Journalism is crucial for a functional democratic society, but not all media is equal. Journalists rely on storytelling to humanize news stories, yet many African stories are told by foreign media, leaving gaps in coverage. With a growing preference for diverse, inclusive and locally relevant content, there is an opportunity to uncover and amplify stories that are often neglected. This panel at the Africa Media Festival sought to explore the untold stories and emerging trends in Africa – from stories hiding in plain sight to the silenced stories of marginalised groups, as well as the rich cultural heritage of the continent.
To start with, intentional language is crucial in authentic storytelling, as stereotypes and narrative tropes can obscure truth-telling. The Museum of British Colonialism’s Suhayl Omar emphasized the importance of language in storytelling. When using a more universal language, journalists must consider their audience carefully. Purposeful storytelling, rather than just informative, is essential. However, language implies intent but does not always negate impact. ,
Scrolla Africa’s Thabiso Sekhula recommended publishing vernacular stories in Xhosa and Zulu, which protects stories from decay by translation, enhances authenticity, and gives voice to rural stories. This creates a market for rural publications and allows for more relatable tales from remote locations, even for urbanized audiences. While some media houses support vernacular media platforms, it is more feasible in radio than publishing due to the challenges of maintaining authors in rural areas.
Geography poses a challenge for journalists covering African stories, particularly in North Africa due to language barriers and government policies. Some stories can only be told by publications with greater reach and resources. While African media houses have a responsibility to provide security for these stories, they may not always be able to do so. It is concerning when African stories published by African media houses receive little response, but the same story told by international media can bring about change, despite their reputation for fetishizing African strife. Local publishers must be taken more seriously to fulfill the responsibility to the African audience.
African media can be constrained by political agendas that force them to downplay the reality on the ground to avoid making leaders look inept. Meanwhile, international media also has limitations on what can be reported about Africa. In response, various agencies have worked to ensure diverse voices are heard. The Elephant’s Joe Kobuthi addressed this issue by emphasizing the importance of including identity, context, history, and background in African stories.
Oral tradition is also another source for African storytelling. It may not be verifiable in the conventional sense but immortalising oral history can go a long way in preserving history and culture. Relying only on written archives that may skew towards a specific (often established) narrative, and robs people of the entire scale of their history.
There are story agencies on the continent that are already doing the work, such as bird (by Africa No Filter) which seeks to correct harmful narratives about the African continent, and celebrate Africa’s creativity and complexity with nuance. Other agencies like the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime cover the evils plaguing Indigenous communities from “development” projects, such as state-backed mines and dams.
But in this mire of negatives, many journalists tend to forget the positive, heart-warming stories that are everywhere in our society – if we just know where to look. Joyce Kimani, a former print writer for the Daily Nation, shared a piece that she published about children of incarcerated convicts going on a field trip for the first time in their lives. The story highlights the joy of these young children while showing the shortfalls of the carceral justice system in the country. This level of nuance can almost always only be achieved by localised journalists.
More collaborative efforts are needed in African media where journalists can work together to get stories to the people, and should be inclusive of new media content creators, the panel heard. More partnerships are needed to ensure the stories reach their determined audiences. A report can lend content to a podcast which can be broken down to short videos for TikTok or Instagram. There is the need for a trickle down of information and a need to remove the rush for exclusive breaking news, and more of an equitable effort to share stories.
It takes a long time to unravel the damage done from established media. The media’s blind spots need to be addressed by local journalists. This is an uphill task that needs revolutionary labour that prioritizes African truth rather than a set narrative. African newsrooms should be safe spaces rather than cliques. They should avoid the pitfalls of closing ranks and work more to get richer stories in the hands of the readers. Perhaps when there’s better cohesion, there can even be awards for the best storytelling efforts by African journalists.
By Gloria Mari