Economics and business journalism is one of the most vibrant sectors in the African media today. But its robustness can be easily subsumed by the continent’s appetite for staid and strategic media coverage of what are momentous economic times. Because of this, Africa’s financial media have only begun what will undoubtedly be a challenging quest.

Economics journalism might have existed in some African countries for nearly half a century, but its real roots can be traced to the protracted economic crises of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The failure of the World Bank-sponsored structural adjustment programs and the subsequent frantic search for alternatives catapulted economics into public discourse in many African countries. Initial coverage captured contesting economic voices, debating whether World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) ideas were appropriate for Africa, and whether to adopt alternatives proposed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. A decade later, a wind of democratic change sweeping across Africa and Eastern Europe ushered in the dimension of political competition and broadened opinion on the economy. As African nations embarked on their political transitions, the still fledgling economics media again kept pace, constantly advocating through their coverage the need to open up both the political and economic systems.

Improvement in economics and business journalism is also aligned with the growth of the continent’s private economic sector. Not surprisingly, business journalism is relatively more developed in countries where private enterprise is flourishing. In South Africa, for example, the nation’s highly developed private sector has fueled and buttressed growth of the Financial Mail weekly newsmagazine for more than four decades.

A similar claim cannot be made about the business press in the rest of the continent. For decades, government activity has dominated the economies in these countries. This has created large public sectors that lack the resources and luster of private enterprise that is necessary to support strong business growth and, in turn, a vigorous business press. For example, the Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines, state-owned until two years ago, accounts for more than half of the country’s gross domestic product. Until about a decade ago in Ethiopia and Tanzania, the espousing of anti-capitalism ideologies boosted public sectors while stunting growth in the private sector. Yet such crowding out of the private sector hardly qualifies as a worst-case scenario: Nearly a dozen African countries are currently engulfed in or have just emerged from bloody civil wars that have crushed most economic activities. In most of these countries, economics and business journalism is virtually nonexistent as government propaganda and political news dominate the news agenda.

Stories about the national economy dominate economics and business reporting in most African countries. For many journalists, reporting such stories involves reviewing very technical policy documents, contacting tightlipped government sources, poring through dated government data, or visiting government projects. Where government authority is heavy-handed, the economics beat unravels slowly and in predictable, boring strands. Lately, representatives of the World Bank and the IMF have become important alternative news sources in some countries, even though they are often just as inaccessible. Those who report on economics also rely heavily on tracking the actions and speeches of senior government officials.

One issue receiving a lot of attention these days is the economic liberalization and deregulation taking place in most African countries. From commodities to natural resource management, from civil service to health and education and legal enforcement, stories of economic liberalization are changing every day. Unfortunately, much of the coverage—not unlike what is happening in other places throughout the world—is reactive and lacks a well-defined, long-term strategy, even though the gravity of these economic changes is significant. Too often the media seem unwittingly to act as cheerleaders for “economic liberalization” without doing the tough reporting that examines its actual impact on various populations. And because it is heavily driven by personalities, the economic liberalization story is grievously erratic and episodic.

The economics beat, in general, lacks the sparkle that draws audiences or triggers public debates. Most business coverage across different media is disconcertingly similar, shallow and unquestioning, often because it is a reproduction of a press release or technical report. Too often, business reporters do not distinguish between personalities and issues, nor develop links between related macroeconomic events. When data are not forthcoming from government sources, key issues are underreported and under-analysed.

Even in those countries with larger private sector engagement, the business and finance beat shares these characteristics. A few major corporations dominate the private sector and the business pages, probably because they are also the largest advertisers. Indeed, in some situations business journalism is equated to reporting on what these corporations want reported; this can mean that the most mundane events receive prominent coverage. Financial journalism—especially personal finance issues—is scant and often limited to coverage of the minuscule stock exchanges in many of these countries. Much coverage has less to do with empowering people to make better financial decisions and more with assisting significant corporate players maintain a regular visibility in the press.

This gloomy picture must be understood against the backdrop of poor economic and financial reporting skills, unstable media entities with no guaranteed means of economic survival, poor work conditions, and the irresistible lure of better paying jobs in corporate communications. Indeed, many African economics editors have identified finding journalists trained in economics, business and financial writing as their most formidable challenge. Recent initiatives by the World Bank Institute, Reuters, Standard Bank Group, and the Financial Times of London that offer short introductory courses in economics reporting are welcomed, but a long-term training strategy is critical for substantive progress to be made.

Probably the biggest investment in this regard is the endowment by Pearson Plc of the Pearson Chair of Economics Journalism at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. Since assuming this position in 1999, I have initiated a network of about 160 economics editors in 35 African countries. The network meets annually to brainstorm on ways to improve economics and business coverage as a first step in long-term strategy to institutionalize economics journalism on the continent. The network already has a major online resource, African Economics Journalism Online. This Web site endeavors to be a one-stop shop for journalists who are working on an African economics or business assignment. AEJ Online also showcases the published works of African economics journalists to the rest of the world. Plans are afoot to develop short courses as well as Africa’s first masters’ degree in economics journalism at Rhodes University.

Professional economics journalism associations have also been formed in many African countries. From Niger, Mali, Ghana and Nigeria to Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Namibia, economics writers associations are helping journalists improve coverage as well as develop general work guidelines that could later be translated into an ethics code. Developing an ethics code is critical, especially when one considers the bountiful coverage of major corporate entities and public personalities and the poor coverage of important economic issues such as poverty, unemployment and the epidemic of HIV and AIDS.

The appearance of these national and continent-wide initiatives is in response to a growing interest in economics issues in African newsrooms. This interest in more and better news reporting is linked to the growing recognition that the problems confounding Africa have economic dimensions and that finding solutions must include improving people’s understanding and increasing their resolve. Also, it is well recognized that Africa is becoming better integrated, thanks to new communication technologies, commerce and education. And critically important is the appreciation of the role media play in engendering democratic and transparent governance.

These are all daunting issues, likely to make more difficult and complicated the job of reporting on economics and business by African journalists. However, among many economics and business journalists one finds determination to claim a prominent place in these dialogues about Africa’s economic future. Slowly, they are getting there, one story at a time.

Nixon Kariithi is the Pearson Chair of Economics Journalism at the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa. A former economics writer and editor in Nairobi, Kenya, he is co-author of “Untold stories: The State of Economics Journalism in Africa” to be published in 2003.

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