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Obama visit reveals need for a ‘reset’ on Africa reporting

Obama in Senegal(GIN) — A year into his second term, President Barack Obama gave Americans a fresh look at Africa, but the short upbeat visit may not be enough to change old attitudes on Main Street, in the United States press and on Capitol Hill.

“A trickle of articles in the American press has belatedly recognized Africa’s strong economic growth,” remarked U.S. journalist Howard French. “Some of them have touted a new African middle class, which by some measures is larger than that of India.”

Others have focused on Africa’s overall economic growth, which, reputable forecasters predict, will grow faster than any other continent, including Asia.

French scolded Americans, who “despite their far deeper historical associations with the continent, including 13 percent of the population that traces its ancestry to Africa, cling to deeply engrained attitudes toward this part of the world, as a place of war, of misery, of strife, etc.”

“For this reason,” he said, “and because we cannot get over a long-running sense of Africa as a place to be aided, we are ill-equipped to see or appreciate the opportunities that Africa offers.”

Formerly a senior writer at the New York Times, French covered Central and West Africa, Haiti, Central America and the Caribbean and lived in West Africa from 1979-86.

“Putting an end to the ghettoization of Africa will require concerted effort at the top,” advised French.

“Senior officials must, as Chinese leaders have been doing for years, visit the continent frequently. We must also put an end to the belittling, small ball ritual whereby African leaders are invited to Washington in groups of three or four (as if an African country by definition didn’t merit a one-on-one discussion), offered a quick photo op, a few homilies about democracy and governance and then sent on their way.”

American media, stressed French, are long overdue for a reset as to how they frame African coverage. “This should start with a rejection of the way African events are routinely said to take place ‘in Africa’ or ‘across Africa’ instead of in actual countries or places with real names.”

He adds, “The eternal pretext is to ‘make it easier’ for the reader, who can’t be bothered with too many unfamiliar names. This kind of factual looseness, though, is not practiced toward any other part of the world and bespeaks a casual and persistent ghettoization of Africa.”

French is the author of “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa” and of the forthcoming “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa,” to be published by Knopf in May 2014.

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