word used) and wanted to be close to such a figure, thus sending the message that in Germany you can look the leader personally in the eye, inviting indirectly all to come. I was left speechless by the fact that the audience applauded that presentation – as this was an audience of knowledgeable people who engaged with refugees and were driven by the quest to make a positive difference – not part of the mob that in the German election campaign is bussed around by a new right-wing party to shout out its hatred against anything non-German and against Angela Merkel in particular, largely based on her decision to open the German borders to refugees in 2015.

This racist attitude of a leading journalist maybe part of an emerging zeitgeist more generally, for example visible in a recent comment piece in TWQ on the defence of colonialism. This brings me back to the start of these reflections, the different but also overlapping roles academics and journalists may have – and neither is by definition free from one-sided bigotry. Academics, if it is indeed their role to provide a framing that explains the world, need to do so in a way that not only dwells on nuance and methodological detail, but can be understood by the man or woman in the street with an interest in a topic but little care for those details. This does not make it worse or less rigorous – and to admit that often the gut feeling we have at the outset of a piece of research was right in many ways meets the readers where they are: at a point where they are gripped by an issue, but might feel they know too little to counteract a seemingly easy explanation, even if the latter is profoundly un-emancipatory. It sends the message: trust your gut feeling for now, even if you feel you do not know enough (yet) to properly justify it! Even without being aware of each detail in the argument – there are multiple ways to state that colonialism was and is in essence contemptuous and  inhuman (instead of simply demanding the withdrawal of a piece that celebrates it, as that denies the potential for antagonistic debate that is necessary for emancipatory politics).

Good research and good journalism complement each other, in an ideal world – and should speak in a joint voice much more than is often the case. One may hope that the ‘impact’ agenda might facilitate more joint engagement with the general public – even if too often ‘impact’ seems to be geared towards speaking to ’decision-makers’ or people with policy influence, who more often than not live in their own bubble – a bubble far removed from the reality of those who see no other option as shouting out their hatred in the street, be it in relation to migration policies or Brexit.

This blog first appeared here. 


Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.