Biases and blind-spots: international eyes on Africa

Credit: China Daily

It was back in 2015 when I was doing comms work on the developing crisis in the Central African Republic that I became acutely aware of the biases and blindspots of Anglophone media. Everyday I would check the news and find very little on what, I knew from colleagues, to be an extremely serious humanitarian situation.

I am ashamed to say that despite my international credentials (more than half my life spent abroad) I had committed the first sin of the English-speaker e.g. forgetting that the world outside Anglophone media exists. Eagerly scouring the BBC website and perhaps even breaking out to look at CCN from time to time was not, it turned out, enough. This humbling realisation led me to discover that Russia Today, Deutsche Welle, TV5 and Al Jazeera were all providing more extensive coverage, much of which was also available to me in English.  

For those of us who are concerned with how development is communicated, the dominance of English-language media should be something we care about. That is why I was particularly interested in a set of academic articles in a new book called ‘Africa’s Media Image in the 21st Century’ edited by Mel Bunce, Suzanne Franks and Chris Paterson, all reflecting on Chinese perspectives on Africa.

The sub-title of the collection is From the ‘‘Heart of Darkness’’ to ‘‘Africa Rising’’ which tells you a lot about the representation of Africa in the media and about wider trends in reporting Development issues. So-called ‘Afro-pessimistic’ and ‘Afro-optimistic’ narratives both seek space within the mainstream media and within NGO communications departments. Is Africa a continent full of suffering caused by poverty and injustice? Is Africa a continent full of potential for human and economic development with promising signs of growth? Might there be truth in both these perspectives?

Vivien Marsh’s contribution to the edition, ‘Africa through Chinese eyes: new frames or the same old lens?’ analyses CCTV Africa and BBC World Africa to answer her title question. She contrasts the different frames through which the journalists write their stories: conflict, harmony, human interest, morality, stability etc to examine how different they are from each other. 

Inspired by Marsh, I made my own short analysis of the top ten headlines today on China Daily’ Africa page and the BBC Africa page:

Top 10 BBC Africa

Cameroon senior school targeted by blast
Zimbabwe widow wins landmark inheritance battle
Malawi ‘vampire’ set alight and killed by mob
Mozambique riots over ‘vampire’ rumours
Nigerian underpants bomber ‘sues US’
‘Deadly’ whooping cough outbreak in northern Nigeria
No Togolese protesters died, say government
Namibia ‘tells Airbnb hosts to register or face jail’
SA singer ‘won’t press rape charges against football boss’
Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o on Harvey Weinstein harassment

Top 10 China Daily

‘Big lessons’ to be shared between Africa, China: UN-Habitat chief
China envoy calls for boosting African nations
Good for China – and good for Africa (Ed- about economic competitiveness indicators)
Harbin doctor saves life on National Day in Mauritania
Chinese student art troupe strengthens culture exchange in Kenya
Story of Kenya’s SGR to be published in three languages (Ed- about railway infrastructure)
Team links for trade between China and Kenya
Congo wants Chinese investment in central Africa
Chinese connoisseur speaks out against rhino horn collectables
PLA Navy, on humanitarian mission, visits Sierra Leone


I do not claim that this is in any way rigorous data but I cite it to give a flavour of the types of stories covered and how little overlap there is between the two lists. The BBC focuses on news for an African audience whilst the China Daily top 10 focuses on stories about China and Africa for audiences in both locations. The China Daily headlines are almost entirely positive in nature, whilst the BBC covers 5 stories about violence, 4 about injustice of some kind and one negative health story.

Herman Wasserman joins Vivien Marsh in seeing Chinese media as taking a more positive or ‘constructive journalism’ approach. This is a pragmatic strategy designed to ‘amplify China’s soft power’ by ‘promoting ways of looking at Africa differently’ and perhaps, not rocking the boat…This contrasts with the ‘watchdog’ approach of Western journalists, seeking to hold power to account and focusing on the challenges facing the region.

Seeing Africa and particularly development challenges and solutions through Chinese eyes will be different for most of us. The Chinese media channels available in English may be more reflective of the Chinese state and its interests than we are comfortable with. But having new Chinese players on the media scene, reporting African development in fresh ways, can’t help but give us new perspectives, whether or not we agree with everything they broadcast. 

The narratives about development in Africa are often simplistic and don’t get close to communicating the complex reality behind the ‘death, disease and development’ narrative we are used to hearing. There are biases and blind-spots everywhere. But one thing I have learnt in this small exercise of media analysis is that there is always a richer story when you look at it from more than one angle. 


How biased is the news you consume? Do you take any proactive steps to widen your view? Let us know in the comments below. 


Marsh, V Africa through Chinese eyes: new frames or the same old lens? African news in English from China Central Television, compared with the BBC
Wasserman, H. Shifting power relations, shifting images
Wan, J. Perceptions of Chinese media’s Africa coverage
Paterson, C. New imperialisms, old stereotypes
All in Bunce, M., Franks, S., Paterson, C. (eds) 2016: Africa’s Media Image in the 21st Century: From the “Heart of Darkness” to “Africa Rising”. Abingdon: Routledge



  1. Well done! We always say in England that Russia also has its point in the story.

  2. Wow! I am so pleased to have someone with credentials put into words what has frustrated me for the 8 years that I – a South African , born and raised, have experienced since moving to the UK. There is noting about my country – unless I look for it. And to be honest – I don’t look for it because it’s tricky to find. Most of my news if Africa comes from your Facebook posts Alice, or my fiends posts in SA, or an SA friend of mine working as an economist (I think) , or a random Italian guy who works as a lawyer in conservation – mainstream news doesn’t really exist for me.

    Knowing a little about BRIC countries – Russia, India, china …. I can see why Africa is portrayed more positively for those audiences – a positive idea of a country that you are investing in, grouped with, partnering with is important. A country that you need to swoop in and help- you need to know what to rescue them from …. and maybe that is the approach taken by the super states of UK and USA?

    But that’s just my opinion …

    I need to make more of an effort to be neutrally informed – possibly by going to the source that is the South African news, for me.

  3. Very interesting observations, Alice! News are hardly ever just neutral, not only in the way how they report, but also on the choice of what they report.
    China Daily is by far not neutral. Even though it might be more liberal than other Chinese news papers, it has the state’s interests at heart, one of which is the economic relationships to African countries. So their focus on these ties makes absolute sense, when looking at it from that perspective. But yes, it does point to very interesting structures in which news coverage is embedded and a look at diverse sources – as you suggest – is extremely valuable, also to get a feeling for what different news papers from different areas

    I just had a talk yesterday with a friend about how headlines can reveal the discursive and regional contexts in which the articles are embedded in (even though the headline/article doesn’t necessarily refer to something happening in that area) and your examples and observations were a great continuation of that conversation! The China Daily headlines you named never just refer to growing relationships with Africa, but also to the great, positive (and when using a word like great or positive it is always important to ask for whom?) role of China as a major player in global economy. In these examples, they either use words like sharing/trading/linking which connote equal power relations, or Saving Lives/Boosting Africa/Strengthening Africa//China Invests/Speaks out/is on Mission, which show a much more active and in charge position for China. So not only do they focus on more “positive” stories, there also seems to be some kind of internal negotiation about China’s role. But of course, as you correctly pointed out, these are just observations on very unrepresentative data. So maybe as a future project, a content analysis for example could be really interesting to get a more precise idea about the representation of relations. Thanks for a very inspirational post 🙂

    • Thanks Lili- I’m glad the blog was timely for conversations you were already having. I feel like I have just scratched the surface on this topic as well. I really recommend the articles I used as sources, particularly as they use more rigorous data and research methods. All in all a very interesting topic which I am going to think more about!

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