Why is so much outside coverage of the Mali crisis so bad?

Why is so much outside coverage of the Mali crisis so bad? I don’t mean the conventional wallowing in clichés / recycling old images / harkening back to colonial stereotypes kind of bad, although there’s all that too. I mean the kind of bad that comes from being caught in a Beckettian loop of either saying nothing at all or having nothing to say.

Take al Jazeera. A few years ago, the Qatari-based chain was the thing, and I hear aspiring movers and shakers still try to publish there. Yet in spite of the fact that al Jazeera was said to be devoting more attention to African stories, its site has not been the place to go for Mali coverage. It has been the place not to go for Mali coverage. Check it out: a couple of round-ups of news stories that bring nothing new, little if any original reporting, and a few weak pieces of analysis, including one that trots out some of the same clichéd thinking that we try to smother in the cradle when we teach African Studies 101 to American undergraduates (e.g., conflict is due to colonial borders that “split tribes [and] lumped incompatible ethnic groups together…”; what are “incompatible ethnic groups”?). What gives?

Should I look to The New York Times? Humor me: the ‘Grey Lady’ is my local paper. The best piece The  Times has offered consisted largely of block quotes from Bruce Whitehouse. This makes sense — Bruce’s blog is excellent. An anthropologist and fluent Bambara speaker who’s been living and working in Mali on and off for something like fifteen years, he knows what he’s talking about. Still, it makes you wonder what you need The Times for, and it makes me nostalgic for Howard French, who covered West and Central Africa for them in the ’90s. How to get some serious coverage? Here’s one idea. Maybe the next time interim president Dioncounda Traoré goes to Ouagadougou, he should strap a dog to the roof of his car. That seems to merit the attention of the Grey Lady, or at least its editorialists. Unless you’re thinking of the “Arts” section, Mali in and of itself apparently does not. Nor does the fact that over a decade of diplomatic engagement, military training, shadow-boxing in the “war on terror,” and a real war in Libya has failed catastrophically to serve American interests in the Sahel, helping to tear up a secular, multi-ethnic democracy and producing nearly 300,000 refugees and displaced people along the way. You’d think for America’s newspaper of record, there’d be a decent story in there somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong, there is good reporting on what’s going on in Mali. Some of it is even done by professional journalists like Martin Vogl, who’s been in Bamako for a few years and who is always one step ahead. There’s good analysis out there too, but also a lot of quick conclusions based on skimpy evidence, as Baz Lecocq argued in relation to the Sahara. Even the best-intentioned reporters and analysts are going to make some mistakes, given the thin information on the ground. And I don’t want Nick Kristof to bring an intern. But I do think a serious story deserves to be taken seriously. Is that too much to ask, from the Grey Lady or anyone else?

Postscript: I’m talking here about print journalism in English (since it’s an Anglophone blog). That excludes most Malian journalists, so let me offer two brief words on that. First, Malian journalists write for a Malian audience, and part of what that means is that they use a lot of codes which you have to know something about that culture to understand (like my own use of the phrase “Grey Lady” to describe the Times). Not easy for the outside to wade into. Second, there is excellent work done under tough conditions by courageous people. Both the junta and the rebel MNLA have assaulted Malian journalists. Some of the articles, however, are clearly hatchet jobs set up against one or another political figure (e.g., Person X has a secret deal with rebel movement Y, which we know because we captured a cell phone with his number in the call log…). All of which is to say, reader beware!

Photo Credit: Mohamed Camara


10 thoughts on “Why is so much outside coverage of the Mali crisis so bad?

  1. Do you ever read Voice of Americas site? We have 2-3 updates almost daily on Mali and though they are originally written for radio, Nancy Palus in Bamako is doing a good job with breaking news and Peter Clottey is in Washington but from Ghana and often gets interviews with top officials.

  2. My main complaint is that those journalists who do score an interview with the CNRDRE or the MNLA act as stenographers. God forbid one of them ask a follow up question, or maybe ask them to elaborate beyond a platitude that strains credulity.

    • In some of these journalists’ defense, when one interviews a military leader of junta head, it’s the interviewee who controls the interview. They grant only a few minutes during which they do their best not to reveal anything substantial. Sanogo’s been especially good at keeping reporters at arms’ length. Which should make us ask what’s the value of an interview with him to begin with.

      • Point very well taken, Bruce. Many of these journalists have a beat to work and I completely understand that an ill-received follow-up question might cost them future access.

        That said, did you see the episode of “Al Jazeera Stream” featuring Andy Morgan and Cherif Keita? it was a joke and the Malian people deserve better. I have no problem with news outlets outsourcing analysis to those who are well versed in the subject matter, but it is still their responsibility to provide context.

        More broadly, several journalists have prefaced their writing with something akin to the following: “The situation in Mali is really complex, and I don’t know much about it, but thankfully, I have the bass player of Tinariwen to explain it to me”.

        Said bass player definitely has a valuable perspective to offer, but to use him as a substitue for background research is just shoddy. If I wanted to know more about the conflict in Northern Ireland, my first stop would not be the musings of U2 (unless, of course, I was actively researching the attitudes of Irish rock stars toward the Good Friday Agreement).

  3. The problem with interviews with CNRDRE is that a) they’re extremely hard to get and b) they are held on extremely short leashes by their media handlers. Such that a normal interview takes about a week to procure (if you’re lucky) and lasts about 3 and a half minutes (note also that French press have a much easier time getting access). If you press a topic that might provoke a bit of controversy, the interview ends.

    Al Jazeera’s website has had very little Mali text content, but their video content has been amazing. They had a full team in Bamako for weeks and have had a full team in Timbuktu for two weeks now (the only foreign media reporting on the ground from the north at the moment), doing on the ground reports with Ansar ed-Dine, MNLA, Arab militias, residents fleeing and lots of other stuff. Reuters also has constant updates with the occasional analysis on their Mali page (http://af.reuters.com/news/country?type=maliNews).

    But this points more to a general trend in Africa news coverage: francophone press covers francophone Africa in much more detail than anglophone press does, and vice-versa. The countries American media focus on in Africa (when they do, which is rare) are anglophone: Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, which–despite being a poor journalistic practice–makes logical sense.

  4. Joe, actually US media spend the bulk of their time reporting abou/on Congo, Somalia or where there’s “famine and conflict” to quote the Pulitzer citation for Gettleman.

    • One more thing, thanks for this group of bloggers who introduced to Tinariwen music which is now one of my favorite bands. Keep up the good work!!
      Y’all should give a more extended analysis of Souleymane Cisse or any other major cultural powerhouse of Mali, I don’t seem to be finding much on my side of research. Thanks.

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