African Arguments – by Keith Somerville

February 26, 2013

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, organiser of the In Amenas hostage-taking,  is a useful framing device for journalists in the growth of the War on Terror narrative in Mali.

Having worked as a journalist for 33 years and having taught journalism and analysed the processes and performance of journalism for the last five, it is very revealing watching and analysing the development of major stories.  There have been two dominant ones in the news about Africa over the past couple of weeks – the Mali conflict and the Pistorius-Steenkamp murder hearings.  Each in their way tell us things about the way journalists work, in general, and in relation to Africa, in particular.

One of the basic ways of looking at how news is reported, about how journalists select and represent events, personalities, countries,  regions and continents, is through the idea of ‘framing’.  Few journalists think actively as they are doing it – they may think about the angle to pursue, which actors/participants to stress, how much prominence to give certain issues, but they rarely sit back and think about what the frame is and how they are representing people, countries or events within it.

A frame for a story is a simple way of looking at what is included in the story, as in the phrase, “who/what is in the frame”.  Imagine a news story as a painting or a photograph, what is included in that image within the frame that encompasses it.  What a journalist or his or her editor chooses to include in a story is the framing of that story; but it is also a way of representing an overall approach to particular types of story or stories from a region.  This is not an approach limited to coverage of Africa – all journalists wittingly or unwittingly do it – but it can be very exaggerated or stereotypical when it comes to Africa and can seriously affect how the readers, viewers or listeners understand a story and understand the context in which it took place.

The South African Crime Frame

Take the Pistorius case:  he was an athlete hugely admired around the world, as well as at home in South Africa.  He had fought disability and become a beacon for those striving to overcome physical injury and for those who will not (and I would argue should not) accept the limitations that disability imposes, or which society in various ways imposes on people with disabilities.  Pistorius not only succeeded in para-sports and the Paralympics but in global athletics and the Olympic Games.  He became a celebrity and the image of fortitude and perseverance, and rightly so.

When the news first broke about the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp, people were shocked and journalists represented the shock in the way they reported it. It was given huge prominence around the world because of the celebrity framing of the story.  It was newsworthy because he was a celebrity.  But there was another frame that was immediately brought in to play.  This one referred to images, stereotypes and preconceptions (received via the media) of South African society – the South African Crime Frame. This has developed progressively and, sadly, is reinforced by the high levels of violent crime in the country.  But in this case, the frame was deployed at first, alongside celebrity framing, to suggest that Pistorius was innocent of deliberate murder and had reacted to events because of the ever-present fear among wealthy (predominantly white) South Africans about crime.

This frame is something many around the world would have recognised and it would have helped them form an initial opinion of what might have happened.  That opinion may prove to be justified or it may be proved to be wrong, but the abiding frame of the first day or two of reporting – despite police comments to the contrary – suggested Pistorius had acted almost spontaneously out of fear of crime and so was guilty only of being a participant in a terrible tragedy caused by this fear.  That frame surfaced again during the bail hearings in mid-February.  The crime frame for South Africa is not necessarily false, but it is a stereotyped framing of events that may obscure other motives, circumstances or interpretations. It is gives a very narrow view of South African society.

Mali:the War on Terror Frame

Moving to Mali, there has been the regular deployment of another frame that is used to report Africa (and other parts of the world where there is violence in some way associated with Islam) – the War on Terror Frame.  This grew out of the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, 9/11, the rise of al Qaeda as a player in global politics and the role of Islam in conflicts as far apart as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Chechnya, Somalia and, now, Mali.

In Mali, there was little interest in the early stages of the conflict that developed as Tuareg, who had fought for Col Gadaffi’s forces, returned to the country, bringing with them heavy weapons and vehicles, which enabled the re-emergence of Tuareg insurgency aimed at the formation of their own state.  This gained little global attention last year and the coup that followed was not widely reported – except in specialist media in Africa or covering Africa.  Where it was reported, it was done so in the well-used and extremely stereotypical African Ethnic/Tribal Frame and the Africa Failed State frame – a conflict develops based on irresolvable ethnic differences (forget the socio-economic or political context, that is too complex to explain to audiences) and brings down a weak and corrupt government.

Whatever you do, don’t mention colonial borders (that is very old school) or socio-economic conditions and the use by political/insurgent leaders of ethnicity as a quick, easy and emotive way of expressing legitimate grievances. Just say these people live in endemically weak and failing states that have no one to blame but themselves and that they have always and will always hate each other. It’s what we did with the start of the Rwanda genocide and during the Kenyan post-election violence, let’s do it again now.

But then, those nasty Islamists hove into view and a new frame that could attract, scare and hold the audience comes into play – the War on Terror.  A related group of Islamists seizes an Algerian gas installation and kills Westerners – even more terror to work on.  Suddenly Mali is news in the West and we can explain it through this frame and justify intervention.  I’m not remotely saying it shouldn’t be covered, but stereotypical frames frequently conceal more than they reveal or give a distorted picture by excluding too much from the frame or including things that are not core or more than tangentially relevant. But it makes a story we can understand quickly and, of course, superficially and one we can tell to our audience without too much messy context or complexity. It can also influence the way that public opinion develops and can be used by governments to justify actions that might otherwise be viewed as wrong.

Frames have always been used in this way and they provide a prism through which we view events that does not necessarily give a true picture, but subtly or not so subtly distorts it and with it, our understanding.  The South African Crime Frame does not really explain the Pistorius case and War on Terror is only a part of the picture in Mali and, for Malians, not the key one. But it is one that can be sold and understood in the West.  In the past we have had the Cold War Frame (every conflict – but notably Angola – was viewed as part of the Cold War); the Humanitarian Frame, which took the view that Africa was pretty well helpless and it needed angelic or altruistic Western aid groups or governments to sort things out, and, as mentioned, the Ethnic/Tribal Frame, which had lurked behind and then replaced the Cold war.

My argument is not that framing is totally wrong, but that journalists and their audiences need to be more sophisticated – you can’t hammer every story into a set frame – it is better to examine the context, the circumstances and what has really happened before you frame it.  So, when you read or hear a story, step back and think about the framing and try to disentangle events from a pre-set interpretation of them.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, teaches Humanitarian Communications at the University of Kent and runs the Africa – News and Analysis website (  aa