The old media adage, ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, giving priority to bad news, has been the guiding principle for much of the mass media. Should African media organisations be compelled by law to include ‘good news’ in their output? asks Moky Makura.
So, here’s a radical thought… what if there was legislation in every African country that required all media publishers to commit a percentage of their content to positive stories? In other words, what if we had a ‘good news’ law for Africa?
And by good news, I don’t mean propaganda. I mean real news stories that reflect the people, places and things moving the continent forward.
In this future state, media owners would be obligated to track and highlight the policies, initiatives, businesses and programmes shaping their countries and the continent. The law would mandate that the media report equally on what is good, what is working, what is inspiring and progressive in their countries, as well as what is not.
We need a radical solution like this to undo the damage and break the harmful, deep-rooted, stereotypical narratives that still exist. Despite the significant progress we are seeing on the continent, stories about Africa continue to be told largely through the lens of poverty, poor leadership, corruption, conflict and disease.
It is the reason why stereotypical narratives of a broken Africa that lacks the resources and agency to change itself persist despite examples to the contrary. And these narratives have been around for longer than you’d think. As far back as 1878, journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley published one of the first depictions of Africa for the world, in his book Through the Dark Continent.
It would be the first of many stories about Africa and Africans written by outsiders that have defined us negatively to the world. Whilst Stanley’s work is no longer the definitive source and authority on Africa, the stereotypes that defined us back then continue to thrive today in the content we read, watch and listen to.
If you work in the media space, you will be familiar with the phrase ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ – which essentially means bad or negative news will be on the front page every time. And that seems to be especially true when it comes to reporting on Africa.
Africa No Filter’s How African Media Covers Africa report proved there is a dominance of hard and negative news in our media – 81% of stories about other African countries featured in African media outlets, were stories of conflict, election violence, humanitarian crises and climate disaster.
The reality is that the world is tired of bad news. The 2021 Reuters Institute annual report on digital news media showed an increase in the number of people that now actively avoid the news – and that behaviour is driven by three factors: information overload; distrust in the media; and the high level of negative news. There is even a term for its impact: ‘news avoidance’.
An interesting Kenyan study analysed 180,000 news posts on Facebook and Instagram from 16 of Kenya’s top news media outlets in 2019. They found that the stories that people most engaged with on these platforms were the ‘human interest’ ones; like those about Kenyan teacher who won the Global Teacher Prize in 2019, and the unemployed man who got a first-class degree and a job. The stories were popular because they were relatable, inspiring, amusing and informative. The stories were a different kind of news, defined often as ‘soft news’.
Soft news is the type of content that media bloggers and vloggers like TikTok’s Marie Mbullu, who runs a ‘good news’ channel on TikTok, put out. And the data shows there’s a demand for it. Her platform, Habari Njema, which is focused entirely on Africa, has over half a million followers and attracts as many as 4.9m views for posts. That amounts to more influence than some of the strongest media brands in Africa.
Other approaches to countering bad news are evolving within the industry itself. We are seeing progressive journalism trends like ‘Solutions Journalism’ and ‘Constructive Journalism’, which are attempting to change newsroom practices.
They are breaking the negative news cycle by creating new approaches to storytelling that put a solution and constructive spin on the way a story is told. And media that adopt them are seeing better engagement with the content that results.
I hear the naysayers who would argue that any policy or law that attempts to interfere in editorial independence is a crackdown on media liberties. I also hear the argument that media organisations are overstretched. Do we seriously expect them to go out and find positive news on top of the usual news agenda while they contend with shrinking newsrooms and declining revenues?
Yes, I do, because as media institutions wield a great deal of influence in the world, they have a role to play in nation-building, especially on a continent whose youth need it so desperately. And having laws that guide the media need not always imply there is a repressive and authoritarian agenda behind them. Many countries have rules that govern their broadcasting sector’s output and these are largely designed to protect and promote local programming.
South Africa implemented a local content law that meant public television channels were required to have 30% local content or more and radio stations at least 20%. The results were that TV content now reflects the life experiences, cultures, languages and aspirations of more South Africans and facilitates economic opportunity for local content producers. It was a win-win for all.
And I see no reason why similar win-win laws shouldn’t be introduced for good news in an industry that peddles bad news. Giving consumers more of what they want will lead to more of what media organisations want – bigger audiences and better engagement with their content.
Perhaps it’s not such a radical idea after all…