Lutz Mükke: Africa’s Image in Germany – Time for a ‘New Enlightenment’


For decades we have been hearing the same complaints about Africa’s image in the German media. Always the same lament: stereotype-laden reporting, scenarios dripping with pathos, a Eurocentric point of view, and a distorting focus on wars, crises, and catastrophes. But does Africa’s image even need to change?

The answer is at once simple and complex: Without high-quality reporting on foreign countries in Germany’s mass media, no meaningful societal debate on issues such the country’s international commitments can take place. The German electorate must be enabled, through reporting on current events and in-depth background information, to participate in that debate. Deficits here can otherwise create the risk that – as an example – foreign policy regarding Africa might come to be steered exclusively by small factions of experts and competing interest groups.

Suggestions on how the quality of reporting on Africa might be improved

A quantum leap in the quality of reporting on Africa can be achieved. But it will require high-profile, courageous interventions …

… via German and African journalists working together and the recruitment of journalists with African roots,

… in the degree of formal organization of foreign correspondents as a group,

… in editorial structures and management affecting reporting from foreign countries,

… in the staffing of bureaus reporting on and from Africa.

1) Working with African and African-German journalists

Why are the journalists who file stories from Africa so seldom Africans or Germans of African parentage? Why do we so often report on Africa and Africans but seldom with them? Why are Africans so seldom permitted to interpret and provide commentary on African events? Studies have shown that colleagues who grow up in migrant families do not do their jobs better or worse than ethnic Germans; they simply do it differently, with divergent perspectives and approaches. In a modern democracy, in the digital age, we cannot afford to do without those perspectives – at least not if we hope to become an open society that values immigration. The issue will require targeted attention from human resources decision makers.

The traditional image of a correspondent – an informational one-way street, a lone wolf in a foreign land – has its origins in the linearity of the nineteenth century and needs to be reexamined. Here German media must display greater acceptance and more flexible rethinking to achieve new models of cooperative, internationally networked teamwork and multi-perspectival narration. The digitization and networking of the planet opens up entirely new dimensions on the technical side. Yet in journalistic reality we continue in many ways, figuratively speaking, to trip over our own feet.

Today’s African journalists regularly say that they are not taken seriously as professionals. Who among us would be happy to be credited as a “stringer” – if at all – and only in film clips shown in foreign countries in foreign languages? It does not require tremendous powers of thought to imagine what might be possible in the way of features – whether on the work of German companies or consulates, the sometimes dubious activities of aid organizations, or the tourism industry – were they to be produced in transcontinental cooperation, with attention to African perspectives, not to mention African insights into such sensitive topics as religion, gender, art, extremism, the environment, and the informal economy. One thing has always been clear to insiders: In war and crisis reporting, working without stringers is just about impossible. It is high time we integrated such “locals” as equals in our journalistic practice, not only by crediting their work and airing their narratives but also by taking active steps to foster equality.

2) Degree of organization of foreign correspondents

Anyone who spends time with foreign correspondents abroad will note that they complain frequently and at length about the editors who employ them, the coverage stories receive, and the sad state of German media organizations in general. Yet the often justified critique is most often heard far from its targets, in the countries where the correspondents work – at meetings of their respective Foreign Correspondents Associations, over drinks at pubs, in conversations at parties. Here relief could come in the form of an association of foreign correspondents that, rather than confine its ranting and raving to a safe distance, would take an active role in media discourse in Germany, representing the voices of colleagues elsewhere. Germany’s numerous journalistic organizations include trade unions and professional associations for sport and travel journalists, free-lancers (Freischreiber), and investigative journalists (Netzwerk Recherche). Yet foreign correspondents, of all people, are not organized as such.

An independent association of foreign correspondents could simultaneously represent the profession and function as a driver of quality. It could task itself with bringing undesirable developments to the attention of broadcasting councils and the media for further discussion. In selected cases, it could praise or pillory reporting. It could formalize ethical standards in a code of conduct for foreign correspondents. It could advance the long overdue and fundamentally necessary debate: What should – and must – foreign reporting achieve in our society, and in the digital age? What functions must it fulfill, and what responsibilities arise in consequence?

3) Editorial structures and editorial management

Only a few newsrooms in Germany have expertise at their disposal when it comes to Africa. Positive examples include Deutschlandfunk public radio and the daily newspapers tageszeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Their editorial competence can largely be traced to committed individuals – including Thomas Scheen and Dominic Johnson – but also to their editorial vision. Many editorial staffs are by contrast crippled by production routines, knowledge deficits, and lack of vision.

It speaks volumes that one-half of the more than twenty-five correspondents assigned to Africa declared that they cannot count on finding knowledgeable contact persons in their newsrooms. It is also interesting to regard the editorial structures and editorial management of the public radio and television networks. Together, ARD and ZDF lay the groundwork for reporting on foreign affairs in Germany. They are cultural institutions. ARD alone maintains twenty-six bureaus worldwide, a network that is among the world’s largest. ZDF has developed similar structures in parallel. In Africa alone, the two maintain permanent bureaus in Nairobi, Johannesburg, Rabat, and Cairo. A total of more than two dozen full-time employees work there. As a basis for comparison, Germany’s private television broadcasters maintain no foreign correspondents in Africa at all.

Would it not be wise to unleash the worldwide potential of ARD and ZDF by having the two public broadcasting authorities set up a shared channel for foreign affairs? Such a construction would offer phenomenal opportunities: One would suddenly have room for novel and creative news, background, entertainment, and service formats going beyond today’s episodes of “Auslandsjournal” and “Weltspiegel” and the occasional program one stumbles across in the niches of regional public programming. The foreign channel could build up competent, specialized editorial staffs for various regions of the world, able to set long-term goals and new standards for quality. Foreign reporting relevant to Germans would receive adequate recognition, were it to run in prime time or near it. There could also be synergies – assuming sufficient objectivity with regard to policy goals were maintained – with the Deutsche Welle. An English-language component of the foreign channel could be broadcast worldwide, helping to integrate the “news island” Germany more strongly into international discourse. Why should we not think seriously about such a foreign channel? After all, we have channels for the arts, news, children …

4) Human resources

Africa editors – jacks-of-all-trades boasting universal expertise – are often responsible not only for political, culture, sports, celebrity, travel, zoology, crisis, and war stories in gigantic territories that can comprise as many as forty-nine countries; they are frequently responsible for covering – in their spare time – disparate topics such as Eastern Europe, Russia, the UN, or the International Criminal Court in The Hague. An ARD colleague summarized his qualifications in one word: “imposture.”

My research has shown that a handful of correspondents are able to influence Africa’s image in the most influential media in a way no other group of people can. It would be natural to assume that these are colleagues with relevant university degrees who have received lengthy and intensive preparation for their work in Africa. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Often Africa is merely the gateway continent to a foreign correspondents’ carousel. The majority of correspondents, my empirical findings have shown, embark on their work in sub-Saharan Africa with little notion and zero in-depth knowledge of its regions. Such a situation would be unthinkable in a place like Paris, London, Moscow, Beijing, or Tokyo. Whatever the criteria by which Africa’s foreign correspondents are selected, one thing is certain: Knowledge of the region can’t hurt, but it plays a subordinate role. In certain cases, people have started work as Africa correspondents without ever having set foot on the continent. A journalist becomes an expert on Africa by designation, and then through on-the-job experience.

Would it not be desirable and beneficial to create a structured, moderated flow of information between journalists in Africa and academic departments including African Studies and the political/developmental, military, cultural, and economic sciences? With a modicum of effort, that could be achievable through professional development course offerings for journalists. In short, editors-in-chief, department heads, and human resources professionals should apply transparent criteria of competence in their selection of Africa correspondents and offer them continuing education opportunities on an ongoing basis.

2nd February 2014

Lutz MÜKKE is co-editor of Message – Internationale Zeitschrift für Journalismus and Program Coordinator Journalism, Science and International Relations for the Media Foundation of Sparkasse Leipzig.