Veteran award winning reporter Hunter-Gault blends personal memoir with reportage and analysis, to challenge stereotypical reporting of Africa by, primarily, the Western media. It is no secret that media representations of the continent are most often stereotypical or sensationalised, focusing on conflict and disease; and the author sets out to systematically paint a different portrait: one of Africa which shows good, or so-called ‘new’ news.
Hunter-Gault, Charlayne. (2006). New news out of Africa: Uncovering Africa's Renaissance. (New York: Oxford University Press), ISBN-13: 978-0-19-517747-3
Reviewed By Tanja E. Bosch, PhD
Veteran award winning reporter Hunter-Gault blends personal memoir with reportage and analysis, to challenge stereotypical reporting of Africa by, primarily, the Western media. It is no secret that media representations of the continent are most often stereotypical or sensationalised, focusing on conflict and disease; and the author sets out to systematically paint a different portrait: one of Africa which shows good, or so-called 'new' news. Hunter-Gault intends to give “examples from [her] experiences and observations to create a status report of a continent in a hopeful transition, albeit one that is slow and sometimes maddeningly regressive” (p.x). And here, she argues, the role of the African journalist is that of guardians of their new world.
In the first chapter the author focuses on South Africa, where she identifies several items of 'new' news. While acknowledging the shortcomings and critiques of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for example, she points out that South Africa's peaceful transition has been used as a model around the continent. Hunter-Gault doesn't idealise the South African situation: she acknowledges the continuing race-based social inequalities, challenges to effective black economic empowerment policies creating a broad-based black middle class without destabilizing the economy, high HIV/AIDS prevalence and the controversy surrounding the President's views on the disease, among others. Further, her discussion of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and its politics is nuanced and balanced, and though she admits that it has cast a “long, dark shadow over South Africa's 'miracle'” (p.41), Hunter-Gault argues that there is new news in “the gains that have been made and in the optimism of those who are facing up to the challenge and achieving small victories” (p.42). But at the same time, she warns that increasing poverty and unemployment, especially among youth, places South Africa “where America was in 1968, when the country's inner cities erupted in flames sparked by rage” (p.57). Hunter-Gault offers a realistic and candid picture of South Africa, although her frequent comparison of South Africa's development to that of the United States as a young democracy is somewhat flawed. In the second chapter, “Baby Steps to Democracy”, Hunter-Gault turns her attention to countries “attempting to break free of the lingering legacy of colonialism, as well as many of the demons of their own design” (p.72). She discusses the formation of the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) as one of the most dramatic pieces of new news from the continent. She also highlights the African Peer Review Mechanism of the African Union and South Africa's role in brokering a peace deal for the Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Cote d'Ivoire. However, Hunter-Gault points out that “the willingness of people to stand up and speak out and demand that their government respect the principles now being espoused all over the continent under NEPAD, at great cost to themselves, is inspired by the second wind blowing across the continent. And that is part of the new news” (p.95). However, she also says that amid all the new news “it is clear that there are severe constraints on the capacity of Africans to provide comprehensive solutions to African problems, especially when it comes to the all-important role of peacekeeping” (p.99). But while she does concede that Africans are “taking their lives into their own hands” (p.103), it is not really reassuring that it is only the “optimism” (p.106) of Africans, which is constantly being raised as 'new' news.
The final chapter, “Reporting Renaissance”, deals with media coverage and the author's experiences reporting Africa, and she argues that it is possible for international journalists to play a constructive role, if they engage in honest, fair reporting. According to the author, “… when the continent and its people are portrayed accurately and consistently, not only will the rest of the world's people be better informed about a part of the world about which they have little knowledge, but they may also better appreciate how their leaders are responding and what they can do to help the innocent victims themselves” (p.119). Journalists need to strike a balance between nation-building journalism and bad news stories, particularly with regard to HIV/AIDS, argues Hunter-Gault. Overall, New news out of Africa is an entertaining read, on an important subject. It fills an important gap in the literature on a topic that is often discussed, but less frequently written about in a comprehensive and analytical fashion. Of course, one challenge remains: as an African reader, it is easy to critique the way 'outsiders', however sympathetic, write about the continent. Whilst she frames her views within a broader Pan-African identity, Hunter-Gault writes clearly as an American. But though it may fall short of satisfying a demanding African readership, it does provides a useful descriptive overview of some of the major political developments in Africa, and clear direction for Western journalists.
Tanja Bosch is a lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town.
This review was originally written for Politikon, the journal of the International Association for Political Science Students (IAPSS).