This article by Li Lianxing on the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project was originally published in China Daily Africa
Making a difference is not easy, but certainly possible if one is determined, seems to be the motto driving China-Africa media cooperation, with the prime objective being to counter the biased, distorted reporting of Western news organizations with balanced, objective reporting.
Brigitte Read, project coordinator of the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project, hosted by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, says balanced reporting is the way forward for Africa and something that China can help champion on the continent.
“The essence of good journalism is to uncover truth, but for some reasons the West always talks about China and Africa in myths and stereotypes,” she says. “The best way to address such cultural imbalances is by using the media platform to exchange objective information about one another.”
She says the Wits project aims to improve the quality of reporting in China-Africa issues. According to Read, despite the expanding links between the two sides, reporting is often inadequate or polarized, either portraying China as an exploiting predator or a benign development partner.
The project offers reporting grants to African and Chinese journalists and encourages collaboration to investigate the complex dynamics, uncover untold stories and enable research for journalism students looking at media responses to China’s engagement with Africa.
“If they could collaborate with each other, they would have more access to each other’s information channels to produce more balanced stories,” Read says.
The program attaches great importance to the topic proposal and preference normally is given to proposals with a relatively narrow focus around a specific project or issue, rather than ambitious or broad attempts to analyze the overall effect of Chinese engagement.
“Topics suggested in the first batch of applications in 2010 were quite broad: ‘I want to write a story about Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela’ and other similar stereotype stories. It made the proposal more like a tourist or Googled idea,” she says. “But we have been learning and improving every year.”
Read says 75 percent of the applications (50) they received in 2013 were good enough to be considered, a much healthier situation than earlier years.
“Most of the applications that we received were from Chinese media personnel. Although five years’ work experience is required, it is something that we are willing to negotiate on if the proposal and background of the applicants are quite strong,” she says.
Read says there was considerable interest among last year’s applicants in Africa and some of the topics were self-supporting, thereby making the program more efficient.
“As we have a limited number of fellowships and grants, we had to give up many good proposals this year. But some of the topics and proposals were too good to forget and we are exploring possibilities of getting outside support for them.”
Read says that though it is more convenient and practical to conduct the program in Africa, she would not be surprised if she gets good partners for the same in China if a similar program is held there.
“I don’t think African journalists are at a stage where they can understand China and China-related issues. In addition, there are visa and language problems to deal with before we can introduce the programs in China,” she says.
Liu Hongqiao, a 23-year-old environmental journalist with a Chinese economics magazine, was granted the Oxpecker Environmental Investigative Journalist Fellowship under the project in 2013, and spent three months in South Africa reporting on transnational wildlife crime.
“I stayed in South Africa for three months from September to December and traveled across five provinces in the country. For the first time I gained some real personal understanding about local politics and culture,” she says. “More importantly, I had a chance to closely investigate the crossborder rhino horn trade in this region, which was thoroughly different from the perspective of doing it in China.”
Due to visa constraints and other reasons, she says she ended up doing limited research, rather than the expected in-depth investigative report into the crime network.
She says looking at Africa in Africa was different from doing it in China due to the differing background and discourse environment.
“Such programs are meaningful and practical ways to cooperate,” Liu says.
The real advantage is that it brings a Chinese perspective to local reports. This helps enhance understanding between the two sides, and also makes it convenient to reach out to the Chinese community in Africa.
“Many Chinese journalists come to Africa to write stories that attract Chinese audiences, which could be called China-oriented. Collaborative reporting, on the other hand, targets local and international readers, and hence calls for new ideas, careful topic selection and balanced reporting,” she says.
African journalists, however, feel that such programs should also be conducted in China. Josef Osei, a Ghanaian journalist working with a local radio station, says that he is hopeful of winning a fellowship this year.
“I really want to go to China to understand the full gamut of China-Africa relations. Though the government funding is limited, I will keep trying,” he says, adding that there are many stories that he wants to explore, especially with Chinese journalists.