How Should the Media Cover Africa? Nick Kristof Debates an African Critic

The columnist finds himself at the center of a larger conversation about covering the continent's handful of problem spots versus its larger success story.

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A street vendor sells newspapers in Johannesburg, South Africa (AP)

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof takes a lot of grief. The two-time Pulitzer winner is well known for his coverage of sub-Saharan Africa and humanitarian issues, but some of his strongest critics tend to be NGO workers, academics, or fellow writers who work in Africa, or are themselves African. They tend to say that he over-emphasizes Africa's problems, reinforcing Western stereotypes that Africa is a place of poverty and suffering, and criticize his habit of telling African stories by profiling the white do-gooders he called "bridge characters."

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, for example, included Kristof's work, along with the much-criticized Kony 2012 campaign, in his White Savior Industrial Complex. "Kristof is best known for his regular column in the New York Times in which he often gives accounts of his activism or that of other Westerners," Cole wrote. "His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated 'disasters.' All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need."

Still, Kristof has probably done a great deal to increase Western awareness of humanitarian and political crises in Africa, and that's a big deal. When Kristof took a few shots on Twitter from one of his critics -- Teddy Ruge, an outspoken Ugandan entrepreneur who also writes occasionally, including for the Times' website -- Kristof, somewhat uncharacteristically, acknowledged the criticism and defended his work. It began when Kristof linked to a recent column that, also unusually, focused on Africa's prosperity rather than its violence.

Their conversation is copied below. It's about Kristof's work, but in many ways it's part of a much larger conversation right now about how the Western media covers Africa. As Kristof wrote -- and as several others have written before him -- Africa has seen a remarkable decade of economic growth, democratization, and increasingly peaceful societies. As it changes, Africa is challenging some of the long-held assumptions about how best to cover it. Kristof is probably the most visible Westerner covering it in the "old" way, the central tenet of which is that Africans are suffering and privileged Westerners should help. So, as people in the West and in Africa challenge the old way of thinking, they're also challenging him. His debate with Ruge is a sort of proxy for that larger conflict.

In a much-circulated Foreign Policy piece on How Not To Write About Africa, Laura Seay wrote that much of the Western media's Africa coverage made "Africa hands" such as herself "cringe." For example, "many Africa correspondents file stories that fall prey to pernicious stereotypes and tropes that dehumanize Africans." Howard French, long a New York Times reporter in West Africa (who now writes often for The Atlantic), followed up on his blog, "It seems fairly indisputable to me, however, that the West's African coverage in general is broken and failing badly. This is true in terms of quantity, quality and especially variety, and I think that is Laura's main point."

Keep this in mind as you read Kristof's conversation with Ruge -- critics like Ruge are getting more insistent, but so is Kristof clearly grappling with the not-easy question of how to balance the humanitarian merit of covering conflict against the journalistic responsibility, as someone who is broadly associated with his Africa coverage, to accurately portray the continent and its people.