The concept of sustainable journalism as discoursed during the Sustainable Journalism in Practice Conference (SJIP), in March 2023, Nairobi, Kenya, unlocks several advancements journalism and media can make in contributing to sustainable societies. This paper extends to considerations of building and sustaining global African perspectives in the media, as it continues to engage with the world, to present the ground-level perspectives of how lives are affected.
Too often the narratives that dominate the global media platforms built outside of the continent, place their influence on African news governance. Several media in Africa still relies on secondary sources to inform of their own realities, placed as firsthand primary sources. This infiltration is a crippling factor to a media that can be sustaining of itself, and to its society, particularly that of African communities.
There is a need to build and develop African perspectives to ensure nuance in reporting of Africa’s global engagements. Global media reporting of the continent in turn reflects on the socioeconomics, politics and governance, and the local communities in African countries. Particularly as we live in an interconnected and interrelated global community, where fierce competition from the global social and dominant media companies influence the sustainability of more concentrated media establishments in local communities. In addition, as Africa continues to position itself as transforming into the global powerhouse of the future, as provided in the AU Agenda 2063, it is crucial to build the capacity of journalists and media professionals in the continent.
Global journalism and sustainability in practice
Global journalism is the concept of sustainable journalism that acknowledges that issues that confront other nations have cross-border implications, recognizes the interdependence of countries and calls for the inclusion of global perspectives in news reportage, this according to the 2021 Policy Brief, titled Towards Sustainable Journalism in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Policy Brief further finds that journalism practice and societal expectations of journalists have evolved over the years. It is evidenced that journalists are expected not only to inform, educate and entertain societies, but that journalists need to ensure that issues that adversely affect societal development are addressed effectively.
Considering the required effective referencing of global policy frameworks and their translation into the daily lives of communities is one example. In the case of the global United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the media often places a narrow focus in the reporting of the sustainable development goals. The Policy Brief finds that too often, the media solely captures SDG 16 target 10 on the guarantee of public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms, whereas there is a need to broaden journalistic links to all 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
This places us at an opportune time to rethink and form a new kind of action-oriented shaping of our media space, words given by Lars Tallert, head of policy and international development at Fojo Media Institute during the SJIP Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.
This paper poses in addition; on how we can ensure African perspectives are upheld within media reports on Africa’s relations with the rest of the world, and how we can ensure the sustainability of media establishments, their re-skilling, re-training, and capacity building initiatives in order to be effectively serving their communities.
The Six Concepts of Sustainable Journalism
The SJIP Conference presented six main concepts that attribute to sustainable journalism, namely: content, business, environment, representation, research and education. The conference explored the concepts at length; however, for the purposes of this paper, the focus is only to the concepts of content and representation, while other concepts are discussed in brief.
The concept of content and representation is that which is most relevant to this paper, as it discusses the importance of African perspectives within media reporting of Africa’s engagements in the world, in order to contribute to more sustainable societies. Much aligned to the concept of content is that of representation. Representation refers to the innovative, gender balanced and inclusive newsrooms and organisations. Content refers to the producing and publishing of content that contributes to sustainable societies and generates revenues for the media. This paper assesses content and representation as coinciding.
Interrelated, is the concept of business, which is in hand, reliant on the concept of content, to maintain sustainable business models for media establishments. The fourth concept of environment refers to the environmentally sustainable production and distribution of media. The concept of research refers to the required research on the connection between journalism and sustainability. Lastly, the concept of education refers simply to educating society on sustainable journalism.
Content and Representation: Building African perspectives
The Wits Centre for Journalism (WCJ), founded over 22 years ago, has established international profile as one of the leading centres for journalism in Africa. The WCJ is based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in South Africa, which is ranked highly within the best global universities across a wide set of indicators of excellence. The Centre combines high-level professional coursework with a theoretical and research focus and has played an important role in providing postgraduate education to working journalists. The Centre also boasts several professional journalism projects including the Africa-China Reporting Project.
Africa-China Reporting (ACRP or the Project) has played a crucial role within the sustainability concept of content and representation in journalism, as well as in building African perspectives in Africa’s global engagements.
The Africa-China Reporting Project was established in 2009, the same year which China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. This presented both an opportunity as well as a challenge for media reporting in the African continent. Firstly, not to rely solely on the dominating Western narratives when it comes to the impact of China’s engagements in African communities, but to be able to unpack, assemble and empower African voices for its developments in its engagements with global players, and in that way impact on the agency of local communities and society.
The Project aims to improve the quality of reporting on Africa and Africa-China issues by providing facilitation and capacity building for journalists, media professionals and researchers. This is accorded through the provision of reporting grants, skills training workshops, reporting resources, networking, and other opportunities.
Over the years as an Africa based institution, the Project grew to amplify African perspectives, recognizing the importance of influencing sustainability of the media and society. Further, the Project has grown to supporting representations for and of women in Africa, as well as of young people.
As a result, the Project has shaped into a solid resourceful networking hub for policymakers, businesses, media, academia and other stakeholders. The Project has awarded over 300 reporting grants and has trained over 200 journalists through training workshops which were held in South Africa, Mainland China, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivore, and Tunisia. The Project has further facilitated media impact and engagement in Anglophone and Francophone communities, and dissemination through the mediums of English, French, Mandarin, and Arabic.
Sustainability Crises in Journalism and Society
The SJIP identified two sustainability crises, one facing society and the other, which faces journalism. The first sustainability crisis facing society relates to issues such as climate change, poverty, inequality, and crumbling democracies. The second sustainability crisis facing journalism relates to issues or stems from an erosion of revenue streams, fierce competition from the global social media companies, restrictions of freedoms of expression, media capture, disinformation and deteriorating public trust in the media.
In addressing the sustainability crisis facing society, the Africa-China Reporting Project has collaborated with several stakeholders in advancing against issues such as climate change, public health system fractures due to the COVID-19, and the inequalities that arise. In its impactful collaborations with China Dialogue, the Project awarded nine reporting grants, and later awarded another eight grants during a second round of selections, to journalists in Africa. Journalists were encouraged to investigate issues on climate impacts, adaptation, mitigation, energy access, energy transitions, just transitions and the social aspects of development, critical mineral mining, low carbon transportation and electrification. The collaboration also brought about a training workshop on Africa-China Relations and the Climate Crisis, to enable journalists, media professionals and researchers to understand and effectively investigate the climate crisis.
Several publications are a result of this initiative, including a report on the impact of the Komati coal power plant. The report highlights how women in the community were not included in the decision making even though they were the most vulnerable group. A more recent publication assess strengthening Malawi’s disaster preparedness after Cyclone Freddy.
During the critical outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020 the ACRP awarded 31 reporting grants to journalists from across Africa to investigate how African countries were affected by pandemic and its impact on Africa’s public and private health systems, innovations and Africa-China relations. The resulting investigations include various reports on Africa’s responses and experiences. Including, a report of Ghanaian engineers who built the country’s first low-cost ventilators; further from Kenya, we saw reports on how Mombasa County lead the way in fight against COVID-19 in Kenya and the role of youth in Kenya at the forefront of COVID–19 prevention. From Sierra Leone we saw the key role played by the media in shaping public perception on COVID-19; and from Cameroon, of how China’s COVID-19 medical aid mitigated a health tragedy in Cameroon’s overcrowded prisons; and how years of underfunding the health sector affected Nigeria’s response to COVID-19 – a report which was awarded the Prevent Epidemics Naija Journalism Award. These are African perspectives on how African governments were responding to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, their engagements with global actors such as China, and the impacts on local communities and the role of the media. Therefore, this is a response to the sustainability crisis facing society, as well as journalism.
The Project has facilitated several other initiatives towards mitigating the sustainability crises facing society. This includes initiatives on cross-border poaching and trafficking of wildlife, environmental journalism and training workshops, furthermore held in collaboration with NGO China House, and stakeholders including the WWF, Vuka Now, and the Southern Africa Wildlife College.
The Project has further facilitated initiatives within both the sustainability crisis facing society and the sustainability crisis facing journalism. An impactful example is of two training workshops held on digital identity, data and technology in Africa where issues around data privacy, surveillance, digital inclusion, online safety, freedom of expression were explored. The result of the initiative was 17 publications compiled in a Book Publication on two Pan-African journalism workshops, publications from various countries in Africa, as well as the two workshop reports and resources.
The Africa-China Reporting Project enables and supports journalists to tell the stories of how the lives and experiences of people and communities of Africa are impacted by the comprehensive phenomenon of its engagement and interaction with China and other world actors. And in advancing against the sustainability crisis facing journalism which stems from diminishing revenue streams, fierce completion, restrictions of freedom of expression and diminishing public trust in the media, the Project has collaborated with several organisations including Paradigm Initiative, USAID, Africa-Check, the CAAC (Chinese in Africa-Africans in China) research Network. The Project has also supported local investigative units in Africa to conduct in-depth investigations, and these include the IDT in Zimbabwe, CIJM in Malawi, New Narratives in Liberia, Museba Project in Cameroon, iWatch Africa in Ghana, MNN in Lesotho, Ikweli in Mozambique.
The role of the media is crucial in sustaining society as the Fourth Estate. Part of playing a crucial role requires capacity-building initiatives, which empower African voices and perspectives, and media establishments, to enable African communities to tell their own stories, and sustain their communities, as it engages in the vast and competitive global economy.