In defence of the veracity of African media content
edia coverage of important issues provides a critically useful function of informing and educating the public. When collected systematically over time, such content offers a unique window into perceptions of certain pertinent issues. Collections of media data – variously referred to as media event data, media monitoring output and media content corpus – have illuminated research in numerous subfields of political science, sociology and communication studies. In some of these subfields, researchers have touted the centrality of media event data, saying there is simply “no other alternative available” for such issues. In other areas, research points to the ability of media event data to offer deep insights into processes and mechanisms in use by state institutions and actors as well as communities grappling with certain social issues.
Wei Wang and others say automating news media content coding was greatly publicised by two recent global projects: The International Crisis Early Warning System (by Lockheed Martin), and the Global Data on Events Language and Tone (by Georgetown University). John Beieler spells out the import of event data being inherently atomic, saying each observation is a record of a single event between a source and a target, it provides a disaggregated view of events. Other scholars have focused on the qualitative strength of event data, particularly the ability to provide patterns and threads of pertinent discursive frames that could have ordinarily been too invisible in disparate single event analysis.
The benefits aside, there is wide-ranging acceptance that the use of media coverage data must carry the requisite caveats about any fundamental or conceptual concerns noted therein by such raw data. Researchers like Nils Weidman, Simon Hug and Scott Cook have enumerated selection and systematic problems with raw media data, variously referred to as ‘media bias’. Megan Price and Patrick Ball are emphatic that the ‘bias’ in media data sets is not about value judgments and related connotations, but rather focus on “empirical, calculable differences between what is observed and what actually happened”. This kind of bias often results in serious systematic error, variously referred to as measurement error, observational error and outright interference.
Researchers working with media content must remain alert to bias in their datasets, and particularly the extent to which such bias could correlate with other dimensions of social action such as state-sponsored repression, self-censorship, or even commercial influences on newsgathering. Regardless of the underlying drivers of media bias, the inherent concerns include misrepresentation (provision of inaccurate information by agents under observation who have the ability and incentive to misrepresent its true type, behaviour, or beliefs), and misreporting (true information is revealed and available but it is either not observed or properly recorded).
The foregoing discussions trigger significant concerns amongst researchers when the entire corpus of media content is drawn from African news sources. Needless to say, this disconcertment has not been without foundation. For half a century, African media have operated under a general dark cloud of subservience, acquiescence, co-optation by authoritarian political regimes and, lately, corrupting commercial interests. Thunder and Silence: The Mass Media in Africa by Dhyana Ziegler and Molefi Asante, Muffled Drums: The news media in Africa by William Hachten and numerous other works amply illustrate the checkered path traced by the continent’s media since the mid-20th century. An African columnist celebrating his newspaper’s 50th anniversary wrote, “"It has mostly been hell on earth for the African media for most of these 50 years.”
Renowned media advocate and scholar Kwame Karikari concurs and adds that: “The media boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, accompanying the movement for democratic reforms in Africa, transformed the continent's media landscape virtually overnight. It ended near-absolute government control and monopoly and ushered in a vibrant pluralism. Suddenly the streets of Africa's capitals were awash with newspapers. The 'culture of silence', imposed first under colonialism and then by post-colonial military dictatorships and autocratic one-party states, was rudely broken."
Lately, media researchers, cognisant of the peculiarities of African media systems, have been confounded by new, confusing patterns of news reporting between government-owned and private-owned media organisations. Other pertinent issues include uncritical levels of journalistic inquiry amongst teams of media practitioners, which is often blamed on poor training and/or unethical practices such as acceptance of bribes and insidious favours.
"The ACSUS database offers researchers a valuable platform from which to study previously untold perspectives on US-Africa relations, as told by the African news media."
Yet, these concerns and caveats notwithstanding, a large corpus of African media data may provide opportunities for rich insights and perspectives that would otherwise be lost in a purist search for untainted news content. Accepting to work with raw media data from the continent’s media transits from an absurdity to a learning exercise through which researchers are now invited to factor in African specificities even as they analyse pertinent patterns exhibited by the data. This is no longer an exercise in futility; rather it is an invitation to new perceptions of data robustness in which media failure and bias are considered independent variables and wholesomely worthy of investigation as part of the larger study of media content. In other words, media data is studied for coverage patterns of issues as well its own internal inconsistencies in how it presented the issues in the first instance.
The ACSUS African media content database
The Wits ACSUS African media content database* on issues relating to the United States offers an excellent opportunity to understand both the framing of US issues across to African audiences as well as critical pathways to understand how African media deals with issues of national import. If the multiple dichotomies identified in existing literature are anything to go by, the ACSUS database offers researchers a valuable platform from which to study previously untold perspectives on US-Africa relations, as told by the African news media.
Both aspects of this double offering are important to our understanding of Africa’s place in contemporary geopolitical contestations and foreign policy debates. African media content, the primary focus of this article, reveals interesting patterns in US participation and/or involvement in African politics, conflict resolution and peace building; trade and economic development; health and food security issues; science and technology; education; and entertainment, arts and culture.
Some observations from this African media content data are unequivocal: the US involvement in Africa is heavily selective, mostly tentative, heavily conditional, and replete with unintended consequences. Such findings may be pass as clichéd, given the US foreign policy record around the world. But their emergence in African relations in the 21st century shed new light to scholarly debates extent of western influences in Africa, impact of western political shifts on African democratisation struggles, and Chinese influences on US-Africa relations and vice versa.
African media chronicles both material and mundane issues, and does so within significant intrinsic nuances, like the extent to which certain outcomes could prop or upend political expediencies, and yet bolster or scamper global security imperatives. For instance, a study* of US participation in peacebuilding across Africa reveals simplistic nuances of proactive involvement in military training and joint activities in both East Africa and West Africa. However, a closer look at the coverage highlights vested interests in the mechanisms utilised by US military in communicating any involvement or activities in the two regions.
The caveat about media bias is worth revisiting in the context of ACSUS media database. One unique feature of the raw data is repetition, both across numerous media outlets in the same country or region and across the continent. For instance, US-Africa trade issues under the AGOA regime were discussed extensively in reports from outlets across Africa. Such repetition bolsters authenticity in as far as core news frames are uniformly evident in such reports. The coverage also highlights repetition of US policy positions in disparate news items focused on national contexts. A classical example here is the coverage of Africom activities in the Kenya media compared to coverage of similar activities in the Ghanaian media. In some instances, a critical review of the repeated coverage provides insights into news framing techniques.
The media content comprises over 65,000 news stories collected from over 900 African news outlets over a three-year period commencing January 2018. During this period, US-Africa relations undergo tectonic shifts, even though under one administration. Among the most pertinent changes in this tumultuous period is the rise of nationalism as the bellwether of the Donald Trump presidency. Globally, the policies ensconced in Trump’s “America first” clarion takes no prisoners; however, their implementation in Africa is best seen as a tapestry of numerous incongruous skits tenuously held together by a thread.
A few issue frames qualify as the binding ties. The development narrative plays well across both time and space. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is discursively constructed as an enduring pillar of support for the continent’s dithering quest for cohesive social development. Intertwined in Africa’s development discourse is the China, the quintessential Trojan horse in contemporary global political economy. A second issue frame is health and food security issues, which research may find as an enduring value in US-Africa relations for several decades. Technology is a predictable frame, especially in East Africa where US tech giants have nurtured an embryonic IT sector.
The research articles published in this special edition, and future research, will amply show that the ACSUS media content database is melting pot of knowledge and insight on US-Africa relations at an unbridled moment in global diplomacy. The database emerges from controvertible event data – disparate news stories – that are painstakingly collected and stored, then systematically aggregated for each country and region over substantive period of time. The result is an infallible tool of sociological and political inquiry that illuminates Africa’s perception of the US through a completely new set of lens, namely, the continent’s self-effacing media institutions.
*For more information about the study and to access the ACSUS African media content database, please contact Bob Wekesa.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.
(Main image: View taken on 3 December 2010 shows newspapers bearing headlines about election results in Abidjan at the time. – Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)